Historically Speaking: The Fungus That Fed Gods And Felled a Pope

There’s no hiding the fact that mushrooms, though delicious, have a dark side

The Wall Street Journal

October 21, 2022

Fall means mushroom season. And, oh, what joy. The Romans called mushrooms the food of the gods; to the ancient Chinese, they contained the elixir of life; and for many people, anything with truffles is the next best thing to a taste of heaven.

Lovers of mushrooms are known as mycophiles, while haters are mycophobes. Both sets have good reasons for feeling so strongly. The medicinal properties of mushrooms have been recognized for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese herbal text “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” written down sometime during the Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 AD, was among the earliest medical treatises to highlight the immune-boosting powers of the reishi mushroom, also known as lingzhi.

The hallucinogenic powers of certain mushrooms were also widely known. Many societies, from the ancient Mayans to the Vikings, used psilocybin-containing fungi, popularly known as magic mushrooms, to achieve altered states either during religious rituals or in preparation for battle. One of the very few pre-Hispanic texts to survive Spanish destruction, the Codex Yuta Tnoho or Vindobonensis Mexicanus I, reveals the central role played by the mushroom in the cosmology of the Mixtecs.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

There is no hiding the fact that mushrooms have a dark side, however. Fewer than 100 species are actually poisonous out of the thousands of varieties that have been identified. But some are so deadly—the death cap (Amanita phalloides), for example—that recovery is uncertain even with swift treatment. Murder by mushroom is a staple of crime writing, although modern forensic science has made it impossible to disguise.

There is a strong possibility that this is how the Roman Emperor Claudius died on Oct. 13, 54 A.D. The alleged perpetrator, his fourth wife Agrippina the Younger, wanted to clear the path for her son Nero to sit on the imperial throne. Nero dutifully deified the late emperor, as was Roman custom. But according to the historian Dio Cassius, he revealed his true feelings by joking that mushrooms were surely a dish for gods, since Claudius, by means of a mushroom, had become a god.

Another victim of the death cap mushroom, it has been speculated, was Pope Clement VII in 1534, who is best known for opposing King Henry VIII’s attempt to get rid of Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives. Two centuries later, in what was almost certainly an accident, Holy Roman Emperor King Charles VI died in Vienna on Oct. 20, 1740, after attempting to treat a cold and fever with his favorite dish of stewed mushrooms.

Of course, mushrooms don’t need to be lethal to be dangerous. Ergot fungus, which looks like innocuous black seeds, can contaminate cereal grains, notably rye. Its baleful effects include twitching, convulsions, the sensation of burning, and terrifying hallucinations. The Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch may well have been suffering from ergotism, known as St. Anthony’s Fire in his day, when he painted his depictions of hell. Less clear is whether ergotism was behind the strange symptoms recorded among some of the townspeople during the Salem witch panic of 1692-93.

Unfortunately, the mushroom’s mixed reputation deterred scientific research into its many uses. But earlier this year a small study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found evidence to support what many college students already believe: Magic mushrooms can be therapeutic. Medication containing psilocybin had an antidepressant effect over the course of a year. More studies are needed, but I know one thing for sure: Sautéed mushrooms and garlic are a recipe for happiness.

Historically Speaking: The Modern Flush Toilet Has Ancient Origins

Even the Minoans of Crete found ways to whisk away waste with flowing water.

The Wall Street Journal

June 9, 2021

Defecation is a great equalizer. As the 16th-century French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it trenchantly in his Essays, “Kings and philosophers shit, as do ladies.”

Yet, even if each person is equal before the loo, not all toilets are considered equal. Sitting or squatting, high or low-tech, single or dual flush: Every culture has preferences and prejudices. A top-end Japanese toilet with all the fixtures costs as much as a new car.

THOMAS FUCHS

Pride in having the superior bathroom experience goes back to ancient times. As early as 2500 B.C., wealthy Mesopotamians could boast of having pedestal lavatories and underfloor piping that fed into cesspits. The Harappans of the Indus Valley Civilization went one better, building public drainage systems that enabled even ordinary dwellings to have bathrooms and toilets. Both, however, were surpassed by the Minoans of Crete, who invented the first known flush toilet, using roof cisterns that relied on the power of gravity to flush the contents into an underground sewer.

