13 November 2011

A False Accusation of Poisoning: NaNoWriMo Days 11 and 12

From Pierre Boaistuau's Histoires Prodigieuses (1569)
Right now my source material is an incident in the life of Henry Suso, a 14th-century mystic who was also a follower of Meister Ekhart.

During the time of plague, a popular pastime was accusing various marginalized people and groups of poisoning wells. So severe were the symptoms of plague that many people could not accept that it was a disease, and so they chose to scapegoat members of their own communities. Jews were the most common targets, as the woodcut above depicting a Jew dropping a bag of poison into a well indicates. (The smaller figure with the spiral lower half is the devil, who is peeing into the well for good measure.) As a travelling mystic, Suso also fell under suspicion. When he arrived in one town, people there cornered his slow-witted travelling companion at the inn and made their accusations. The companion panicked, and, as people do under pressure, made up a story about Suso poisoning the local well:

My companion is a wise and experienced man. His Order has entrusted to him a bag of poison to sink n the wells, here and there in the country as far as Alsace, whither he is now bound. Everywhere he goes he goes he will defile everything with the deadly poison. See to it that you get him soon, or he will commit crimes that no one can ever undo. He has just taken out a little bag, and he has thrown it into the village well, so that all those who come to the fair, and drink out of the will, will be poisoned. That is why I stayed here, and would not go out, because I do not like it. And as a proof that I am telling the truth, you should know that he has a large sack, which is full of these bags of poison and with the gold pieces, that he and his Order have got from the Jews to pay him for committing these crimes.
(from Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death)

Such details, the little bags of poison, the Jewish conspiracy, were a common part of scapegoating efforts on the continent during the first waves of the Black Death. In telling that story, Suso's travelling companion would only have confirmed the delusions of the crowd. A mob scene ensued after this. Suso barely escaped with his life. 

Word count: Friday was a good writing day: I got to 37188 words, a little ahead of par. Saturday was not so good for writing, although it was good for other stuff. Word count: 37733. We'll see how far I get tonight after supper.

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