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  • Magonia #7: Grimaldus and Chemical Warfare June 15, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    yellow powder

    There follows another extract from Agobard’s essay on thunder and hail. It is not actually linked in any way to Magonia: so why bother? Well, first, it is certainly bizarre and should be recorded on strangehistory. And, second, because many who have written on Magonia have undeservedly conflated the Tempestarii and this strange episode.

    A few years a ridiculous notion went around, after some cattle had died. Folk claimed that Grimaldus, Duke of Benevento, had sent men to sprinkle this powder across the fields and mountains, meadows and streams. Grimaldus did so because he hated the holy Emperor Charles, and cattle were killed by this sprinkled powder. We have heard and we have seen many taken because of this. Some were murdered and some were tied to planks and thrown into the water, drowning. But what is most incredible is that those who were taken gave evidence against themselves. The said that they had had the powder and that they had sprinkled it around. The Devil put his power into them through the secret and correct justice of God. And the Devil was able to enter them in such a way that they became false witnesses to themselves, so killing themselves. And neither advice, nor torture, nor death persuaded them from lying about themselves.

    Ante hos paucos annos disseminata est quedam, stultitia, cum esset mortalitas boum, ut dicerent Grimaldum, ducem Beneventorum, transmisisse homines cum pulueribus, quos spargerent per campos et montes, prata et fontes, eo quod esset inimicus christianissimo imperatori Karolo, et de ipso sparso puluere mori boues. Propter quam causam multos comprehensos audiuimus et uidimus, et aliquos occisos, plerosque autem affixos tabulis in flumen proiectos atque necatos. Et, quod mirum valde est, comprehensi ipsi aduersum se dicebant testimonium, habere se talem puluerem, et spargere. Ita namque diabolus, occulto et iusto Dei judicio, accepta in illos potestate, tantum eis succedere valebat, ut ipsi sibi essent testes fallaces ad mortem. Et neque disciplina, neque tortura, neque ipsa mors deterrebat illos, ut adversum semetipsos falsum dicere non auderent.

    Beach’s first reaction here is to wonder what on earth the powder was? If it didn’t exist where did the idea come from? It sounds like a plot from Homeland or 24: not a Carolingian story device. Is there any chance that this was a real phenomenon: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The next passage shows us again Agobard’s unlikely and very uncharacteristic early medieval skepticism. He makes some good points.

    Everyone believed this and there was almost no one who found it absurd. They did not think with their reason, asking how a powder, which could kill cattle and yet not other animals, could have been created. Nor did they ask how this powder could have been brought across so large regions so that they could have been sprinkled with this powder. Even if every Beneventan man and woman, both the old and the young had passed through the territory with three full wagon loads of powder it could not have been. There is so much oppressing stupidity in the world that Christians now believe things that it would have been impossible to have persuaded the pagans of, who knew nothing of the Creator. We have, therefore, described this last happening into our discourse, because it is similar to the other subject of which we were speaking [Magonia etc] and gives an example of nonsensical seduction and the poverty of common sense.

    Hoc ita ab ominibus credebatur, ut pene pauci essent, quibus absurdissimum videretur. Nec rationabiliter pensabant, unde fiere posset talis puluis, de quo soli boues morerentur, non cetera animalia, aut quomodo tantus portari per tam latissimas regions, quas superspargere pulveribus hominess non possunt, nec si Beneventani viri et femine, senes et iuuenes, cum ternis carris puluere carricatis egressi de regione fuissent. Tanta iam stultitia oppressit miserum mundum, ut nunc sic absurde res credantur a christianis, quales nunquam antea ad credendum poterat quisquam suadere paganis creatorerm omnium ignorantibus. Hanc itaque rem propterea ad medium deduximus, quia huic unde loquimur similis est, et uel exemplum poterat tribuere de inani seductione et uera sensus diminutione.