The Romans’ greatest contribution to sanitary comfort was the public restroom. By 300 B.C., Rome had nearly 150 public toilet facilities. These were communal, multi-seater affairs consisting of long stone benches with cut-out holes set over a channel of continuously running water. Setting high standards for hygiene, the restrooms had a second water trough for washing and sponging.

Although much knowledge and technology was lost during the Dark Ages, the Monty Python depiction of medieval society as unimaginably filthy was somewhat of an exaggeration. Castle bedrooms were often en-suite, with pipes running down the exterior walls or via internal channels to moats or cesspits. Waste management was fraught with danger, though—from mishaps as much as disease.

The most famous accident was the Erfurt Latrine Disaster. In 1184, King Henry VI of Germany convened a royal gathering at Petersburg Citadel in Erfurt, Thuringia. Unfortunately, the ancient hall was built over the citadel’s latrines. The meeting was in full swing when the wooden flooring suddenly collapsed, hurling many of the assembled nobles to their deaths in the cesspit below.

Another danger was the vulnerability of the sewage system to outside penetration. Less than 20 years after Erfurt, French troops in Normandy captured the English-held Chateau Gaillard by climbing up the waste shafts.

Sir John Harington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, rediscovered the flushable toilet in 1596. Her Majesty had one installed at Richmond Palace. But the contraption failed to catch on, perhaps because smells could travel back up the pipe. The Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming solved that problem in the late 18th century by introducing an S-shaped pipe below the bowl that prevented sewer gas from escaping.

Thomas Crapper, contrary to lore, didn’t invent the modern toilet: He was the chief supplier to the royal household. Strangely for a country renowned for its number of bathrooms per household, the U.S. granted its first patent for a toilet—or “plunger closet”—only in 1857. As late as 1940, some 45% of households still had outhouses. The American toilet race, like the space race, only took off later, in the ‘50s. There is no sign of its slowing down. Coming to a galaxy near you: The cloud-connected toilet that keeps track of your vitals and cardiovascular health.

Historically Speaking: Inflation Once Had No Name, Let Alone Remedy

Empires from Rome to China struggled to restore the value of currencies that spiraled out of control

The Wall Street Journal

May 27, 2022

Even if experts don’t always agree on the specifics, there is broad agreement on what inflation is and on its dangers. But this consensus is relatively new: The term “inflation” only came into general usage during the mid-19th century.

Long before that, Roman emperors struggled to address the nameless affliction by debasing their coinage, which only worsened the problem. By 268 AD, the silver content of the denarius had dropped to 0.5%, while the price of wheat had risen almost 200-fold. In 301, Emperor Diocletian tried to restore the value of Roman currency by imposing rigid controls on the economy. But the reforms addressed inflation’s symptoms rather than its causes. Even Diocletian’s government preferred to collect taxes in kind rather than in specie.

A lack of knowledge about the laws of supply and demand also doomed early Chinese experiments in paper money during the Southern Song, Mongol and Ming Dynasties. Too many notes wound up in circulation, leading to rampant inflation. Thinking that paper was the culprit, the Chongzhen Emperor hoped to restore stability by switching to silver coins. But these introduced other vulnerabilities. In the 1630s, the decline of Spanish silver from the New World (alongside a spate of crop failures) resulted in a money shortage—and a new round of inflation. The Ming Dynasty collapsed not long after, in 1644.

Spain was hardly in better shape. The country endured unrelenting inflation during the so-called Price Revolution in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, as populations increased, demand for goods spiraled and the purchasing power of silver collapsed. The French political theorist Jean Bodin recognized as early as 1568 that rising prices were connected to the amount of money circulating in the system. But his considered view was overlooked in the rush to find scapegoats, such as the Jews.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The great breakthrough came in the 18th century as classical economists led by Adam Smith argued that the market was governed by laws and could be studied like any other science. Smith also came close to identifying inflation, observing that wealth is destroyed when governments attempt to “inflate the currency.” The term “inflation” became common in the mid-19th century, particularly in the U.S., in the context of boom and bust cycles caused by an unsecured money supply.

