Drug Kingdom: Medieval British psychedelic use.
By Sam Cottle.
Drug use in Britain during the Middle-Ages may not have been as diverse as it is today, but it was still common practise to consume certain plants in order to induce visions and get high. One of the major ways this was achieved was through the use of psilocybin-producing mushrooms and amanita muscaria mushrooms; but in addition to this mix there was also henbane, a stinking nightshade added to beer in order to produce hallucinatory experiences. It seems that the people of Britain during the medieval period would do literally anything they thought would have given them a high of some description, perhaps things haven’t changed much, but what’s really deplorable in modern society is the banning of mushrooms, fungi which have a long and happy history of getting British people high when they appear in woodlands every year during the autumn. The fact that we should have a war on drugs in Britain of all places is somewhat ridiculous — as both a pagan and a Christian nation we’ve had a long history of getting high, we’re also a particularly drunken nation, and it was only in the 1920’s when laws were first introduced to control drug use.
The fact that we now know about the use of henbane means that we now also know that drug use was widespread among ordinary people in the middle ages. Far from being something that was merely tolerated it may have been something that was actively encouraged, it would have taken place at parties and festivities, as well as (more than likely) by groups of people alone, experimenting with what they could find in nature, to see what it would do to them, to see visions. I think curiosity is an unassuageable part of our nature and when it comes to our evolutionary psyche is absolutely essential; there would have always been a need of some person to test whether or not a given plant causes sickness, for example, or if there is a source of water in the next valley over. The desire to pursue psychedelic experiences comes from exactly the same place as this, and it stands to reason that in our history we weren’t all just blind, ignorant serfs, but that those serfs would have been getting high from the psychedelic compounds in their local area after their day’s toil had finished.
As for the authorities, it’s unclear as to what their attitude towards this may have been; there are no records indicating that there was any sort of ban on taking these substances, and the fact of henbanes existence (and this would have been recorded by monks) and its use mixed with beer points to a scene in which getting high seems somewhat commonplace and natural. There’s no reason that can be derived from the Bible not to get high, it’s not seen to be in any way sinful, and if anything the monks, nuns and priests who formed the bedrock of the ecclesiastical power were probably taking mushrooms themselves as well. When it comes to the attitudes of those people to something as innocuous as magic mushrooms they probably didn’t see the need to ban them; in fact no government in Britain had sought to ban them until Tony Blair’s government in 2005. Apart from being the most recently-banned psychedelic on these shores there are also a variety of health benefits to potentially be had from using them, and the Blair government’s decision was retrograde and pointless (it’s still very easy to find mushrooms in woodlands in the UK); mushrooms may offer the cure to depression and a host of other psychological ailments.
The attitudes of current western governments towards drug use seems to be that they are all considered illegal until such time as a scientific consensus has been reached regarding the safety and efficacy of their use in treating certain conditions. I for one find that it’s a matter of personal choice what we put into our bodies and what we don’t — however it’s also worth noting that so far as the potential risks involved in taking mushrooms go it may be that there would be far fewer if they were legal and if there were an infrastructure in place to manage the risks of taking them. It so happens that the risks of taking mushrooms (and probably henbane) are fairly minimal (especially when compared to alcohol and tobacco), but it would be a gesture of good will and may help some people who have bad experiences to have something like a shamanic establishment to provide information on the safe and effective use of mushrooms and other psychedelics. It can’t be restated enough that the solution to the problems caused by drug taking is never going to be found in criminalising the user — if psychological problems may arise from the use of mushrooms it should be understood that there is a health service in place to deal with psychological problems — and if psychiatrists had a better understanding of mushrooms and their effects they may even be able to use them in a therapeutic capacity, instead of simply banning their use.
It seems that in the Middle Ages in Britain there were many opportunities for getting high, and these opportunities were most likely explored by people up and down the country. It wouldn’t be until the discovery of the Americas that the trade in tobacco, coca, cannabis and opium would kick in, and this would leave us with a plethora of more problematic substances than the wild mushrooms and weeds which we had been using for thousands of years to induce hallucinations. In spite of this, the government didn’t see fit to ban any of these new substances until the 1920’s, so it can hardly be said that any of them were causing a whole lot of trouble even back then — heroin and cocaine were once available to buy from a pharmacists. Since the turn of the twentieth century there has been an ever-increasing rise in the puritanical ideal that abstinence from all drugs is the best approach to keeping one’s mind and body in sound condition, and this isn’t a position backed up by science, but is in fact the position of a group of Christian fundamentalists called the Temperists going back to the middle of the nineteenth century. It could be the rise of Americanisation that explains our current diffidence towards drug taking, or it could be seen as more a sign of the Calvinist Protestant mentality more generally as applied to Britain, either way for some reason at that time we entered a more regressive and unenlightened period in the history of our policy making which saw these substances banned. Mushrooms probably only held on for as long as they did because they grow here in the wild, now we’re not even allowed to eat fungi that grow naturally in our own country; it’s even legal to eat fungi that will kill you (death caps, for example, are not banned); it’s something of a disgrace in terms of policy making, and along with raising the status of cannabis to a class B drug has had a major negative impact on drug use in the UK, but more on this in another article.