Okay. We know perfectly well that people who lived eons ago weren’t too up on science and technology in the world around them. However, I have to give them the thumbs up for their use of natural herbs, fungi and other plant life in spiritual worship, beautification and other sorts of rituals. Some of these plants and flowers were used for decades and even a century or more before the Catholic Church found a reason to ban them (the Church is always ruining everyone’s fun). Mostly, the Church enacted bans against medicinal herbs in order to maintain control over everyone. It also believed in heretics and witches and was determined to purify the world of their ghastly influence. If the Popes throughout the ages only knew then what we know now, the Church might not have been so quick to judge.
I’ve always found the Middle Ages to be an interesting touchstone in human history. Ergo, I shall examine some natural dope used by thousands of people as early as the 1300s.
Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybin mushrooms, or psychedelic mushrooms)
Shrooms are fungi that contain this fancy worded alkaloid known as psychoactive indole. About 180 species of this stuff is known to exist today. After the Spanish conquest, Catholic missionaries campaigned against the “pagan idolatry“, and the use of hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms was banned. Catholics and pagans always did see things differently, and mushrooms were almost as wicked as worshipping a false God so far as Christianity was concerned. That’s deep.
The Spanish believed the mushroom allowed the Aztecs and others to communicate with “devils”. Tis’ believed that while converting Jews and Muslims to Catholicism, (by torturing and occasionally executing them via the Spanish Inquisition), the Spanish insisted on a switch from hallucinogenic fungi to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. Certainly prohibiting the use of mushrooms as a demonic entity while simultaneously torturing people for their religious beliefs makes a lot of sense. The Eucharist, a type of thin bread and quite delicious, is a considerably tamer form of spiritual ingestion than shrooms. The Spanish Inquisition was a force to be reckoned with and understandably, most people chose to ditch the mushrooms and eat the bread. However, here and there stubborn, well-hidden groups of Catholics retained their hallucinogenic high while practicing spiritual worship.
Shrooms remind me of acid (no, I have never indulged, but reading about this stuff, they sound like 1st cousins). There are serious changes to the audio, visual, and tactile senses that takes about 30 minutes to an hour after ingestion. There is an enhancement and contrast of colors; strange light phenomena (such as auras or “halos” around light sources); surfaces that seem to ripple, shimmer, or breathe; images, objects that warp, morph, or change colours; a sense of melting into the environment; and trails behind moving objects. Like acid, in a negative environment, shrooms can lead to a bad trip, whereas a familiar environment provides a pleasant experience. Many users find it preferable to ingest the mushrooms with friends, or people who are also ‘tripping.’ You may have wondered where the term magic originated. Wonder no more.
Expulsion of the Demons, an anonymous engraving from the 1600s, is an example of alchemical initiation hidden behind the facade of chruchly pursuits. In the foreground an alchemist (wearing a small Phygyric initiation cap) slides an associate head first into a large athanor (alchemical oven) where the “demons” are baked out of his head into a billowing cloud containing the universal elements in an expanding consciousness. The one who is baked holds his hand up as if to say to the other, “hold steady, right there brother.” Two mushrooms joined at the cap appear in the lower left of his expanding mind-cloud. In the left foreground incense is vaporizing from a bowl set on flaming coals in a squat pan on a tripod. Directly above it a “bishop” is pouring an alchemical substance down the throat of a seated initiate who is steadying the bishop’s arm that is holding a funnel in the initiate’s mouth. Ouch. Sounds more like another Medieval torture device than a drug trip.
Atropa Belladonna (bella donna means beautiful lady; atropa is also known as deadly nightshade), gets its name because it’s said that peasant women used to rub it in their eyes as a cosmetic. It’s a paralytic, and would take out the muscles used to constrict their pupils. When they put it on their cheeks it would cause their faces to flush with what looked like blush. They believed that this gave them a dreamy look that was sexy to men. Probably it just tipped the men off that these women knew how to get their hands on some belladonna. The plant causes a bizarre delirium and hallucinations. The pharmaceutical medicine atropine, controls nerve fibres responsible for the involuntary movement of muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, urinal tract, and other systems. It is a derivative of atropa belladonna. It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery. Queen Victoria used the inclusion of belladonna and opium in some form of medication that allowed her to have a painless, conscious birth.
