Tomatoes

The Bad Old Days

Ohio Processing tomatoes
Ohio Processing tomatoes. Photo by by the Agricultural Research Service. Public Domain

A popular email hoax has spread all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." Here we address the idea that tomatoes were considered poisonous.

From the Hoax:

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

The Facts:

Pewter was used for plates, drinking vessels and other tableware in the Middle Ages, but not exclusively. Wealthier folk used silver or gold for special occasions, and wooden plates evolved in the later Middle Ages. It was quite true that the lead content (about 30% at most1) of pewter plates would leach out upon contact with acidic foods. However, lead poisoning is not a quick process, but is a slow accumulation of toxins over time,2 and its effects would not have been associated with any one particular food.

Furthermore, the tomato -- which originated in South America and was evidently cultivated in Mexico long before the arrival of Europeans -- did not make an appearance in any European cuisine until it came to Spain in the early 16th century. The Spanish and Italian peoples adopted it wholeheartedly into many recipes, and there are no known instances of any claims in either region that the fruit was poisonous.

However, in northern Europe, tomato plants remained purely decorative, and they were rarely seen in Britain at all in the sixteenth century. There was indeed a belief that the plant was poisonous, due in part to its resemblance to belladonna and deadly nightshade. As a member of the nightshade family, the tomato plant's roots and leaves contain the neurotoxin solanine, and thus are indeed poisonous.3 This may explain the northern Europeans' reluctance to use its fruit, as well as the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the English to experiment with it.

Next: Trench Mouth

Return to Introduction.
 

Notes

1. "pewter" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/technology/pewter>
[Accessed April 4, 2002; verified June 27, 2015].

2. "lead poisoning" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/science/lead-poisoning>
[Accessed April 4, 2002; verified June 27, 2015].

3. "tomato" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/plant/tomato; verified June 27, 2015>
[Accessed April 4, 2002].

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Snell, Melissa. "Tomatoes." ThoughtCo, Jun. 28, 2015, thoughtco.com/tomatoes-in-medieval-times-1788712. Snell, Melissa. (2015, June 28). Tomatoes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tomatoes-in-medieval-times-1788712 Snell, Melissa. "Tomatoes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tomatoes-in-medieval-times-1788712 (accessed November 18, 2017).