Friday, February 18, 2005

The Crucible and the Crux of the Biscuit

So, it turns out that the Salem Witch Trials may have a biological, and a botanical, root. The bread did it.

Rye, commonly used to make bread, is subject to ergot, a fungus that thrives when a cold winter is followed by a wet spring. The ergot is an hallucinogen, producing: "paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system." Conditions in 1347 in Europe were ideal for ergot, and that may have caused many of the deaths from the Black Death. The symptoms of the two conditions are much alike, and the weakened immune system might well have caused many more people to die from the Black Death than otherwise would have.

And what of the witches in Salem? Dr. Lienhard answers that succinctly:
The symptoms of bewitchment are consistent, but the way those symptoms were received was not. Crazy behavior was commonplace in the medieval plague years. The mad "Dance of Death" is a theme shot through medieval iconography. The spasms suffered by ergot victims were called St. Vitus Dance. Do you remember Ingmar Bergman's wonderful movie about the plague, The Seventh Seal? It began and ended with the figure of death leading the doomed in an eerie dance across a hilltop.

Then, in the 1500s and 1600s, the symptoms of ergot were blamed on witches -- all over Europe, and finally in Massachusetts. Witch hunts hardly occurred where people didn't eat rye.

In the 1740s, the so called Age of Rationalism, ergot symptoms became a mark of holy, not demonic, possession. Visions, trances, and spasms were read as religious ecstasy. It was a period of religious revival that historians call the Great Awakening.

This raises an interesting question about responsibility. Were the people who inspired Arthur Miller's play the victims of society? of hysteria? or of a fungus? Were they alone responsible, or the community they lived in? Miller's conclusion is fairly clear; but we still don't have a model, either in public ethics or at law, that holds members of the system liable for actions of those in the system. We claim to have one, but all too often those at the end of the chain of command suffer, while those at the top of the chain, even if charged, are never convicted. Is responsibility always an individual matter? And if it isn't, by what model do we reasonably apportion blame, and exact recompense?

This morning, word comes that American troops have staged mock executions of prisoners. On what do we blame that behavior? It is too widespread to be bad individuals, just a few "bad apples"? But do we have a model for corporate liability? Do we have a valid system for making people in a system responsible, not just the people accused of the direct actions? We established the principle at Nuremburg that "only following orders" was no defense. But now are we going to blame it on the MRE's?

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