The fashionably late arrival of cucumbers in Europe #bad11

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You might put together a salad from what you’ve grown in your back garden, but it’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan meal. Tomatoes came from Mesoamerica and if you have potato salad, then you have the Incas of South American to thank. Recent research by Jules Janick and Harry Paris, Medieval Herbal Iconography and Lexicography of Cucumis (Cucumber and Melon, Cucurbitaceae) in the Occident, 1300—1458, has found another relatively recent arrival in Europe, the cucumber. This is a surprise as historians thought it had been around the Mediterranean since ancient times.

Classicists can point to the Latin word cucumis, which ought to be a big clue cucumbers were grown in ancient Rome. The ancient Greeks also had a word, sikyos and it’s even known from Hebrew texts qishu’im. Janick and Paris took a close look at the texts using these words and found things weren’t that simple. To modern botanists cucumis isn’t just cucumber. Cucumis sativus is a cucumber, but Cucumis melo is a melon. The earliest known illustrated herbal manuscript is the Juliana Anicia Codex from 512 CE. Janick and Paris found that the word cucumis was only used for snake melon. They’re confident about that as appearance of a snake melon and cucumber are visibly different.

Cucumbers and melons in medieval manuscripts
Illustrations from medieval manuscripts from Janick and Paris's paper.
A: Cucumber. B: Melon. C: Snake Melon

After that the quality of illustrations gets worse. If a medieval manuscript did have illustrations, they’d be copies of copies and so useless for serious work. Things are bad until around 1300 CE, when there’s a return to high quality illustrations. In these new manuscripts there are melons, but there are also the first recognisable cucumbers. That leaves a puzzle. Did cucumbers appear in European fields at the same time as these new manuscripts were written, or had they been around for a while, and these just happen to be the first recognisable illustrations?

Along with the new images came a new label, citruli. This appears in Italian texts from the mid-12th century. Before then the word is not used. The word survives in modern Italian as cetrioli, which is based on citruli for cucumbers. Janick and Paris argue that the French preferred the word cucumeres, which before then had been used for elongated melons. It’s this shift in meaning that created confusion reading ancient texts.

So if the cucumber in your salad isn’t from originally from Europe, where did it come from?

There are two lines of evidence that point in the same direction. Genetic evidence suggests that the cucumber was domesticated at least 2000 years ago in India, and one name for the food agrees. The modern Gherkin, was a Kychern in Latin, a Khiyar in Arabic and Persian and back to Khira in Bengali and Hindustani.

I like the research. It’s excellent history because Janick and Paris don’t simply assume translations are correct. They go back to the original sources to see what was actually said. The outcome neatly turns a tired stereotype on its head. It’s easy to see the Dark Ages as a time of decay, but here we can see that exchange of ideas continued after the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages.

You can read the paper at the Annals of Botany.


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