Eating plants in the early modern world

[Royal, military, and court costumes of James I]. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Last month, Shakespeare & Beyond celebrated the launch of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures website with a look at three of the most popular recipes that we’ve featured from the Before ‘Farm to Table’ project, as well as links to other related posts—but there’s always more to the story. The following look at “plants as food” brings together two different projects on parallel topics that its author has worked with at different institutions: the digital project Plant Humanities Lab, which explores the cultural histories of plants and their influence on human societies throughout time, and the new Before ‘Farm to Table’ website, with its focus on foodways and cultural history.

It is no secret that Shakespeare’s works heavily feature plants. Indeed, some of his most popular plays contain famous references to flowers, like Juliet’s “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet,” or Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” But Shakespeare also points to the edible herbs, grasses, and other crops that made up some of the early modern diet. The Winter’s Tale refers to “hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,” and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream speaks of “a bank where the wild thyme blows,” among many other references.

These lines are far from incidental: as Katherine Myers writes in an article on botanical aspects of The Winter’s Tale, “beliefs about plants may also illuminate, and be illuminated by, major themes” of Shakespeare’s plays. And edible plants, like other forms of food, also weave through the broader history of the early modern period—and beyond. Two recent Mellon-funded projects from Washington, DC, institutions are exploring questions at the intersection of plants, food, and history: Dumbarton Oaks, in conjunction with JStor Labs, has created a digital Plant Humanities Lab to investigate the entangled meanings of plants in our globalized world, and the Folger’s Before ‘Farm to Table’ interactive website brings to light the cultural significance of food (oftentimes made up of plants) in the early modern period. The sampling below of plant foods from the early modern age—essentially, at the intersection of the two subjects—spotlights some of the exciting work from the two projects.

Recipe for “Frangas Incapadas” begins at the bottom of the left page. Receipt book [manuscript], about 1690-1750. V.a.680. Folger Shakespeare Library.

What price do we pay for our present-day obsession with superfood, I asked in a “Plant of the Month” article, created by Dumbarton Oaks together with JStor Daily. The answer, it seems, is high: people today are so obsessed with turmeric’s golden color that producers are using toxins in order to meet demand. And this obsession with the orange hue of turmeric is not a recent development. Rather, Folger recipe books that include dishes like “Frangas Incapadas” (above) reveal that turmeric in early modern England was employed in recipes to mark them as “exotic” or “different.”

>> Read more about the role of turmeric in the early modern period and today in Plant Humanities Lab.

>> Learn more from the Before ‘Farm to Table’ website about the recipe books at the Folger, including transcripts and digital images—and how to read the books, too. (Look for images of the recipe book above and for a reading copy of the text, too.)


“The rarity of cinnamon in the early modern period made it one of the most coveted spices of that era, and European countries without direct access to the cinnamon trade tried to imitate, substitute, steal, smuggle, or transplant the ‘true’ product from Sri Lanka,” writes Wouter Klein in a JStor Daily piece. The issue of what is “true” cinnamon extends beyond the early modern period into today, as cinnamon is often used in present-day medicinal substances. As Klein notes, “Many studies have highlighted the medical potential of cinnamon, but the value of these results is hard to assess because species are often not differentiated in scientific studies.”

>> Dive deeper into exploring what “true” cinnamon is in Plant Humanities Lab—and how it became a tool of empire.

>>  Learn more about globalization and the spice trade in a map-based interactive exhibit on the Before ‘Food to Table’ website—including more about cinnamon in South Asia.


Mint today is everywhere. Especially in the supermarket’s toothpaste aisle, it is hard to escape that wintergreen flavor. This is not a new phenomenon: in early modern Europe, mint was considered an incredibly useful plant. As Victoria Pickering writes, “Dietaries from the late 1500s suggest that mint juice was effective against poison, and the mint herb encouraged circulation of good blood if eaten raw. The powder of mint was thought to aid in killing worms in the stomach, and when mixed with milk could be used for this purpose even with infants.” And, Pickering argues, some early modern thinkers even believed that mint could help people be more studious and cheerful.

>> Read more about the changing importance of mint from the 1500s to today in Plant Humanities Lab.

>>  Explore mint recipes from our list of additional resources in the Before ‘Farm to Table’ website.

Richard Ligon. Detail from Map of Barbados, True & exact history of the island of Barbados. 1673. Folger Shakespeare Library.


Yet another plant food is the subject of its own interactive exhibit, colonization, sugar, and enslavement, on the Before ‘Farm to Table’ website. The sugar icing on your cupcake or sprinkled in your coffee is not a benign confection. Rather, as Neha Vermani and Michael Walkden argue here,  “Britain fought bloody, destructive wars, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and utterly changed ecologies, all to satisfy its national sweet tooth.” Vermani and Walkden detail the violence of sugar in the early modern period and beyond—as they write, “the British slave trade was driven by its sugar trade…. Many enslaved people were forced to make Caribbean sugar: planting, growing, and cutting cane; extracting sugarcane juice; boiling, pouring, and refining.”

The sweetness of sugar is thus laced with the violence of enslavement and empire. With both digital projects, there’s a chance to explore how the histories of everyday plants and foodstuffs like sugar are the histories of race and colonialism. Plants—and especially edible plants— embody a larger story, including globalization, empire, migration, climate change, and much more.

For more about plants in Shakespeare’s time, take a look at our earlier post, “The Elizabethan Garden: 11 plants Shakespeare would have known well.