Ironically, the worst cases of inflation during the 20th century coincided with the rise of increasingly sophisticated models for predicting it. The hyperinflation of the German Papiermark during the Weimar Republic in 1921-23 may be the most famous, but it pales in comparison to the Hungarian Pengo in 1945-46. Inflamed by the government’s weak response, prices doubled every 15 hours at their peak. The one billion trillion Pengo note was worth about one pound sterling. By 1949 the currency had gone—and so had Hungary’s democracy.

In 1982, the U.S. Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker achieved a historic victory over what became known as the Great Inflation of the 1960s and ‘70s. It did so through an aggressive regimen of high interest rates to curb spending. Ordinary Americans suffered high unemployment as a result, but the country endured. As with any affliction, it isn’t enough for doctors to identify the cause: The patient must be prepared to take his medicine.

Historically Speaking: How Malaria Brought Down Great Empires

A mosquito-borne parasite has impoverished nations and stopped armies in their tracks

The Wall Street Journal

October 15, 2021

Last week brought very welcome news from the World Health Organization, which approved the first-ever childhood vaccine for malaria, a disease that has been one of nature’s grim reapers for millennia.

Originating in Africa, the mosquito-borne parasitic infection left its mark on nearly every ancient society, contributing to the collapse of Bronze-Age civilizations in Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, who died around 1324 BC, suffered from a host of conditions including a club foot and cleft palate, but malaria was likely what killed him.

Malaria could stop an army in its tracks. In 413 BC, at the height of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, malaria sucked the life out of the Athenian army as it lay siege to Syracuse. Athens never recovered from its losses and fell to the Spartans in 404 BC.

But while malaria helped to destroy the Athenians, it provided the Roman Republic with a natural barrier against invaders. The infested Pontine Marshes south of Rome enabled successive generations of Romans to conquer North Africa, the Middle East and Europe with some assurance they wouldn’t lose their own homeland. Thus, the spread of classical civilization was carried on the wings of the mosquito. In the 5th century, though, the blessing became a curse as the disease robbed the Roman Empire of its manpower.

Throughout the medieval era, malaria checked the territorial ambitions of kings and emperors. The greatest beneficiary was Africa, where endemic malaria was deadly to would-be colonizers. The conquistadors suffered no such handicap in the New World.

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG

The first medical breakthrough came in 1623 after malaria killed Pope Gregory XV and at least six of the cardinals who gathered to elect his successor. Urged on by this catastrophe to find a cure, Jesuit missionaries in Peru realized that the indigenous Quechua people successfully treated fevers with the bark of the cinchona tree. This led to the invention of quinine, which kills malarial parasites.

For a time, quinine was as powerful as gunpowder. George Washington secured almost all the available supplies of it for his Continental Army during the War of Independence. When Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, less than half his army was fit to fight: Malaria had incapacitated the rest.

During the 19th century, quinine helped to turn Africa, India and Southeast Asia into a constellation of European colonies. It also fueled the growth of global trade. Malaria had defeated all attempts to build the Panama Canal until a combination of quinine and better mosquito control methods led to its completion in 1914. But the drug had its limits, as both Allied and Axis forces discovered in the two World Wars. While fighting in the Pacific Theatre in 1943, General Douglas MacArthur reckoned that for every fighting division at his disposal, two were laid low by malaria.

A raging infection rate during the Vietnam War was malaria’s parting gift to the U.S. in the waning years of the 20th century. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. Army suffered an estimated 391,965 sick-days from malaria cases alone. The disease didn’t decide the war, but it stacked the odds.

Throughout history, malaria hasn’t had to wipe out entire populations to be devastating. It has left them poor and enfeebled instead. With the advent of the new vaccine, the hardest hit countries can envisage a future no longer shaped by the disease.

Historically Speaking: Let Slip the Dogs, Birds and Donkeys of War

Animals have served human militaries with distinction since ancient times

The Wall Street Journal

August 5, 2021

Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon credited with rescuing a U.S. battalion from friendly fire in World War I, has been on display at the Smithsonian for more a century. The bird made news again this summer, when DNA testing revealed that the avian hero was a “he” and not—as two feature films, several novels and a host of poems depicted—a ”she.”

