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Shakespeare & Beyond

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.