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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Ambiguous and dangerous meat:” Herpetophagy in the early modern world


King Lear is famous for portraying the title character’s descent into insanity, but it also features one of Shakespeare’s rather less prominent ‘madmen.’ Wandering the heath amid a raging storm, the increasingly unhinged Lear happens across a fellow named “Poor Tom.” Unbeknownst to Lear, “Poor Tom” – a direct reference to the popular archetype of madness, “Tom o’ Bedlam” – is in fact Edgar, a young nobleman living in self-imposed exile. Having adopted the guise of a “Bedlam beggar”, Edgar dresses himself in rags, covers his face with filth, and delivers semi-nonsensical third-person monologues. In one of these speeches, he describes his supposedly depraved manner of living:

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool … mice and rats, and such small deer, Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.

Edgar in King Lear

Edgar in King Lear, drawing for the Boydell Shakespeare. John Hamilton Mortimer. 18th Century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

At first glance, Poor Tom’s diet seems to be nothing more than a litany of inedibles, designed to evoke a set of contradictory and yet somehow complementary affective responses – disgust, amusement, pity, and contempt. But the fact that foods of amphibious or reptilian origin feature so prominently on his weird menu should give us pause. Shakespeare returns to this theme in Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1: the witches’ noxious brew contains, among other unusual ingredients, “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “Eye of newt and toe of frog”, “adder’s fork,” “lizard’s leg,” and a toad steeped in its own poison for a full month.

As Haylie Swenson has previously discussed on this blog, reptiles and amphibians – which were not viewed as separate classes until the nineteenth century – enjoyed a less-than-glamorous reputation in Shakespeare’s England. Associated with poisonous vapors and foul-smelling standing pools, these creatures tended to be described as filthy, slimy, excremental, and certainly unworthy of human consumption. “The flesh [of frogs],” wrote Robert Lovell in 1661, “is soft, unsweet, serine, mucous, excrementitious, virulent, and of evil juyce, and therefore scarce eaten by the lowest sort of people.” Toad-meat, according to Thomas Fuller, “can never by Mountebancks be so dieted and corrected, but that still it remains rank poyson.” Other creatures who made their meals of such “uncleanly and filthy meat” might be rejected on the same basis: the physician and dietary writer Thomas Cogan cautioned against eating ducks because they “feed oftentimes of frogs and todes, wherefore their flesh must needs be unwholesome.”

Two newts illustrating a page titled 'Of the Newte'

Edward Topsell. The historie of serpents… 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The inability to discern edible from inedible matter was a classic signifier of madness in premodernity, since madness was thought by many to bring the sufferer closer to a state of abject bestiality. Although practically all non-human animals have been shown to engage in some form of dietary decision-making, the theologically-grounded natural philosophy of early modern Europe often portrayed this ability to discriminate as the sole province of civilized humanity. From the fifteenth century onwards, however, with the emergence of new trade routes and colonial expansionism, Europeans found themselves confronted with unfamiliar dietary norms and practices. In 1494 Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician and companion to Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas, wrote a letter to the municipal council of Seville in which he described the diet of the people of Hispaniola:

They eat all the snakes, and lizards, and spiders, and worms, that they find upon the ground; so that, to my fancy, their bestiality is greater than that of any beast upon the face of the earth.

Chanca’s tone here is unambiguously scathing, seeking to portray the prior inhabitants of the island as uncivilized savages for whom colonization and even enslavement would be a form of mercy. But his choice of words is also highly revealing. While colonial writers like Chanca were prone to dramatically exaggerating the ‘bestiality’ of the cultures they encountered abroad to further the project of colonial expansion, it is also certain that many of them encountered genuine herpetophagy – the eating of reptiles and amphibians – on their travels.

When the French priest André Thevet visited the colony of France Antarctique in what is now Brazil – where herpetophagy is still practiced today – he witnessed Amerindians eating “a certain kind of toad greater than ours” as well as “crocodiles and others that they roast all whole, with the skin and the bowels.” Thevet apparently found it impossible to imagine that anyone might actually choose to eat such unfamiliar fare – the only explanation was that these people were, like Poor Tom, incapable of discerning the edible from the inedible. “These wild men of America,” he wrote, “have no more civility in their eating, than in other things … they have no laws to take the good, & to eschew the evil … so they eat of all kinds of meats at all times and hours, without any other discretion.”

Closer to home, the English were keen (as ever) to condemn their continental neighbors for their more adventurous eating habits. In his book Observations topographical, moral, & physiological, the seventeenth-century naturalist John Ray offered the following reflection on a key point of difference between English and Italian foodways:

Frogs are another Italian viand which we in England eat not. These they usually fry and serve up with oil. At Venice they eat only the loins and hindlegs, as also at Florence, and that upon fish-days. In some places of Lombardy they eat their whole bodies, and besides their frogs are of a larger size than ordinary. Their flesh shows white and lovely as they lie in the markets skinned and ready prepared to be fried. Howbeit even there in Italy, Kircher in his book de Peste condemns them as an ambiguous and dangerous meat, and I think deservedly; wherefore we do well having plenty of better food, wholly to abstain from them.

Illustration of a frog and a froglet with a short tail

Edward Topsell. The historie of serpents… 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Ray’s description of herpetophagy as “an ambiguous and dangerous” practice offers an important clue to why these creatures produced such anxiety among many early modern English writers. In my previous article on mushrooms, I noted how certain moral anxieties came to be attached to foodstuffs whose precise place in the natural order of things was mutable or unclear. Reptiles and amphibians, neither wholly aquatic nor wholly terrestrial, living and breeding in stagnant pools or on the edges of bodies of water, and sometimes carrying poison or venom that could be potentially deadly, presented their own special set of taxonomic issues. In the biblically inspired Great Chain of Being, they were loosely classed as “creeping things,” an expansive category which included most insects, arachnids, worms, and sometimes also rodents. Like mushrooms, they were commonly associated with corruption, decay, and the chaos of spontaneous generation that had plagued the world since the Fall of Man.

Despite these concerns, the majority of reptiles and amphibians are, in fact, safe for human consumption. The anxieties expressed by many early modern European writers were largely cultural, perhaps also reflecting the fact that Northern Europe simply does not have enough large reptiles and amphibians to provide a reliable and consistent source of nutrition. In many other parts of the world, however, from the Americas to West Africa to Southeast Asia, human foodways have followed quite different – and no less valid – paths. While audiences of Shakespeare’s time – and many of those reading this blog post today – might view Poor Tom’s eating of reptiles and amphibians as the behavior of a madman, there are vast swathes of the world’s historic population who would beg to differ.