Cher Ami was one of more than 200,000 messenger pigeons Allied forces employed during the War. On Oct. 4, 1918, a battalion from the U.S. 77th Infantry Division in Verdun, northern France, was trapped behind enemy lines. The Germans had grown adept at shooting down any bird suspected of working for the other side. They struck Cher Ami in the chest and leg—but the pigeon still managed to make the perilous flight back to his loft with a message for U.S. headquarters.

Animals have played a crucial role in human warfare since ancient times. One of the earliest depictions of a war animal appears on the celebrated 4,500-year-old Sumerian box known as the Standard of Ur. One side shows scenes of war; the other, scenes of peace. On the war side, animals that are most probably onagers, a species of wild donkey, are shown dragging a chariot over the bodies of enemy soldiers.

War elephants of Pyrrhus in a 20th century Russian painting
PHOTO: ALAMY

The two most feared war animals of the classical world were horses and elephants. Alexander the Great perfected the use of the former and introduced the latter after his foray into India in 327 BC. For a time, the elephant was the ultimate weapon of war. At the Battle of Heraclea in 280 B.C., a mere 20 of them helped Pyrrhus, king of Epirus—whose costly victories inspired the term “Pyrrhic victory”—rout an entire Roman army.

War animals didn’t have to be big to be effective, however. The Romans learned how to defeat elephants by exploiting their fear of pigs. In 198 B.C., the citizens of Hatra, near Mosul in modern Iraq, successfully fought off a Roman attack by pouring scorpions on the heads of the besiegers. Eight years later, the Carthaginian general Hannibal won a surprise naval victory against King Eumenes II of Pergamon by catapulting “snake bombs”—jars stuffed with poisonous snakes—onto his ships.

Ancient war animals often suffered extraordinary cruelty. When the Romans sent pigs to confront Pyrrhus’s army, they doused the animals in oil and set them on fire to make them more terrifying. Hannibal would get his elephants drunk and stab their legs to make them angry.

Counterintuitively, as warfare became more mechanized the need for animals increased. Artillery needed transporting; supplies, camps, and prisoners needed guarding. A favorite mascot or horse might be well treated: George Washington had Nelson, and Napoleon had Marengo. But the life of the common army animal was hard and short. The Civil War killed between one and three million horses, mules and donkeys.

According to the Imperial War Museum in Britain, some 16 million animals served during World War I, including canaries, dogs, bears and monkeys. Horses bore the brunt of the fighting, though, with as many as 8 million dying over the four years.

Dolphins and sea lions have conducted underwater surveillance for the U.S. Navy and helped to clear mines in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Army relies on dogs to detect hidden IEDs, locate missing soldiers, and even fight when necessary. In 2016, four sniffer dogs serving in Afghanistan were awarded the K-9 Medal of Courage by the American Humane Association. As the troop withdrawal continues, the military’s four-legged warriors are coming home, too

Historically Speaking: The Dark Lore of Black Cats

Ever since they were worshiped in ancient Egypt, cats have occupied an uncanny place in the world’s imagination

The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2018

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

As Halloween approaches, decorations featuring scary black cats are starting to make their seasonal appearance. But what did the black cat ever do to deserve its reputation as a symbol of evil? Why is it considered bad luck to have a black cat cross your path?

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the first human-cat interactions were benign and based on mutual convenience. The invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era led to surpluses of grain, which attracted rodents, which in turn motivated wild cats to hang around humans in the hope of catching dinner. Domestication soon followed: The world’s oldest pet cat was found in a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus, buried alongside its human owner.

According to the Roman writer Polyaenus, who lived in the second century A.D., the Egyptian veneration of cats led to disaster at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C. The invading Persian army carried cats on the front lines, rightly calculating that the Egyptians would rather accept defeat than kill a cat.