Some say that this was the poison used on Claudius by his wife, Agrippina the Younger (but crueller), a Roman Empress, in Ancient Rome. Ancient Mesoamericans Others say that Macbeth used it during a truce to poison an entire invading army. Even a single leaf can prove fatal: people get nauseous, hallucinate, and develop a rapid pulse that trickles down to nothing. Well, there’s something to be said for nothingness if you want to get away from stress and childbirth.
Mandrake poisonings occurred everywhere, but were most common where the European mandrake grew, in Spain and Portugal. This type of mandrake flowers and bears edible fruit. The roots, however, are not to be eaten. Nor do they need to be in order to be poisonous. Today extracts from the root are used to take off warts with the warning not to expose healthy skin to the compound. Early poisoners didn’t issue that warning. Mandrake will take out the liver and kidneys, so wasn’t necessarily as fast as others, but it was a great way to dispose of someone without needing to cook for them. Needless to say mandrake was a great way to dispatch of a person and easy to blame on the victim. The murderer could easily lie and state the victim was aware of the risks but refused to heed them, and mishandled the plant.
Adolf Hitler was a firm believer in the mandrake in order to predict his future (a shame the poisonous roots didn’t knock him off). When the two first met, famed psychic, Erik Jan Hanussen, told Hitler to find a mandrake root from his own hometown, that looked like him (quite ghastly, probably), and return it for a reading. Upon their first meeting, Jan Hanussen made the prediction that Hitler would rise to power in 30 days. This was highly unlikely at the time, however Hitler sent Jan Hanussen to find the root, which, ironically, the psychic dug up from a butcher’s back yard. Jan Hanussen instructed Hitler that as long as the two remained in agreement with one another, the mandrake would bring him luck and power. Perhaps Jan Hanussen was onto something. Incredibly, 30 days later, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Decline of Mandrake and Belladonna Use
Mandrake and belladonna were, again, commonly used by certain people during a certain time period because they had them close by. As the population moved to the city, it became less common to harvest mandrake or inconspicuously maintain a ten foot high belladonna bush. Besides, as industrialization came on, well, there were new opportunities (which brings us back to acid and other dope).
Terms for mushrooms include:
Warts – of course, you know they’re going to blame the toad. Remedy: Hold a living toad next to the wart to soften it. Right then.
Fainting – burn feathers and breathe in smoke. Better to die of inhalation poisoning than to tolerate fainting.
Boils – cut a pigeon in half and rub it on the infected area. I wonder what PETA would have to say about this one.
Black Death – prayer, flagellation, and breathing in smoke were some of the remedies for this one. Sadly, as with many afflictions in the Middle Ages, people believed the Plague was a result of God’s anger for people’s sins. I give them credit for one thing: they knew enough to get the bodies off the streets and into graves located far outside of townships.
Surgeries: (you know these won’t be fun) – aka Optimistic Butchery
Bloodletting – usually with a scalpel
Leeches – to suck out poisonous humours (body fluids)
Maggots in cheesecloth – to cure gangrene. This one is still used today. Maggots eat dead meat. They eat the gangrenous flesh and tissue on a limb and avoid healthy tissue.
Trepanning - a hold was drilled into the patient’s head to release the spirit that resided inside. I should imagine it released the patient’s soul too when drilling the life out of him or her. Perhaps this could function as a “new” cure for migraines.
Amputation - this one was a little too common. If maggots weren’t successful at curing gangrene, the final solution (sorry- Hitler was mentioned in this blog) was to chop off the limb in question…without anesthetic of course since there was none. Ouch.
Medical Health Exams
Lifestyle history - quite reasonable since we still use this one.
Urine – this one is a favorite among pregnant women today.
Pulse – perhaps a substitute for our blood pressure tests. Or just a determinant that the patient is actually alive.
Astrology – aligning moons and planets was big then. Hey, a mandrake worked for Hitler. Why not astrology for Medievals?
Personal Hygiene - no one put that together with illness for hundreds of years. I believe that’s what is known as a slow start.
Environment – tossing feces and urine out the windows and into the streets was the regular means of disposing of one’s waste. Alas, Middle Ages knowledge didn’t put together bacteria and illness. Gross.
You have to give Medieval physicians, healers and surgeons credit for their creativity, if not their rationality. Living in a time of great superstition and a flood of visionaries on the market. Little wonder that spirituality, crude medicines and surgeries were the answer to diseases even we still can’t cure or prevent today. Who’s criticizing whom now?