The Bard and the Badger: the story of a grain hoarder

21 August 2020

History | Literature

This blog includes temporary free access to "Memorandum book of John Locke (Add Ms 28273 )" from the Adam Matthew resource Early Modern England: Society, Culture and Everyday Life, 1500-1700. Click here or on the image of the text below to view this document for free until 20th September 2020.

This Sunday, 23 August, marks five months since lockdown began here in the UK and, as restrictions slowly but steadily begin to ease, I’ve been reflecting on my lockdown experience. I went into quarantine with grand aspirations about practicing the flute, getting into shape and learning new skills; these ambitions quickly fell by the wayside and were replaced by video games, takeaways and an unhealthy sleep schedule. On behalf of the lockdown slobs, I’d like to use this blog to hit back at one of quarantine’s greatest over-achievers: William Shakespeare, who supposedly wrote King Lear while quarantined from the plague in 1606.

A collection of miscellaneous documents in Adam Matthew Digital’s Early Modern England: Society, Culture & Everyday Life, 1500-1700 resource contains a survey of townspeople storing corn and malt in Stratford-upon-Avon; Shakespeare’s name (or, at least, the name ‘Wm Shackespere’) appears on this list alongside the surprisingly large amount of ten quarters. Only sixteen other townspeople on the list held more grain than Shakespeare: two owned the same amount and fifty-three held less.

From Miscellaneous Documents, Vol. 1, 1560-1665, © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This survey, taken in 1598 after a series of bad harvests caused the price of wheat to nearly double since 1592 (see, hints towards Shakespeare’s nefarious side-gig: hoarding corn during times of plenty to sell at vastly inflated prices during food shortages. The bard may have spent the summer of 1606 writing, but in March 2020 he would likely have been ransacking shops for stockpiles of loo roll, hand sanitiser and pasta.

Famines and food shortages were a common problem in early modern England: there were at least 40 food riots between 1586 and 1631. Hoarders like Shakespeare only exacerbated the issue and early modern authorities made serious efforts to combat the stockpiling of corn. One such attempt leads us to possibly the most startling revelation of Early Modern England: Society, Culture & Everyday Life, 1500-1700: that Shakespeare was a badger.

Memorandum book of John Locke (Add Ms 28273 ), 1623-1655, © Content provided by: The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click to view this item free for 30 days.

In a bid to limit the effect of food stockpiling, early modern authorities required individuals to obtain a license for the purchase and resale of wheat or other grains. Often, these licenses restricted where the licensed individual could trade and the amount they could buy or sell. One such license, contained in Early Modern England: Society, Culture & Everyday Life, 1500-1700 as part of a memorandum book belonging to John Locke, is referred to as ‘A License for a Badger’ and authorises the licensee to ‘bee [sic] a badger’. Disappointingly, this isn’t evidence for early modern animagi; rather, it is simply a term for resellers of corn. While none of the licenses explicitly refer to Shakespeare as a badger, I believe the term fits.

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About the Author

Alex Barr

Alex Barr

I formally joined Adam Matthew’s editorial team in November 2019 after completing a three-month internship. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work on a number of exciting projects, including ‘Sex and Sexuality’ and 'Early Modern England'. My personal interests lie in classical literature and history.