Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ergo, Ergot

Between the years 1000-1400AD, Europe experienced an era of warmth and higher than average rainfall. This was the ‘Medieval Warm Period’.

During this time, populations and crops flourished. But by the end of this period, the Black Death decimated those same populations. Europe, after the epidemic passed, found itself with 30-60 percent less people. With less people to work in the fields, the fewer fields cultivated and the less food produced. Famine resulted in killing off more of the population. But famine was not uncommon in Medieval Europe, just more obvious after the Black Death.

Some estimates put the death toll at between 75-200 million people. As with all urbanisation, the close proximity of people led to the rapid spread of disease. Paris lost 100,000 – half its population, Florence more than half at 70,000 dead.

Before the Black Death arrived, another danger lurked in the warm, humid environment: fungus.

Bread wasn’t just a staple of the diet, it provided the plate, or trencher, as well. Following the meal, the bread trencher could be eaten, given to the poor or to farm animals. Unfortunately for the peasants of Europe, the warm, rainy weather gave rise to the Ergot fungi which grew on the rye and wheat crops.

Ergot poisoning manifested itself in humans as hallucinations, convulsions, nausea, a burning sensation in the limbs. Such symptoms lead to many accusations of witchcraft. One hundred thousand were slaughtered on the charge of poisoning the local population. Jews, Muslims, lepers were included in the accusations and of bringing the Black Death to Europe.

A little known cultural response, however, was the real culprit for the increase in deaths from plague. Hysteria ran high after the poisonings and cats – the oft accused familiar of witches – were killed off in job lots...

With no cats to hunt the flea-ridden rodents carrying the Plague, the incidents of Black Death sky-rocketed and so did the persecutions. Even after the disease ran its course and faded from Europe, the Church and local communities continued to go after alleged witches; most of whom were ordinary people subjected to the jealousies of others.

The persecution of non-Christians has a history spanning millennia. But paternalism as a measure to control society is a story for another day.

Today, witchcraft is more acceptable (excluding areas of Africa where people are still murdered for being an accused witch) under the banner of ‘neopaganism’; a friendlier, more peaceful and private practice without the church-fed superstitions of old.

Education and flexibility of governments, the separation of church and state, the sophistication of our societies and the establishments of religious freedoms, all allow people to worship a religion in their own way.

For Christians, Easter is a solemn occasion; for the neopagans, it is a time for celebration. Fortunately, in the modern world, there’s room enough for both.

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