In 1929 Alexander Fleming, a soft spoken and unassuming bacteriologist from Lochfield, Scotland made the following observations concerning his laboratory work of the previous year. Sensing the importance of the moment, his friend, Edwin Burns, recorded the following comments of Fleming's on wire:
"While working with staphylococcus variants, a number of culture plates were set aside on the laboratory bench and examined from time to time. In the examinations these plates were necessarily exposed to the air and they became contaminated with various micro-organisms. It was noticed that around a large colony of a contaminating mold the staphylococcus colonies became transparent and were obviously undergoing lysis. Subcultures of this mold were made and experiments conducted with a view to ascertaining something of the properties of the bacteriolytic substance which had evidently been formed in the mold culture and which had diffused into the surrounding medium. It was found that broth in which the mold had been grown like the mold broth remedies commonly applied to infections by the country people had acquired marked inhibitory, bactericidal and bacteriolytic properties to many of the more common pathogenic bacteria."
In the "discovery" and development of his extraordinary fungal cure, Fleming was drawing on countless years of collective experience which had been handed down as a part of oral tradition, collective knowledge commonly known as vulgar remedies. Broths made from molds grown on stale bread and rotting fruit had been applied to wounds and other infections with beneficial results for centuries by many people from various cultures. Fleming's "discovery", he readily acknowledged drew heavily on this history of vulgar remedies.
In less than ten years the world was to be, for the second time in three decades, plunged into the abyss of massive war. This war was to be possibly the most destructive the world had ever seen, However, in one aspect, this war was to be different from all those that had preceded it. In all previous wars, more lives were lost to infections which set in following trauma than to trauma itself. By the end of the second war, those wounded on the battle fields of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific had the extraordinary advantage of being treated with the refined filtrates of Alexander Fleming's newly developed fungal cure. Between 1943 and 1945 it has been estimated that as many as 11,000 lives were saved by Fleming's fungal broth.
The molds in question were, of course, Penicillium notatum and Penicillium chrysogen and the filtrates Fleming developed, clearly, the antibiotic compound we know today as penicillin with its enchanted beta-lactam molecular ring .
Fleming's fungal cure was not his first application of vulgar remedy in his search to find agents capable of lysing or destroying bacteria. Fleming was familiar with the vulgar remedy of spitting on a wound or cut or similarly applying tears to an area of infection. And In 1921 following these vulgar leads, Fleming identified and isolated lysozyme, an enzyme found in tears and saliva that exhibits antibiotic activity.
Alexander Fleming was, of course, not alone in the application of common or vulgar knowledge for the treatment of infection and disease. Digitalas, the omnipresent cardiological stimulant used as a medication for a wide variety heart disorders, is derived from a plant of the figwort family known as purple foxglove or Digitalis purpurea which had been used for centuries as a vulgar remedy for dropsy by many peoples in many cultures before it was "discovered" by William Withering, an 18th century physician in Straffordshire, England on a tip from a "wise woman" from Shropshire.
In the healing traditions of the peoples of the northern latitudes it was common to find among the implements of the practitioners a small vial of a white, naturally-occurring salt used traditionally in the treatment of mania. This salt has since been identified as a simple salt from the alkali metal group known as Lithium Carbonate. In the 1970's, this salt, which had been known possibly for thousands of years, was heralded as an remarkable and innovative form of treatment for manic depressive illness.
The list of pharmaceutical advances derived from folk remedies is extensive. Aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, (our ever present cure for the pains of day-to-day life) was in common use two thousand years ago in the form of a juice made from the bark of willow. Belladonna, Madagascar Periwinkle and Ipecac, to name just a few, are all vulgar remedies that have been recognized and developed by modern pharmacology.
The list goes on and on, and it is commonly thought that many other potential pharmaceutical advances are waiting to be discovered in the extraordinary diversity of botanical and chemical compounds known to the practitioners of folk remedies by the various people and various ecologies of the earth.
Yet, ironically as the appreciation of vulgar remedies by the contemporary pharmaceutical establishment has increased, the practitioners of these remedies and the eco-systems from which they sprang have proportionally disappeared, and with them the knowledge of thousands of years of collective experience. It has been estimated that many hundreds of potentially invaluable cures have been lost over the past two centuries as contemporary scientifically-based pharmacology has gained ascendancy.
In the early years of the development of modern medical and pharmaceutical practice, vulgar remedies were viewed with disdain. In the 18th and 19th centuries, in medical academies of Vienna, Liepzig, Budapest and Paris, surgical exhumation and repair of diseased or traumatically damaged tissue was the order of the day. The extraordinary body of knowledge of anatomy and physiology assembled by the physicians and surgeons of the academies, during these centuries, promised a future of increasingly sophisticated and advanced medical and surgical practice. Folk remedies were viewed as "baneful influences", irrational relics from the past to be "purged".