    21 June 2013: Prof Mayor writes (in response to an email) I haven’t heard of this incident. There are some plants that are toxic to some animals but not others. But I would assume the powder was sprinkled on the cattle’s food or  water source and was thought to specifically kill cows. The Count writes: ‘Your story of very early alleged chemical warfare is interesting. Agobard is correct in saying that the amount of any poison he would have known about that you’d have to distribute to kill all the cattle over a wide area would be ridiculously large – people would have noticed! And of course every creature that ate grass would die, not just cattle. But let’s suppose that Duke Grimaldus (what a great name for a bad guy!) did in fact send his agents to carry out this dastardly but not really very useful plan. Why would they freely admit that they’d done it, and stubbornly continue to do so, even under torture, when they knew that this would result in their deaths, whereas recanting, or saying nothing in the first place, would have gotten them off the hook? And we’re not just talking about one person like Isobel Gowdie, Major Weir, or Theiss the Holy Werewolf who, due to some mental health issue, spontaneously confessed to doing something which they clearly couldn’t have because it was impossible, but which at the time would have gotten them into a lot of trouble (we don’t actually know what became of Isobel Gowdie, but it didn’t end too well for Theiss, and Major Weir was strangled and burnt). Allegedly quite a number of people came forward and said: “Hello, we poisoned your cattle because Duke Grimaldus told us to. Feel free to kill us.” Why would they do that??? This story stinks! Agobard, who of course believed in the Devil, assumed that they’d been diabolically compelled to lie. But if you don’t accept this convenient supernatural explanation, what are the chances that multiple persons would lie en masse in this bizarre and fatal manner? We aren’t told how closely Agobard himself was involved in these events, but I’m guessing he wasn’t actually present during the examination of any of these unfortunates. What probably happened was that the locals, whipped into hysteria by the rumors of non-existent poisoners, decided that certain individuals were probably guilty using the same kind of “logic” as witch-hunters, tortured them into confessing, and killed them. Then, after they’d calmed down and had time to think about what they’d done, the official account was doctored to make the victims into clearly guilty parties who freely confessed, and couldn’t be persuaded to recant. Some legal finangling may have been involved here. “Freely confessing without torture” depends on what you think constitutes torture. Under English law during the Civil War period, evidence obtained through torture was inadmissible, but keeping a person awake for days on end, forcibly running them back and forth until they’re utterly exhausted, leaving them in stress positions for hours at a time, and all the while remorselessly interrogating them, did not constitute torture (the USA has recently made almost exactly the same claim concerning certain of their activities in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay). Thus self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins could claim that the witches he hanged “confessed freely without torture”, and legally he wasn’t lying. Just by every other definition. Somebody subjected to this kind of treatment will almost certainly confess to pretty much anything sooner or later, especially if they know that if they hold out for too long, their interrogators will get impatient and use real torture. Then if that real torture is applied to them after they’ve confessed to check whether or not they meant it (a very common practice in early times),  they’re hardly likely to recant. The problem with torture as a means of obtaining accurate information is that it forces you to tell your torturer what you think they want to hear, whether or not it’s true. If they’ve already bullied you into confessing, and now you’re being tortured to test your sincerity, of course you’ll stick to your original confession, even if it’s a lie. Trying to backtrack at this stage is clearly “being difficult”, and will result in even more torture until you’re back with the program – might as well get it over as soon as possible, since you’re doomed anyway. But if your interrogator writes in his official report: “the accused freely admitted his guilt, and, when tortured to confirm the truth of what he said, continued to maintain that he was guilty”, that’s a legally accurate account of what just happened. Well, it was in those days. As for where the idea of these mystery poison-distributors came from? Actually it was surprisingly common for a very long time. The concepts of poison, disease and magic were often freely interchangeable. Numerous witch-trials speak of mysterious powder obtained from the Devil which could be used to inflict death or illness on various living creatures, including whole herds of livestock. And there was of course the vile medieval superstition that epidemics were caused by Jews putting poison in the wells because they hated all Christians, resulting in numerous massacres. The idea that all the cattle had suddenly died because some arbitrary person or persons was strewing toxic substances about for some curiously thin reason seems to have been firmly rooted in our mindset for a very long time. Indeed, we still have it today –  are you familiar with “chemtrails”?’ Lehmansterms, instead, writes: This reminds me of a (so far as I am aware) still unresolved question about a substance which was observed on several occasions to have falen from the sky over significant areas of Viet Nam and adjacent territories towards the end of the unpleasantness there. It irritated the eyes and skin of some. Some otherwise healthy adults, it appeared to have made sick. Some of the weak young and elderly, it appeared to have killed, although this yellowish substance was never formally linked to these illnesses or deaths. Most assumed it was some sort of military weapon. And US forces certainly rained chemical (and probably biological) poisons galore upon Southeast Asia.  The military, however, disavowed it. They denied having had any hand in it or even knowing what it was (for whatever that denial may be worth – I can’t help but be reminded of an old Chinese proverb: “Believe no rumor until it has been officially denied.”). Someone in the military/diplomatic bloc eventually officially opined that this odd precipitation was a sort of bee excreta and was perfectly common and correct for the season during which it was observed.  No scientific proof or support was ever offered to support this somewhat fanciful sounding explanation and it is relatively difficult to believe that the populations of the subsistence farming communities of rural Viet Nam would not have been fully aware of a normal and natural seasonal occurrence like this phenomenon if it actually was of the sort the official flacs claimed it had been. That, so far as I am aware, was all the further the investigation went. There were far bigger fish to fry on the news front at the time.  It reminds me (whatever you personally may make of another controversial phonomenon) of the official denials that there is any substance whatsoever to observations of UFO’s, even when accompanied by multiple radar records and eyewitness accounts from normally and presumably reliable professional sources all concurring that something of substance had been observed. I know this is all pretty thin stuff to use even as a suggestion of a basis for research, but I wonder if the so-called chemical warfare referred to in your blog entry’s quotations might not have been something like (if not exactly the same as) the “bee poop” phenomenon reported from Southeast Asia. Borky writes: Beach I did an Environmental Science degree in the mid Nineties more to get at the research facilties than anything else [because I hadn’t yet so much as touched a pc never mind accessed the internet] and old reports like these suddenly started making sense to me if you allowed for the possibility the malefactors concerned had a grasp of germ warfare albeit couched in the technical language and understandings of the day. The powder if I’m correct would’ve been something akin to the powdered corpses of scrapies sheep which led to cattle consuming it in pellet form eventually developing mad cow disease and in fact I did track down a lot of data suggestive of this possibility some of which I now discover can be found in this Wikipedia and time piece   and here [apologies if that’s an egg suddenly in y’gob!]. But what these accounts lack’s a grasp of the nocebo component of such warfare hence the point of leaving highly visible powder trails rather than carefully hiding such contaminants from sight. I’ve long suspected the main point of all those reports of unmarked aircraft leaving highly visibile but mysterious trails across the sky’s to induce nocebo neurosis in the general population making the masses worry if every little ache or pain’s the start of something more serious and therefore nervously wear us out while distracting us from the real hankypanky as well as setting us up for a nocebo induced fast tracking to senility cancer or Parkinsons and anything else they happen to hypnotize us into contracting. Thanks Lehmansterms, Count, Borky and Professor Mayor!