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The curious thing about rhubarb

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28-30 June 2018: Conference: Shared Taste: food and exchange in Asia and Europe, keynote Françoise Sabban

25-29 Sept 2017: Summer School: Asian Food: History, Anthropology, Sociology, hosted by IIAS, LeidenAsiaCentre and Shared Taste

11 April 2017: Symposium: Global Jars, with Anna Grasskamp. Venue: Leiden University

28 Nov 2016: Symposium: Global Food History, joint collaboration of Leiden and Warwick. Venue: Leiden University

29 Nov 2016: Symposium: Chinese export paintings: studies and interpretations. At Volkenkunde Leiden, with support of Hulsewe-Wazniewski Foundation

29 Aug- 4 Sept 2016: IEHCA summer university in Tours, France, participating in the 2016 Summer University on Food and Drink Studies

22 April 2016: Lecture Françoise Sabban "The disputed issue of the origin of noodles", Sieboldhuis Leiden

9 November 2015: Asia in Amsterdam Symposium, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

1 May 2015: Dr. Ines Prodöhl (German Historical Institute, Washington DC), ''High diplomacy and a humble bean', University of Leiden

March 2015: 'ideas lunch', to share and exchange ideas on Asia foodways and food culture, Leiden

13 Feb 2015: ''De vroege wereldreizen van een theekopje''. [In Dutch] At Princessehof Leeuwarden, accompanying the exhibition 'Time for Tea'

12 Dec 2014: Inaugural lecture of 'Kikkoman Chair' professor Anne Gerritsen, Academiegebouw, Leiden University, 16:00 hrs

19 Sep 2014: Launch of website 'Shared Taste' and announcement of 'Shared Taste Lecture Series'. Venue: cafe 'Grote Beer', Rembrandtstraat, Leiden, 17:00 - 18:30 hrs.

The most curious thing about this picture is not the tall plant with the big leaves in the middle, or the two pairs of men working in the field either side of the plant, not even the large white long-fingered shape in the lower right-hand corner of the image. Not even the title of the book, visible in the banner in the sky, Rabarbarologia Curiosa, is strange. The strangest thing about the image is, in fact, the architecture of the city in the right-hand background of the image:

A close look at the city reveals white-washed walls with small openings surrounding a city with several tall buildings, a round tower on the far left of the city walls, an entrance gate with what looks like battlements, and near the far right of the walls of the picture a wide flat-fronted building with a decorative façade. On top of the hills in the background stand several other buildings, one church-like with a tower but no spire, the other with a gable and a spire but no tower.

To understand why the architecture of this city is the most unusual thing about the image, we have to begin by making sense of all the other things: the title of the book for which this serves as the frontispiece, the plant in the middle, the working pairs either side of the plant, and the white long-fingered shape in the front right-hand corner.

The full title of the book is rather long – see below – but the short title is Rhabarbarologia seu Curiosa Rhabarbari Disquisitio, which translates as ‘The Study of Rhubarb’ or ‘Inquiry into the curious rhubarb’ [1]

In 1679, when this book was published, scholars, botanists, physicians and travellers had been writing about the rhubarb root and its remote source for many centuries. One of the first Europeans to write about rhubarb was the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides, who described the medicinal qualities of the root of rhubarb, which could have a settling effect on an upset stomach.

The illustration to the right is rhubarb root, from a sixth-century manuscript known as the Vienna Dioscorides, or the Juliana Anicia Codex, 284v.

Marco Polo came across rhubarb in several places in China in the thirteenth century; fifteenth-century Dutch recipies talk of ‘rebaerbe, soffraen, ende ghaligaen’ (rhubarb, saffron, and galangal); and in the sixteenth century, rhubarb was used as one of the prophylactics used against the Pestilence, as we see in this page of Paracelsus’ Für Pestilentz [Against the Pest], where he recommends a stringent programme of blood-letting, and taking rhubarb pills and powders. [2]
In the second half of the seventeenth century, when Mathias Tiling (or Matthias Tilingius, as he was known by his Latinized name; 1634-1685) published this study of rhubarb, the knowledge about rhubarb in Europe had been transformed. Jesuits and other travellers had begun to frequent China, bringing back first-hand observations about the cultivation and storage of the rhubarb plant.

The Polish Jesuit Michal Boim, who was in China from 1643 to 1659, published Flora sinensis in 1656, with this beautiful illustration of rhubarb.

In Europe, the second half of the seventeenth century, then, was a time of growing knowledge of botanics and materia medica. Richly illustrated books appeared, which included detailed drawings of the varieties of the rhubarb plant and its root. Tiling’s book includes not only the drawing of the plant in the frontispiece, with its big leaves and the root next to it, but also several illustrations inside the book, including one with the different varieties of the rhubarb plant growing in Europe ; and another page with the so-called ‘true rhubarb’ that was thought to have come from China: rhabarbarum verum ; and finally the famous root that was so desirable for its purgative qualities: rhabarbari Radix :

The representation of the root here is quite different from the root in the frontispiece, but that is explained by the word frustum, ‘a piece’ or frustillum, a ‘small piece’. The root was harvested with its various tentacles or ‘fingers’ attached, but by the time the root arrived in its desiccated form in Europe, it had been reduced to pieces or even small pieces.

