“Excrements of the earth”: Mushrooms in early modern England

Mushrooms or Toadstools, off-spring of the earth
Edmund Gayton, The art of longevity, or, A diæteticall instition (1659, call number: 156- 338q), Folger Shakespeare Library

From the full English breakfast to the chicken and mushroom pasty, the mushroom is a staple of modern British cuisine. In Shakespeare’s England, however, the edibility of mushrooms was considered by many to be an open question. Writing in the 1630s, the Bath physician Tobias Venner declared that:

“Many phantasticall people doe greatly delight to eat of the earthly excrescences called Mushrums; whereof some are venemous, and the best of them vnwholsome for meat: for they corrupt the humors, and giue to the bodie a phlegmaticke, earthie, and windie nourishment … Wherefore they are conuenient for no season, age, or temperature.”

Venner’s view of mushrooms represented the dietetic standard in early seventeenth-century England. The London doctor Stephen Bradwell likewise observed that “Some have (from strangers) taken up a foolish tricke of eating Mushroms or Toadstooles.” Bradwell’s advice to mushroom-eaters was unequivocal: “let them now be warned to cast them away; for the best Authors hold the best of them at all times in a degree venomous.”

This is not to say that no one in seventeenth-century England cooked or ate mushrooms. Manuscript recipe collections from the second half of the seventeenth century contain numerous recipes for pickling and preserving mushrooms. The printed cookbook of Sir Kenelm Digby, published after the Restoration, contains a recipe for “pickled champignons,” perhaps inspired by his time in Paris during the English Civil War. The recipe collection of Lady Grace Castleton, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, includes a receipt “To dress mushrooms my Lord Digby’s way,” which, since it didn’t appear in the published edition, may have been communicated in person.

Lady Grace Castleton mushroom recipe from Lord Digby
“To dress musshrams my Lord Digbys way,” Lady Grace Castleton’s booke of receipts (17th century, call number: V.a.600), Folger Shakespeare Library

But Digby, a Catholic and royalist who had spent years in exile in Paris, was viewed by many English Protestants as a figurehead of foreign decadence and effete continental pretensions. The Anglican clergyman Alexander Ross even described the difference between himself and Digby as analogous to that “between solid wholesome meats, and a dish of frogs or mushrooms made savoury with French sauce.”

Safe to eat?

One obvious explanation for these hostile attitudes is that fungi can be notoriously treacherous as a source of food. Although most fruiting fungi are considered safe to eat, consuming the wrong kind can cause illness or even death – a fact that Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew all too well. “Who then that is wise,” asked Dr James Hart in 1633, “will venter on a doubtfull dish, when God of his infinite goodnesse hath affoorded us such plentie of profitable and pleasant food?”

The fear of accidental poisoning appears to have cast doubt over the nutritional value of mushrooms in general. The language used around mushrooms was often viscerally hostile, drawing upon images of filth and waste – several writers referred to them as “excrements of the earth.” Much was made of the fact that they grew in dark, moist places, and they were thought to be engendered by decaying vegetable matter: Bradwell viewed them as “a bundle of putrefaction, arising of a cold, moist, viscous matter of the Earth.”

A page from The diet of the diseased
James Hart’s Klinikē, or The diet of the diseased (1633, call number: STC 12888), Folger Shakespeare Library. Hart was a member of the Northamptonshire puritan community; his dietary advice included frequent and sometimes lengthy diatribes on proper and improper moral conduct.

Fungi and filth

The natural affinity between fungi and filth placed mushrooms at the very bottom of the vertical hierarchy against which the virtue of all things was measured. It was held as an English proverb in the seventeenth century that “The best of mushrumps are worth nothing,” and a mid-century satirical poem advised prospective mushroom-eaters to “Dress them with care, then to the dunghil throw’um / A hogg wont touch um, if he rightly know um.”

Human cultures have a long history of drawing on the imagery of filth to denigrate individuals or groups considered a threat to the social fabric. In seventeenth-century England, some of the most common targets of these othering discourses were Catholics, Jews, and continental Europeans, particularly the French. The image of the mushroom lent itself especially well to the sorts of accusations that were routinely levelled against these groups: that they were decadent and indiscriminate, driven by base and unnatural compulsions, lacking in bodily self-control and even basic personal hygiene. Thus Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta “lived upon pickled grasshoppers and sauced mushrooms, and never put on a clean shirt since he was circumcised,” while the French, according to Hart, ate “the excrements of the earth, the slime and scum of the water, the superfluity of the woods, and putrefaction of the sea; to wit, on frogs, snails, mushrooms, and oysters.”

Illustrations of edible and poisonous mushrooms from a 1597 herbal
John Gerard, The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (1597, call number: STC 11750 copy 6 [folio]), Folger Shakespeare Library.
Illustration of mushrooms in a Czech herbal
Mushrooms in a Czech herbal from the sixteenth century. Herbarz, ginak Bylinář, welmi vžitečny, a figůrami pieknymi y zřetedlnymi (1562, call number: 245- 324f), Folger Shakespeare Library.

The hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things. In an age drawn to increasingly rigid systems of taxonomy, mushrooms remained stubbornly difficult to classify: as Hart wrote, “although properly they be no roots, yet they are commonly ranked among them.” The question of categorization also posed a problem for chefs: Robert May’s 1660 cookbook listed mushroom recipes under the same heading as shellfish.

Not only do mushrooms occupy marginal spaces in the natural world, growing at the edges of woods and meadows; they also straddle uneasily the categories that we attempt to impose upon them. It’s surely no coincidence that a prominent metaphor in the polemic of the period was that of the “mushroom gentleman, who shoots up in a night”, embodying fears about social mobility and the mutability of divinely ordained hierarchies. Attitudes towards mushrooms in Shakespeare’s England reveal how even the most seemingly humble object can become the locus of deeply held cultural anxieties.