In the early years of the 20th century, however, there began a movement which flourished under the banner of The Restitution of Decayed Intelligence. Among individuals from various disciplines, it began to be clear that the powerful forces of rationality in their admirable but relentless quest for a reasonable and enlightened future were leaving a swath of decimation in the vast, yet often fragile body of what was by then known as "vulgar knowledge".
Although wide spread, the movement as a whole drew essential inspiration from the writings of Samuel Osprey, who though born in Scotland, settled in Florida in the decade of the teens where he founded the Society for the Restitution of Decayed Intelligence.
The work of the society continued through the 20th century and has had far reaching effects in many ways in many areas of endeavor. We have already noted the extraordinary advances in the field of medicine, which resulted from the restitution of decayed intelligence, but many other fields of endeavor have also been strongly affected. In literature, for example, the early years of this century saw such giants as William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, who's writings were profoundly affected by common knowledge. In the musical world, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland to name just two, drew important inspiration from the music of the common man.
In a similar way, this renaissance of interest in the application of the vast body of vulgar or common knowledge has profoundly effected the fields of ontology and epistemology - the various studies of our methods of comprehending our world - through a renewed interest in and investigation of the beliefs and practices often unceremoniously dismissed as "superstition."
Just as the investigations of various discarded vulgar remedies have led to many important pharmacological discoveries, the investigation of cast off "superstitions" or vulgar knowledge often leads to important advances in the ways in which we understand the mechanisms of the world around us - ontological understandings.
This field of endeavor, however, has been less well developed and is, in fact, only now beginning to be appreciated for the vast, if sometimes overwhelming vista it presents.
Like the period of the flowering of folk remedies into modern pharmaceuticals, there has been building for some time now an interest in what has come to be called "superstition" not just from a folkloric perspective, but from a perspective of recognition of the simple efficacy of the beliefs and practices in question and a corresponding wave of interest in the mechanisms by which these often seemingly nonsensical practices work.
"The efficacy of the practice of certain "superstitious" beliefs is not the question... Our efforts now should be in the direction of by what mechanisms, with which subjects and under what conditions are the practices of these beliefs potent and, contrariwise, by what mechanisms, with which subjects and under what conditions are the practices of these beliefs impotent"
The vista of this field is vast and can be overwhelming. It was, in fact, only toward the end of the last century that this enormous body of vulgar knowledge or traditional belief even came to be gathered (and, unfortunately, dismissed) under the rubric "superstition". Prior to that time vulgar knowledge was contiguous with all other knowledge and not ghettoized, so to speak, under the spurious classification of "superstition".
In order to not to be set hopelessly adrift in this seemingly endless sea of complex and interrelating beliefs, this exhibition has limited its discussion into five areas of inquiry and each exhibit bears a mark which should help the visitor in the identification of the source of the particular belief. The five areas of inquiry are:
Many of the beliefs illuminated in this exhibition are and have been practiced in surprisingly similar forms by peoples separated by hundreds or thousands of miles and often hundreds or thousands of years. One such belief is the belief from which this exhibition draws its name - The Telling of the Bees.
Beliefs associated with bees go back to Hellenistic Greece and before where they were understood to be related to and a manifestation of the muse from which comes the bees alter identity of the muse's bird. And, the practice of telling of the bees of important events in the lives of the family has been for hundreds of years a widely observed practice and, although it varies somewhat among peoples, it is invariably a most elaborate ceremonial. The procedure is that as soon as a member of the family has breathed his or her last a younger member of the household, often a child, is told to visit the hives. and rattling a chain of small keys taps on the hive and whispers three times:
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
A piece of funeral crepe is then tied to the hive and after a period of time funeral sweets are brought to the hives for the bees to feed upon. The bees are then invariably invited to the funeral and have on a number of recorded occasions seen fit to attend.
There are a great many other practices that are observed concerning bees. Among those that know them well, bees are understood to be quiet and sober beings that disapprove of lying, cheating and menstruous women. Bees do not thrive in a quarrelsome family, dislike bad language and should never be bought or sold for money. Bees should be given without compensation but if such compensation is essential, barter or trade is greatly preferable so that no money changes hands.
The practices and observations, illuminated in this exhibition do not even begin to scratch the surface of the wondrous body of information known as "vulgar knowledge". This extraordinary field of information is the product of the observation, intuition and understanding of the minds of our species, millions of individuals, over many thousands of years. Much of this knowledge has fallen into disrepute in the recent past, a mere few hundred years, a blink of the eye in our collective history.
We would suggest that there is at work in this body of vulgar knowledge a form of collective intelligence about this existence in which we find ourselves, a kind of road map of life compiled by those who have gone before.
Like the bees from which this exhibition has drawn its name, we are individuals, yet we are, most surely, like the bees, a group, and as a group we have, over the millennia, built ourselves a hive, our home. We would be foolish, to say the least, to turn our backs on this carefully and beautifully constructed home especially now, in these uncertain and unsettling times.