The Dutch visitor to China, Johan Nieuhof, had added in his 1669 ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ that rhubarb ‘doth not grow wild, as some report, but is rais’d and increas’d with great care and diligence.’ The idea of rhubarb as a crop that was raised and increased was entirely new to the European observers. In Tiling’s illustration we see evidence of this knowledge in the figures to the left and right of the central plant.

All this should make clear why the subject of this book, the plant in the frontispiece, and the representation of the plant in the middle, the working pairs either side of the plant, and the white long-fingered shape in the front right-hand corner are not very surprising at all.

So why is the city in the background strange? Probably because at this point, in the second half of the seventeenth century, both knowledge about rhubarb coming from China, and visual representations of the Chinese landscape were circulating more extensively throughout Europe than ever before. And although much of Chinese landscape was shaped more by the imagination than by first-hand accounts of the countryside, certain conventions had emerged. No one had contributed more to these conventions than the publishers of Johan Nieuhof’s work. Arguably, the illustrations from Johan Nieuhof’s book had started to set the standard for what China looked like in the European mind’s eye. This fortified city, with its white-washed walls, small windows and church-like buildings, and its entrance gate with battlements, looks perhaps North African or Middle Eastern, but certainly nothing like the cities in Nieuhof. And that, perhaps, is the most curious thing about this scholarly book devoted to the rhubarb root.

[1] Matthias Tiling and Mouton-Fontenille de la Clotte, Matthiae Tilingii,… Rhabarbarologia seu Curiosa rhabarbari disquisitio, illius etymologiam, differentiam, locum natalem, formam… atque usum pharmaceuticum, chymicomedicum, omnibus pene humani corporis partibus destinatum, additis diversis observationibus & quaestionibus rhabarbarum concernentibus, detegens… (sumptibus Jacobi Gothofredi Seyleri, 1679).
[2] Paracelsus, Für Pestilentz Ajn seer nützlicher vnnd bewerter Tractat, der Christlichen gemayn zu nutz vnd wolfart ([S.l.], 1554).


  1. Richard Jackson says:

    I agree that the depiction of the ‘city’ is imaginary. But to me the really interesting thing is the depiction of the rhubarb plant. As you say, Boim’s depiction in 1656, is not in the least like any rhubarb I know – it is in fact very similar indeed to Matthioli’s representation of it in his revision of Dioscorides of 1544 .Tiling’s representation is far more accurate (though it looks like Rh undulatum – not palmatum). So where did Tiling get this much more realistic picture? It cannot be from Kircher whose rhubarb is identical (BUT WITHOUT THE CITY) to that of Tiling but was not published until 1667.However, Kircher’s book tells us – almost certainly – where Tiling got his idea from. Kircher describes how, when Martino Martini passed through Holland in 1653/4 (?) he came across a rhubarb plant growing in…..Leiden and stated that this was what the real rhubarb of China (really Tartary) looked like. That is why Kircher then used that plant in his illustration.
    Tiling must have had excellent contacts to be able to hear about this so soon after Martini’s pronouncement – or, perhaps, even before Tiling (and certianly before Kircher) someone engraved a picture of the very plant in Leiden that Martini spotted and then ‘photoshopped’ it with pagodas and workers and then published it. Tiling then may simply have added his fake city…

    By the way, I trust you are aware of the sinister story of Martini. His mapmaking collaboration with Joan Blaeu certainly brought much greater accuracy to European maps of China and Tartary but in doing so it banished the traditional ornaments almost all earlier cartographers had added to their depictions of that part of the world: imps and labels stating ‘this is where rhubarb is to be found’. In fact, the ‘imps’ really had a foundation in reality: merchants travelling across the Taklamakan Desert on the (so called) Silk Road* misinterpreted the hissing of the mobile dunes as something devilish – and even today at Dun Huang the tens of thousands of tourists are told of the ‘singing’ dunes. More interesting, however, is the fact that rhubarb – having been removed by Martini – took its revenge. On his return to Hangzhou form his cartographic and religious success in Europe, Martini, who suffered chronically from constipation, dosed himself – but mistook the dosage and, according to his biographer (David Mungello) dies as a result. What was the medicine? Rhubarb.
    Note: * Given that silk wasn’t traded along the ‘road’ after about 1500 or before but rhubarb always was – it should really be called the Rhubarb Route.


  2. Richard Jackson says:

    Sorry I forgot to mention that Martini’s rhubarb was in the garden of a Mr. Nobelar.


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