The Egyptians were unique in their extreme veneration of cats, but they weren’t alone in regarding them as having a special connection to the spirit world. In Greek mythology the cat was a familiar of Hecate, goddess of magic, sorcery and witchcraft. Hecate’s pet had once been a serving maid named Galanthis, who was turned into a cat as punishment by the goddess Hera for being rude.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 380, the association of cats with paganism and witchcraft made them suspect. Moreover, the cat’s independence suggested a willful rebellion against the teaching of the Bible, which said that Adam had dominion over all the animals. The cat’s reputation worsened during the medieval era, as the Catholic Church battled against heresies and dissent. Fed lurid tales by his inquisitors, in 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull, “Vox in Rama,” which accused heretics of using black cats in their nighttime sex orgies with Lucifer—who was described as half-cat in appearance.

In Europe, countless numbers of cats were killed in the belief that they could be witches in disguise. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII fanned the flames of anti-cat prejudice with his papal bull on witchcraft, “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus,” which stated that the cat was “the devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.”

The Age of Reason ought to have rescued the black cat from its pariah status, but superstitions die hard. (How many modern apartment buildings lack a 13th floor?). Cats had plenty of ardent fans among 19th century writers, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, who wrote “I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one.” But Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the gothic tale, felt otherwise: in his 1843 story “The Black Cat,” the spirit of a dead cat drives its killer to madness and destruction.

So pity the poor black cat, which through no fault of its own has gone from being an instrument of the devil to the convenient tool of the horror writer—and a favorite Halloween cliché.

For the Wall Street Journal’s “Historically Speaking” column

Historically Speaking: When Royal Love Affairs Go Wrong

From Cleopatra to Edward VIII, monarchs have followed their hearts—with disastrous results.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2018

“Ay me!” laments Lysander in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth.” What audience would disagree? Thwarted lovers are indeed the stuff of history and art—especially when the lovers are kings and queens.

But there were good reasons why the monarchs of old were not allowed to follow their hearts. Realpolitik and royal passion do not mix, as Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), the anniversary of whose death falls on Aug. 12, found to her cost. Her theatrical seduction of and subsequent affair with Julius Caesar insulated Egypt from Roman imperial designs. But in 41 B.C., she let her heart rule her head and fell in love with Mark Antony, who was fighting Caesar’s adopted son Octavian for control of Rome.

Cleopatra’s demand that Antony divorce his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—and marry her instead was a catastrophic misstep. It made Egypt the target of Octavian’s fury, and forced Cleopatra into fighting Rome on Antony’s behalf. The couple’s defeat at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. didn’t only end in personal tragedy: the 300-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty was destroyed, and Egypt was reduced to a Roman province.

In Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra,” Antony laments, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It is a reminder that, as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra was the living embodiment of her country; their fates were intertwined. That is why royal marriages have usually been inseparable from international diplomacy.

In 1339, when Prince Pedro of Portugal fell in love with his wife’s Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inés de Castro, the problem wasn’t the affair per se but the opportunity it gave to neighboring Castile to meddle in Portuguese politics. In 1355, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, took the surest way of separating the couple—who by now had four children together—by having Inés murdered. Pedro responded by launching a bloody civil war against his father that left northern Portugal in ruins. The dozens of romantic operas and plays inspired by the tragic love story neglect to mention its political repercussions; for decades afterward, the Portuguese throne was weak and the country divided.

Perhaps no monarchy in history bears more scars from Cupid’s arrow than the British. From Edward II (1284-1327), whose poor choice of male lovers unleashed murder and mayhem on the country—he himself was allegedly killed with a red hot poker—to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who bullied and butchered his way through six wives and destroyed England’s Catholic way of life in the process, British rulers have been remarkable for their willingness to place personal happiness above public responsibility.

Edward VIII (1894 -1972) was a chip off the block, in the worst way. The moral climate of the 1930s couldn’t accept the King of England marrying a twice-divorced American. Declaring he would have Wallis Simpson or no one, Edward plunged the country into crisis by abdicating in 1936. With European monarchies falling on every side, Britain’s suddenly looked extremely vulnerable. The current Queen’s father, King George VI, quite literally saved it from collapse.

According to a popular saying, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That goes double when the lovers wear royal crowns.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of Colors and Their Owners

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Mystery of Genius

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…