On fungi

I’ve gotten really interested in identifying fungi over the last couple of years in my mundane life and am starting to feel like I’m getting somewhere. I thought it might be fun to start finding out something, anything really, about fungi in Medieval life and thinking. Gathering fungi as a food source is not for the fainthearted, even now with computers and image searches in our pockets, so I’m not surprised at any medieval reluctance to engage. There are many recipes which include mushrooms, but not a lot of information about the types. I have been trying to find evidence of mushroom lore, or tricks of mushroom foragers in any country. Research continues, I have a few promising leads but this evening I came across mention of the Ruralia Commoda or ‘The Advantages of Country-Living’, a practical guide to farming and agriculture, botany, hunting and falconry and garden layout and design, written in 1306 by Pietro Crescenzi, a former student of natural sciences at Bologna university. It is widely regarded as one of the most important original medieval works on agriculture, taking the form of a kind of manual divided into twelve sections:

Book 1 – the best location and arrangement of a manor, villa or farm
Book 2 – the botanical background needed to raise different crops
Book 3 – building a granary and cultivation of cereal, forage and food
Book 4 – on vines and wine-making
Books 5 & 6 – arboriculture and horticulture, including 185 plants useful for medicine and nourishment
Book 7 – meadows and woods
Book 8 – on gardens
Book 9 – animal husbandry and bee-keeping
Book 10 – hawking and hunting
Book 11 – a general summary of the book
Book 12 – a calendar of duties and tasks, month by month.

I’ve yet to properly track it down but in a flurry of fast research I came across mention of his section on mushrooms, De Fungo, on Matt Peskett’s Grow like Grandad website. It amuses me greatly because it’s clearly written by someone very uncomfortable with and mistrustful of the subject – a wise position for anyone not very familiar with mushrooms I feel.

Some mushrooms are good, some others are deadly. The good ones are small and round [like a hat]. They appear at the beginning of spring and vanish during the month of May [In Italy]. These types of mushrooms have never harmed anyone, nor they did so all of a sudden. However, it is right to know that the kind of nourishment they provide is bad. As for the deadly ones, these are born [grow] next to rusty iron. And there are others that are deadly too, although they do not kill instantly. These are those which are born next to putrid things, or next to the burrow of some poisonous animal, or next to trees that have, as their feature, that of corrupting fungus, such as on the olive tree [trunk growing fungus].

Matt Peskett – Mushrooms & Mandrakes: Medieval Grow Your Own [comments] are Mr. Peskett’s own

Would you be comfortable knowing what fungi he was talking about? I find it interesting to note the piece about deadly mushrooms that do not kill instantly. Mushrooms are the source of a ridiculous number of horrible poisons, and the period of time between ingestion and the onset of symptoms varies dramatically between them, some having no sign for a couple of days, some causing a mild or medium gastric upset followed by a huge improvement, followed by death by liver and/or kidney failure. Days can pass before there might be symptoms identifiable as mushroom poisoning, and by that I mean identifiable now, today, with our medicine. Some mushrooms in the Cortinarius genus contain orellanine, which shows no symptoms for between 3-20 days, and kidney failure begins about day 11.

The mark of deadly mushrooms is this: in the upper part, its skin has a corrupted sticky moisture, which soon changes and rots between the hands of those who pick them. There are mushrooms also in our home gardens: these type of mushrooms are flat and thick, and have some redness on their top, and in that redness there are a lot of high vesicles, of which some are broken and some are not: this type is deadly and kills instantly. It is called the mushroom of the flies.

Matt Peskett – Mushrooms & Mandrakes: Medieval Grow Your Own

This, it appears, is describing fly agaric, (Amanita Muscaria) the milk from which was supposed to be a fly killer (as Matt Peskett says, it’s not) It is poisonous though many cultures made extensive use of its psychoactive properties. The toxicity can be reduced by parboiling and repeated soaking and draining, or passing through the kidneys of young, fit men. (a story for another day). It is far from being the only or indeed the deadliest mushroom available to mistakenly poison yourself with though.

Of course now I am wildly curious about mushrooms and carefully obtained poisons for court intrigues, but it is entirely possible that it is so late I’ve let my teenage brain escape tonight instead of tamping her down carefully for being altogether too fanciful. I should stop, for tonight, and follow this up again tomorrow.


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