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Shakespeare & Beyond

"Excrements of the earth": Mushrooms in early modern England

Illustration of mushrooms in a Czech herbal
Illustration of mushrooms in a Czech herbal
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.


Interesting and fun blog post! It’s also timely for me, as I’m in the middle of reading Mycophilia, a book about fungi and especially mushrooms. According to that book, the kind of stigma that you’re describing here from the 16th and 17th Centuries lasted well into the 20th Century!

Carrie Brady — August 21, 2019

Very illuminating! I understood that the seventeenth-century English associated mushrooms with the French and incorporated mushrooms into English cuisine largely due to French example. But it never occurred to me to ask why mushrooms are so rare in English recipes before 1650. That mushrooms were considered cold and moist as well as creepy, dirty things makes perfect sense.

Stephen Schmidt — August 26, 2019