11/9/13

Bread, Madness and Christianity


St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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11/4/13

What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?


Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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10/13/13

Hijack the Starship


Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.


The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky –
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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10/11/13

1927, a Year to Remember


The Jazz Singer1927. It was the year America sent troops to Nicaragua, forcing a US-supervised election. The year Alfred Hitchcock released his first movie. And the year when Fritz Lang released his masterpiece, Metropolis. Buster Keaton released The General that year, although it bombed at the box office. Clara Bow starred in Wings. Sergei Eisenstein released October: Ten Days That Shook the World.

Silent films, all, although the Movietone sound system came out that year at Fox Studios, presaging a new world of talkies in another few months when The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, premiered in New York City. That same year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded.

While most films were shot in monochrome, color films were also released including Abel Gance’s great bio-flick, Napoleon (which was restored in 1981 and played in Toronto around 1983, when I saw it).

It was a time of excitement, of exploration and optimism. The Great Depression was hiding two years away,  but in the meantime the world sang and danced. It was a time of inventiveness and creativity. Ingenuity. And also imperialism,

In 1927 polystyrene was invented. Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid. Garnet Carter built the first public miniature golf course, Tom Thumb Golf, on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. The jukebox was invented by The Automatic Music Instrument Company. John Hammes invented the first under-the-sink garbage disposal unit. Frank Ofeldt invented the power washer. The pop-up toaster was invented.

Capablanca was the darling of the chess world, holding the title of world chess champion since 1921. But he lost the 1927 World Chess Championship to Alexander Alekhine. Alekhine would hold that title until 1935.

Charles Lindbergh, 25, flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, a 33-hour trip, landing in Paris. He would become Time Magazine’s first, and the youngest, person to be named “man of the year” for 1927, on the cover of the first issue of 1928.

The first commercial airline service to Hawaii opened.

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) launched a network of 18 radio stations, soon to be 47. The BBC was given a Royal Charter.

Adolph Hitler was making speeches in Germany whiles Nazis and Communists clashed on the streets and the German economy collapsed.

Chiang Kai-Shek formed an alternative government (the Kuomintang  or Nationalist Chinese) in China during its long civil war. America and Great Britain sent troops to China to protect their interests and property.  The Communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army was formed in 1927 during the Nanchang Uprising.

Telephone service  between the USA and Mexico was launched. The first transatlantic telephone call was made via radio connection from New York City and London. A diamond rush started in South Africa.

The U.S. Bureau of Prohibition was founded under the Department of the Treasury. Determined to eradicate the misuse of industrial alcohol (designed for antifreeze, embalming, and so forth), the state added strychnine to it. As a result, 11,700 citizens died that year, poisoned by their  own government.

Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic TV motion pictures. Gutzon Borglum began sculpting the Mt. Rushmore monument. The first automatic traffic lights were installed in Wolverhampton, England.

Leon Trotsky, one of the original Communist leaders, was expelled from the Communist Party (at the 15th Congress) and and sent into internal exile.  Joseph Stalin became the party’s undisputed  ruler. Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, in 1940. Along with Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were also expelled from the Communist Party. They would reappear at the Show trials of 1934, to be executed shortly after.

The Great Syrian Revolt against French imperialism ended with a defeat of the rebels:  during the two-year conflict least 6,000 rebels were killed, and over 100,000 were left homeless.

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10/2/13

I Didn’t Know That…


History of EnglandOne of the great delights of learning is to be able to read or hear something new, something unknown, something that challenges the mind or your previously formed ideas and opinions. Something that fascinates and delights you. That “ah ha!” moment.

Last week I stumbled across a website called History of England and I felt like that when I started to read through it. Better yet, I spent an hour downloading the 104 free podcasts of his history (plus the eight or so supplementary ones) to listen to while I walk my dogs.*

The site is a blog created by David Crowther, who also reads the pieces for the podcasts. Crowther modestly calls himself a “part time history enthusiast,” but his writing is as good as many of the histories I’ve read.**

I discovered the site when I was searching for some data on the Middle Ages for my post on the Unknown Monk meme last week. I started reading, then reading some more, and suddenly it was several hours later.

Crowther’s succinct profile is:

Interests: Well, History, obviously. But also a dedicated allottment owner, though at the most important times it’s difficult to get down there enough. Then very keen on walking, whether with the dog or something more major. Play tennis, bit of golf; armchair Rugby & cricket fan. Supported the Leicester Tigers since . . . a long time ago.

With some breaks for personal time, Crowther produces a weekly podcast – an amazing amount of work and dedication I admire and respect. I know how tough it can be to do this sort of work with any regularity. But this stuff requires a lot of background work: reading, culling images, cross-checking.

