Happy Thanksgiving! This week we are celebrating the surprising history of turkeys in England just as many families in the United States are gearing up to sit around the table and enjoy a dinner featuring this very bird. In fact, many of us here in the United States refer to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day. In celebration of Turkey Day, let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s experience with eating turkey in the 16-17th century.
For William Shakespeare, a turkey at Christmas dinner became a widely popular occurrence in England by the 1570s when young William was around 6 years old. The bard mentions turkeys in his plays only 4 times, and references another term for turkeys, guinea hen, only once. Despite the sparse textual references in Shakespeare’s works, turkeys play an interesting role in the life of William Shakespeare and here to share with us some of the bird’s fascinating history is a guest who knows first hand what it’s like to study England’s first turkeys because she was part of the team who discovered them. Please welcome, our guest and zoo-archaeologist, Malene Lauritsen.
Malene Lauritsen is a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter working in zoo-archaeology. Back in 1983, The University of Exeter uncovered a bunch of artifacts that included some turkey bones. Those bones were left buried in a box unexplored until Malene, under the direction of Alan Outram, decided to look deeper. Malene is here this week to be our guide to exploring their historic find and to share with us exactly what they uncovered, and what those discoveries can tell us about the history of holidays, and eating turkey, for William Shakespeare.
- How were the turkeys received? Were they brought over to be food?
- Where did Elizabethans buy turkeys? How much did they cost?
- When you found the bones, were there other pieces of evidence that led you to believe you were looking at the first turkeys to be brought over to England?…and more!
William Strickland is known as the “man who gave us turkey dinner.” In the late 1500s Strickland seized on an ambitious opportunity to import turkeys, a rare and exotic bird for England natives, from the newly explored Americas. Originally sold as pets and even exotic displays for the wealthy, the turkey would eventually become a Christmas dinner staple throughout England. William Strickland made his fortune selling turkeys, and was so well known as a “turkey man” that he had the bird emblem added to his family crest and even after his death, the church where he was a parishioner features a stained glass window of a turkey along with a wooden lectern (shown at the right) embellished with a wooden carving of a turkey.
of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!
— Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 5
According to Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachussets “William Bradford reported that the Pilgrims found a “great store of wild turkies” during the autumn of 1621, famous for the “First Thanksgiving.” We don’t know for certain, however, that the Pilgrims had turkey at that harvest feast.” Turkeys were so well established in England by the 1600s, along with Transatlantic travel, that English settlers brought domesticated turkeys to America in the colonies’ first years. The Turkey, along with Shakespeare’s plays, made the journey across the Atlantic in the 1600s and now represents a unique connection between our two countries.
According to this museum, “English settlers brought their taste for the holiday turkey with them to the New World.”
What were these birds actually called? Originally, turkeys came from the Mexican turkey which was domesticated by the Aztecs. Note that this seems to be disputed. History Today claims in this article that “the turkey was unknown in Europe throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages and it seems more than likely that Christopher Columbus was the first to set eyes on the bird (which the Aztecs had failed to domesticate yet nevertheless revered as a god of disease and plague) during his last voyage to the New World in 1502.” Source
However, the scholars at Pilgrim Hall state that “The turkey was first domesticated by the Aztecs of Mexico. The Spanish took the domesticated turkey from Mexico to Europe about 1519. Turkeys were being bred in England by 1541.” (Source). There’s an obvious gap in the Pilgrim Hall rendition of turkey origins, but regardless of exactly who takes the credit for domesticating them first, there is cohesion among scholars that the species originated in Mexico, was discovered there by some explorers, and in the Americas by others, before being brought across the Atlantic as part of a massive import/export trade business which was booming across Europe in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Regardless of where they originated, turkeys and birds similar to them were travelling about Europe so consistently, that many Europeans confused the turkey with a guinea hen, which was a type of fowl from Africa which had been brought to Europe by the Ottoman Empire. IT seems that the two birds tasted different enough that consumers began to prefer the Mexican bird better, and thus it became more prevalently used, and assumed the name “turkey.” Therefore, when the English, like Shakespeare, who grew up eating “turkey” in Europe, discovered the wild turkey native to the New World, it was reimported back to England (and vice versa) all under the name “turkey”.
