Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607), says ‘0f the Tatvs, or Gvinean Beast’ that ‘The Merchants as I haue herd and Cittizens of London keepe of these with their garden wormes’, and in the following entry, ‘Of the Aiochtoctch’, ‘There are of these as I haue heard to be seen in Gardens of London, which are kept to destroy the Garden wormes’ (p. 706).
The illustration accompanying his ‘tatus’ is borrowed, he says, from Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (p. 705), and is fairly recognizably an armadillo:
Enquiring minds might be wondering why they didn’t want worms in their gardens. This would presumably be because they hadn’t had the benefit of Darwin’s observations about the value and crucial significance of worms in the history of the world (The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Worms, 1881).
They might also be asking, if the tatus is an armadillo, what is the aiochtoctch (or aiotochth, as Topsell also spells it)?
It looks as if Topsell may have got his wires crossed and described the same beastie twice. George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), tells us in his Histoire Naturelle that ‘le tatou’, or armadillo, is known as ‘Aiotochli au Mexique, tatu ou tatupeba au Bresil, chirquinchum à la Nouvelle Espagne’ (1799 edition, volume 3, p. 188). He would also appear to have miscatalogued it, since he includes it in the sections which treats ‘Of Animals Common to Both Continents’ (i.e., the Old World and the New).
I can’t find any other accounts of armadillos in early modern England, but it’s a fascinating thought. Not having access to a proper research library right now, I don’t have access to Egmond, F. and P. Mason (1994), ‘Armadillo in Unlikely Places. Some Unpublished Sixteenth-Century Sources for New World Rezeptionsgeschichte in Northern Europe’, Ibero-Amerikanischens Archive 20: 3-52, but it’s a wonderful title, and sounds like just the thing for the whacky enquirer who wants to find out more!
Maybe armadillos turned up in all sorts of odd spots in those days. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, or even given them much thought until a tweet by Conversion Narratives caused me to drop whatever pointless task I was engaged in and turn my attention to this pivotal issue:
Question: Topsell says armadillos and duck-billed platypi both kept to eat worms in C16th/17th London gardens. Any (other) evidence of this? ConversionNarratives (@conversiontales) November 8, 2013
UPDATE June 2020: The tweet appears to have disappeared (if that makes sense!)