Twenty-five years ago I published a novel called The Mapmaker. Set in 1349, the year the Black Death reached England, it tells the story of two young men who are driven from their village and find themselves following a mysterious map they have taken from the body of a monk.
All sorts of curiosities were brought to light as I researched the pandemic, which wiped out as much as sixty percent of the population of Europe over a three-year period. One of these was the religious hysteria, the eruptions of divine madness, which occurred unaccountably in random communities throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, causing widespread chaos and death.
Only in the early 20th century was it discovered that the culprit was ergot, a parasitic fungus that takes hold of grain. When milled into flour and consumed it results in vivid hallucinations, convulsions and seizures, reduced blood flow causing intense prickling or burning sensations, and gangrene.
Having eaten ergot-infected bread people saw angels, demons and monsters, felt themselves consumed by fire, threw themselves off roofs and into rivers, sought sanctuary in churches, and suffered the loss of limbs and ultimately life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it transpires that one of ergot’s derivatives is lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Might Breughel have been tripping on ergotic wheat?
This apocalyptic vision came startlingly to mind during a conversation yesterday with my American writer friend and Dark Angels colleague, Richard Pelletier. We were discussing the UK general election, the Trump impeachment proceedings, and the morass of propaganda, deception and dishonesty into which western politics seem to have fallen. It occurred to me that, not unlike those unlucky medieval ergot consumers, we simply don’t know what we’re being fed these days.
We agreed that there is a kind of acid-trip quality in trying to take one’s democratic responsibilities seriously: the apparently hallucinatory decisions that others seem to make, the sense that one may be hallucinating oneself, the brain strained to the point of implosion by the sheer volume of information available and the anxiety that one may be addicted to it, the difficulty of discerning truth from lies and the general sense of reality warped.
If these are the effects then the cause, the ergot itself, is the apparent loss of moral constraint, the intent to deceive or confuse; while the bread, the universal transmitter, is the internet with its multiple information and social media channels. But unlike the medieval afflicted, we do at least know the source of the madness even while we’re in its grip. So we can choose to forego what has become a staple of our diet, to abstain from the poisoned bread.
It’s also worth noting that ergot is not all bad. Its alkaloids have long been used to precipitate birth in difficult labours and to prevent postpartum haemorrhaging. In the wrong circumstances it can bring madness and death, but it can also facilitate the arrival of new life.
As an antidote to election hysteria I’ve turned in the last few days to the place where I always find calm and clarity, the natural world. I’ve long been drawn to wolves, and at one time thought about writing a novel about the last wolf in Scotland, reputedly killed in 1743.
I happened last week to watch a documentary about the lone male wolf which some years ago left its pack on Vancouver Island, travelled a great distance south, swam across a couple of kilometres of open sea, and took up residence on a small island, adapting its habits to suit its new maritime environment. Wolves howl to communicate with one another. The scenes of this solitary island-dweller howling were almost unbearably poignant.
Now I’m reading a birthday present which has been by my bed since September, awaiting its moment. By Jim Crumley, one of Scotland’s foremost nature writers, it’s called The Last Wolf. Sometimes things just come at you.
In 1281 Edward I launched a brutal campaign of extermination. By the time my two characters set off on their journey in The Mapmaker, wolves had already been absent from England for half a century. In Scotland, though, they persisted for the best part of another five hundred years. Jim Crumley explores both the facts and legend of their final disappearance, and its effect on the ecology of the Highlands.
There can be no creature in history that has been subjected to more black propaganda than the wolf. Yet they are formidably intelligent, sociable, loyal and capable of extraordinary feats of endurance. In cultures where people and wolves have always co-existed, wolves are respected and revered, even worshipped, above all other animals.
In the pantheon of animal spirits, meanwhile, they are seen as teachers, the embodiment of an implacable truth which confronts anyone who has ever looked into those unblinking amber eyes. Perhaps we would all be better for time spent in the company of wolves.