In which the historical place of rhubarb is discussed.

Rhubarb is a lovely example of how foodways might change. It shows up in the historical record as a plant with medicinal value during the Middle Ages, but, like maize, is not appropriate on the re-creationists table. Rhubarb did not become a table vegetable until we are past the Scadian’s cutoff: 1600 CE.

It’s also a lovely example of the value of attention. Gerard’s Herbal, so easily accessible these days, pictured the plant in the 1597 version like so:


Gerard’s Herbal, 1597. Rhubarb.

The first time I saw this picture, I was bemused, to say the least. What kind of rhubarb is that?

Turns out, it isn’t any kind of rhubarb.* It appears to be a redrawing of an etching from Universal Cosmology by Andre Thevet (1504-1592), printed in 1575, that claims to show rhubarb cultivation. You can see the picture here, or here, or here.† It reminds me of the elephants drawn by medieval monks who’d never stepped foot more than 15 miles whence they were born: it looks like an animal, yes, and it has a long trunk, but that may be where the resemblance ends.

Rhubarb was apparently an expensive import from China; only the dried root was brought in. The person responsible for the engraving did a lovely job of portraying the root (in a separate engraving), but the plant? Not so much.


Gerard’s Herbal, 1636 edition. Rhubarb.

Thomas Johnson edited and expanded the Herbal in 1633; he frankly states that he removed the erroneous information and engraving from the 1597 version. This engraving is a decent representation of what rhubarb actually looks like.

I’m not digging up my rhubarb for its roots, and the spot it lands in when I move it… well, that’ll be a chip of China. I will save my strawberry rhubarb jam, and my apricot rhubarb jam, and my rhubarb chutney, and so forth, for gustatory pleasures outside the SCA. 🙂


*At least, as far as I have been able to ascertain. I don’t claim exhaustive research here.
†There might be earlier source material that is the inspiration for both these pictures, but the point stands. Somebody drew it as best they could from someone else’s description, and this is what we got.

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