When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft

October 25, 2016

No other vegetable has been as maligned as the tomato (and it is a vegetable, by order of the United States Supreme Court). We call tomatoes killers. We call them rotten. We call them ugly. We call them sad. To find the reason why, you have to go back to the 1500s, when the humble fruit first reached European shores (and it is a fruit, by scientific consensus). Through no fault of its own, the tomato stepped into the middle of a continent-wide witchcraft panic, and a scientific community in tumult.

Between 1300 and 1650, thousands of Europeans (mostly women) were executed for practicing witchcraft, in a church-and-government-sanctioned mass hysteria academics call the “witch craze.” Women were burned, drowned, hanged, and crushed after trials in both secular and religious courts; and lynched by vigilante mobs. By the most conservative estimate, Dr. Ronald Hutton’s count of execution records, between 35,184 and 63,850 witches were killed through official channels—at least 17,000 in Germany alone. Sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda estimates the combined death toll could have been as high as 500,000. It was a massive, concerted, prolonged crusade.

At the time of the tomato’s importation around 1540, diligent witch hunters were particularly interested in discerning the makeup of flying ointment—the goo witches smeared on their broomsticks (or on themselves, pre-broomstick). This potent magical gunk did more than enable airborne meetings with the devil; it could also transform the witch—or her unwilling dupe—into a werewolf, as described in case studies by prolific witch-hunter Henry Boguet, who noted that witches particularly enjoyed becoming werewolves in order to attack the left sides of small children, and to stalk through cursed and withering cropland.

The key ingredients, recorded by the pope’s physician Andres Laguna in 1545, were agreed by consensus to be hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake—the final three of which are the tomato’s close botanical relatives. Why any woman would keep this ointment around in such a dangerous climate, we can only speculate; the best guesses are drug addition, atropine-based painkiller, and they didn’t. In contrast, tomatoes’ similarity to deadly nightshade is plain to the untrained eye: the plants are practically identical. And although tomatoes were clearly edible—the Aztecs ate them, after all— it’s hard to tell the difference between yellow cherry tomatoes and hallucinogenic mandrake fruit.

Then as now, the overlap between people suspicious of new foods and people suspicious that an adventurous neighbor might be a servant of the devil was pretty high. Try a tomato and risk turning into a werewolf, or being branded a witch? No thank you. Tomato eating was best left to places like Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition had at least temporarily declared belief in witchcraft (and therefore accusations of witchcraft) heretical.

But even men of science—men who would never believe in something absurd like magic—found the tomato exasperating. Until the Enlightenment took hold, botanists relied on a thousand-year-old categorical framework established by Galen, a physician who lived in Ancient Rome. When new and unfamiliar American plants arrived—corn, blueberries, chocolate—naturalists didn’t know what to do. They scrambled to figure out ways the new imports were actually old plants that could slot into the existing system. The alternative was terrifying: accepting that the great Galen had never heard of these plants would imply, as David Gentilcore describes in Pomodoro, that the ancients hadn’t known everything; that perhaps the world was in some sense unknowable; that the Garden of Eden hadn’t existed.

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