Opposition preceded the acceptance of the potato into nearly every country of Europe. The resistance of European populations to potatoes can probably best be explained by a concept then prevalent in the intellectual milieu, that being the Doctrine of Signatures.
The Doctrine of Signatures can trace its roots back to a brilliant quack named Paracelsus. Paracelsus (1493?—1541) was a Swiss physician and alchemist. His original name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, so of course he changed it to Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus as soon as he could (wouldn’t you?). He was both popular and controversial. On the plus side, he rejected Galen’s humeral theory of disease; on the negative side, he promulgated the Doctrine of Signatures.
Basic to this doctrine is the notion that “like cures or affects like,” which is the underlying principle of sympathetic magic. This ancient principle enjoyed such a grip on the medieval mind that even someone as astute as Plutarch might say, “Such is the nature and such the temperament (of any given creature) that it draws out and receives the malady which issues, like a stream, through the eyesight.” Plants bearing parts that resembled human body-parts, animals, or other objects were thought to have useful relevance to those parts, animals, or objects.
So if you wanted a good ruddy complexion, you’d eat beets. If you wanted a pale complexion, you’d eat mushrooms. If you wanted big tits or a big dick, you’d eat . . . well, you get the drift.
Unfortunately for the potato, the early varieties cultivated in Europe produced irregularly shaped tubers, often with white nodules and knobby finger-like growths, which to the superstitious minds then rampant recalled the swollen, deformed feet and hands of lepers. Followers of Paracelsus made much of the supposed likeness between a particular plant and the outward manifestations of a disease, but, far from becoming celebrated as a cure for leprosy, the potato became to be condemned as a cause of the disease, the outcome of a popular inversion of the principle.
How ironic that the potato, a plentiful source of starch and rich in ascorbic acid, should find itself spurned by a population that constantly lived on the brink of starvation and suffered from epidemic scurvy.
The potato had a particularly hard time in France, where the Parliament of Besançon banned the cultivation of the potato out of fear of leprosy in 1630. It was not until 1787 that the potato became acceptable, and even then mostly by virtue of its flowers. Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wore the blue blossoms as ornaments in an ill-fated attempt to influence public opinion towards a more favorable attitude of the vegetable, but given the couple’s incredibly poor record in public relations, it probably did more harm than good.
Catherine the Great shocked the Russian court by eating a dish of the tubers in public around the same time, and pronounced them “tres bien”. Catherine was an enlightened monarch, respected in many courts, and due to her blessings upon the potato, it was soon being used as a fermenting base for the making of vodka all over the Russian Empire. Potatoes became a staple in France (and Russia) by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and quickly became accepted throughout Europe.
On a more favorable note, perhaps at least from the vantage of this time of license, potatoes also enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac. This attribute largely came about due to its association with the sweet potato (all potatoes derive their English name from the sweet potato’s name among the Taino, batatas), which played a role in every dish intended to “incite Venus.”
Shakespeare made use of this aspect of potato lore when he wrote of the tuber in two plays written in 1597 and 1602:
My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves,” hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes*. Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here…
The Merry Wives of Windsor, V, v., 18-22
*sea-holly, Eryngium maritium, enjoyed primarily for its roots, candied with sugar and orange-flower water which, as Evelyn noted in his diary, were a specialty of Colchester, and esteemed an aphrodisiac.
How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together. Fry, lechery, fry!
Troilus and Cressida, V, ii., 54-56
Potatoes were sold in the streets in 1617 when John Fletcher penned this bit:
I have fine potatoes,
Will your Lordship please to taste a fine potato?
`Twill advance your wither’d state,
Fill your Honour full of noble itches.
The Loyal Subject III, v.