Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bad Bread

It seems appropriate, as the world descends into economic hysteria, to be launching a book about Dionysian madness. Once again fear is the obvious driver, as it’s so often been in the past.

Famine sparked the “Great Fear” that swept France in the summer of 1789. Peasants went on a mad rampage, burning and ransacking their way through the countryside. Eventually it led to the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution.

Mass hysteria has many theories: “convergence,” “emotional contagion,” “collective effervescence.” They all involve a mutual reinforcement, an infectious multiplication of feeling, with emotions ranging from paranoia and panic to gleeful, unrestrained enthusiasm.

In the Middle Ages, episodes of what’s called the ‘dancing rage,’ or St. John’s Dance, erupted all over Europe. People would basically go wild in the streets, dancing, screaming, writhing, convulsing, even foaming at the mouth. It was another form of mass hysteria, and it happened in cities all over Europe. Priests thought the people were possessed by the devil. Music was played to help calm them.

It may be more than fear that feeds these collective convulsions. Professor Mary K. Matossian believes that in both these historical cases an initial catalyst was hallucinogenic ergotism. France’s “Great Fear,” like St. John’s Dance, may have been caused by ergot poisoning from the bread people ate. The ergot alkaloid ergotamine is an immediate precursor to LSD. It causes convulsions, hallucinations, mania, and psychosis.

The ergot fungus usually arises when the season is particularly wet and the grain is left damp. In that long-ago summer in France, a drought had been followed by storms and floods that ruined the year’s harvest. Usually farmers threw out ergot-infected yields, but when the harvest was poor, they couldn’t be choosy. They went ahead and ate the bread and chased the nobles all the way to the guillotine.

Forgive the pun, but once again it’s bad bread that’s making us throw the bums out. Only we may have another—even more infectious—catalyst to our hysteria.

The mass media.

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