FOOD IN HISTORY
STEIN AND DAY
Publishers New York
In the Rhine Valley, in A.D. 857, came the first serious recorded outbreak of ergotism, in which thousands of people died, poisoned by their daily bread. Rye is susceptible to a particularly virulent fungus, known as ergot, which contains twenty poisons including lysergic acid diethylamide--the hallucinogen LSD.
If the rye is badly affected, eating bread made from it leads either to intense abdominal pain, delirium, gangrene and death, or to that acute inflammation of the skin which in the ninth century, drove sufferers to insanity and gave ergotism the common name of "Holy Fire." In the hundred years following A.D. 857, Europe endured twenty "grieveous famines"--some of them lasting for three or four years of succession.
The south did not escape, any more than the north. There had been wars there, too between the all-conquering Arabs and the Byzantines, and in their triumphal progress along the Mediterranean the Arabs had carried with them a single small bush which was going to bring havoc to the agriculture of southern Europe. Until the early Middle Ages, the deadly black stem rust which can lay a whole harvest to waste had been almost unknown in the west. With the advent of the barberry bush, however, which plays host to the rust parasites during certain stages of their development, disease began to ravege the wheat fields. As the barberry spread, valued for the curative potion which could be extracted from its stems and for the brilliant berries which made a refreshing conserve, so did wheat rust, flourishing wherever there were warm rains, fogs or heavy dews. By the early part of the tenth century Spain was suffering from appalling failures of the wheat harvest, which may well have been to rust, and which (notably in A.D. 915 and 929) brought famine in their wake.
Where there was famine, there was also cannibalism. What was said of India a few centuries later, was probably equally true in tenth-century Europe. "Life was offered for a loaf, but none would buy; rank was to be sold for a cake, but none cared for it...
Destitution at last reached such a pitch that men began to devour each other, and the flesh of a son was preferred to his love. Demand produced supply. In some of the more isolated regions of central Europe killer bands roamed the country side, waylaying travelers, cooking their flesh, and selling it to the highest bidder.
Purchasers may have been told the meat was pork (which cannibal communities of the modern world have said it resembles), or mutton--even "two legged mutton," which was what the Chinese called it when there was a famine in the northern provinces in the twelfth century. Cannibalism was to persist in Bohemia, Silesia and Poland until the end of the Middle Ages, and actuality which helped to lend color to legends of werewolves and vampires.
Nevertheless, during these dark and often despairing years,
new developments in agriculture were taking place which were soon to have a revolutionary effect, no only upon the food of western Europe, but on the whole of society.
I can say that having done some time in quite a few colleges in Puerto Rico, MA and NY , I do not remember having heard or read these stories once.
However, the violent cultures and sacrifices of Mayan and Aztecs to name two, were always repeated over and over.
This picture was portrayed in a film, "Soylent Green" with Charlton Heston. If you care for a modern view on the subject check the trailer below or watch the whole movie:
that is that