Plus he fills his blog with maps, text and images to supplement the podcasts. It’s a wonderful place to simply explore. England’s history is so rich it never fails to captivate me. Somewhere in that timeline, my ancestors lived and breathed, fought, worked the land… where, or course, I don’t know, but probably in the north near my father’s home of Oldham.

I started listening to Crowther’s podcasts on Monday and I’ve finished a mere eight of them – each is about 30 minutes. I’ve just finished the second on Alfred the Great and am in the late 9th century. Really intriguing guy – and learned, not just one of the era’s typical warrior-kings. Literate – in fact he not only taught himself Latin (and translated Latin into the vernacular), but wrote some of the earliest written works in the vernacular.

So far the stories been full of surprising information about the early English – and the successive invasions of the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Danes after the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 CE. Ripping stuff, and told with a light hand and a dry sense of humour. He reads very well, with a good speaking voice, measured and easy to follow.

It’s an era I know damned little about – actually no one does, really, because until Alfred there was little written, or at least little that has survived. It’s not called The Dark Ages for nothing. But it turns out to be a rich, fascinating time for all that. Kings with odd names, warriors, battles, politics, internecine squabbles, church and state, family feuds… the stuff of good history.

One of those “ah ha!” moments was his talk about Offa, King of Mercia in the 8th century CE. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t really aware of his place or importance. Now I know enough to want to delve deeper. I expect a trip to Chapters or Amazon in the near future will include a search for books on this period.

I’m hooked. And I have 100 more to go!

By the time I get to the end, I expect he will have added many more, so I can look forward to many enjoyable hours. His 104th podcast – the latest as of this writing – only brings us to the mid-14th century. He hasn’t even reached my personal favourite – the late Tudors and early Stuarts. I can hardly wait for him to delve into Henry VIII, Elizabeth and Shakespeare. That should be getting close to lecture 200, I suspect.

~~~~~ 

* My usual listening fare has been audio courses from The Great Courses, which I still enjoy listening to. Their individual lectures are 45-60 minutes each, which means I sometimes can’t finish one when walking the dogs. Sometimes I listen to music copied from old 78 recordings instead.

**  And perhaps better than many – with history as a major interest of mine, I’ve read thousands of books over the last few decades and not all of them are as spellbinding as Crowther’s modest work.

09/28/13

A Cup of Pu-Erh


Pu-Erh teaIt’s dark in the cup, but in the glass pot for brewing, it’s a deep copper. It smells of earth and age, a hint of horses and leather. A rich, slightly sweet and crisp taste.

Black, no milk. With milk, it changes to a hot-chocolate light brown, and the flavour mellows. I prefer the slightly sharper black taste. *

“For hundreds of years,” reads the Whittard’s package, “mule loads of precious Pu-Erh tea travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road from China, risking the dangers of Tiger Leaping Gorge to reach the towering mountains of Tibet.”

It has that aroma and taste of a well-travelled tea. A tea that has sat on the tables of ship’s captains, and on the floor mats in nomad huts. This Yunnan province tea is “traditionally drunk after a meal,” but I’m breaking with tradition to sip it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tea is a complicated product, for all the simplicity we give it when drinking it. Wikipedia’s page on Pu-Erh is long and rambling, and a delight to read, albeit somewhat unfocused. It opens:

Pu-erh or Pu’er tea is a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan province, China.
Fermentation is a tea production style in which the tea leaves undergo microbial fermentation and oxidation after they are dried and rolled. This process is a Chinese specialty and produces tea known as Hei Cha, commonly translated as dark, or black tea (this type of tea is completely different from what in West is known as “black tea”, which in China is called “red tea” ). The most famous variety of this category of tea is Pu-erh from Yunnan Province, named after the trading post for dark tea during imperial China.

Black tea, red tea, green tea. Each one different, each with its range of flavours and aromas. All teas come from the same tea plant, but the difference is how/when the leaves are picked, processed and dried.**

The box says the production date is Sept. 1, 2011, best before early 2013. Here I am, two years later, still enjoying it. I actually brought this package home from England, from a small tea shop in Richmond. I still have a little left. I’m not concerned that it may be past its prime. It still tastes good to me. Whittard’s website says:

Pu-erh is a special type of tea grown only in the Yunnan Province in China. It develops its flavour through wet-fermentation and long maturity and is said to improve with age. It has been drunk by the people of the Yunnan and Tibet border provinces since the Tang Dynasty (620-907 AD).

My slightly-past-its-before-date cup of Pu-Erh is a quiet seque into tea’s fascinating history and culture.***

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