One slip up of Shakespeare historically concerning the turkey occurs in what is perhaps Shakespeare’s best known reference to the bird from Henry VI Part I when the First Carrier says,
“’Odsbody! the turkeys in my pannier are quite starved. What, ostler!” Act ii. Sc. 1.
As James Edmund Harting notes in his book, The Orinthology of Shakespeare, Shakespeare commits an anachronism with this line since “the species [was] unknown in England until the later reign of Henry VIII.” Incidentally, Henry VIII’s fondness for turkey is one of the most persistent tales of Henry VIII, and there’s even sites which claim pictures of Henry VIII eating a turkey leg are an example of the Mandela Effect (remembering something that never happened). Just to set that part to rest, it does seem historically that Henry enjoyed turkey. While I was unable to find any painting of Henry VIII contemporary to his lifetime or within reasonable distance to it which depicted Henry eating turkey, I did uncover a hot debate over the Mandela Effect and the Holbien painting of Henry VIII. If you want to jump down that particular rabbit hole, you can join their discussion here. I’ve included the 1982 Pepto Bismol commercial featuring Henry eating turkey because it’s quite a fun bit of contemporary history, and now you can definitely say you did see Henry VIII depicted with a turkey leg in this reality.
“It is certain,” he says, “that the Guinea-fowl was commonly termed the Turkey-hen in former days, and hence a difficulty sometimes in knowing which bird is meant by sundry old authors. As the Portuguese discoveries along the west coast of Africa preceded those of the Spaniards in America, there is reason to infer that our British ancestors became acquainted with the guinea-fowl prior to their knowledge of the turkey; and the English trade being then chiefly with the Levantine countries, our ancestors may well have fancied that it came from thence. Referring to a curious old dictionary in my possession (published in 1678) for the word Melcagris, I find it translated ’a Guinny or Turkey Hen:’ Gallinæ Africanæ sen Numidicæ, Var. ‘sine quæ vulgo Indicæ’ (Coq d’Inde of the French, corrupted into Dinde and Dindon!). Again, Numidica guttata of Martial is rendered ‘a Ginny or Turkey Hen.’ Looking also into an English and Spanish Dictionary of so late a date as 1740, I find Gallipavo rendered ‘a Turkey or Guinea Cock or Hen.’ Well, it is known that our British forefathers originally derived the domestic turkey from Spain, and meanwhile they are likely to have obtained a knowledge of the true habitat of the guinea-fowl, and therefore may very probably have supposed the former to be the real turkey-fowl, as distinguished from theguinea-fowl; and if the word ‘fowl’ be dropped in the one instance and not in the other, be it remembered that there was another special meaning for the word Guinea, having reference to the Gold Coast, otherwise the bird might have come to be known as the ‘guinea,’ as the bantam-fowl is now currently designated the ‘bantam,’ and the canary-bird as the ‘canary,’ or the turkey-fowl the ‘turkey.’ The Latin-sounding name Gallipavo seems to be of Spanish origin, and obtains among the Spaniards to this day; but their earliest name for it was ‘Pavon de las Indias,’ ‘c’est-à-dire,’ as Buffon remarks, ‘Paon des Indes Occidentales;’ which explains the reference to India perpetuated in ‘Dindon.’
The use of “guinea hen” to describe a prostitute, was a common slur in England when Shakespeare was writing, and that is the meaning he gives that phrase in Othello when Iago says “Ere I would say, I
would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.” (Othello, I.3)
However, the fact that guinea hen or guinea fowl was also a commonly confused bird for the turkey leads me to wonder if there is a crossroads between the phrases linguistically.
Books Malene Recommends:
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Download this Shakespeare themed Turkey print featuring a turkey drawn with the words from Shakespeare’s plays where he mentions the turkey by name. Text from Henry V, Henry IV Part 1, and Twelfth Night are written in calligraphy to make a turkey perfect for decorating your intelligent holiday table. 🙂 This link immediately downloads a pdf of the art print including my logo. To get a ready to frame version of the print (that looks like the picture below without branding) sign up for the newsletter using the form provided. Newsletter subscribers get free artwork from me regularly, including a free copy of the 8.5 x 11 digital download shown here.