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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 61 - Its Raining Nuns, Halleluja Its Raining Nuns (Pandemics week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Sam's Episode notes: Mass Hysterias through time, from windscreen smashing to nuns turning into cats.

Today I've got something that's a bit silly, but is a very real phenomenon even to this day, and in 500+ years we've still not quite worked out how it works. And I've picked this very specifically because a similar topic was covered in an episode of House – which is good because it gives you a chance to do your one and only impression. That, of course, is Hugh Laurie.

So I need you to say something for me in Hugh's voice. Which is going to be tricky as I suspect you can only say bothering bother, Blackadder. But we'll try it anyway. And this is very unfair of me. I need you to say: Mass psychogenic Illness. Or if that's a bit tricky, Collective Obsessional Behaviour.

And what that is, Tom, apart from difficult to say in a brilliant but somewhat limited Hugh Laurie impression, is a condition whereby a lot of people start exhibiting the same symptoms of illness or madness, because someone else does. Sometimes that's behavioural, and sometimes people can get genuinely ill – vomiting, fever, rashes... They aren't actually ill, they are just in a mental place where their brain makes them behave as if they are. It's really odd – and it tends to be triggered by high-stress but very repetitive situations. For example, in April 1954, Seattle was hit by the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic, in which people became convinced that their windshields, windows, and garage doors were being hit by millions of tiny unseen particles. It started in one street in the suburb of Bellingham, and quickly spread to nearby towns, suburbs, and eventually the city centre. In effect, thousands of people came to believe that their communities were being sandblasted. In fact, some people were convinced that they could see tiny particles of glass being blasted through the air.

Initially it was theorised that the damage was just kids with BB guns – in fact that's likely how it started. But pretty quickly people – and investigators – came to believe that it could be the result of nuclear testing fallout, a nearby million-watt radio tower literally melting bits off the glass, cosmic rays, or a plague of sand fleas.

Over 3,000 reports of damage were filed with police over the course of a couple of weeks. But here's the thing, Tom. 95% of cases investigated by police didn't exist. There was no pitting. The remaining 5% were deemed to be kids with BB guns shooting things to whip up hysteria because it was fun. As soon as the results were announced on April 17th, the pitting miraculously stopped.

In 1972, at an unnamed university in the midwest, around a dozen women working in the data centre reported smelling gas – only one employee couldn't smell it. Inspectors were called in, and nothing. The phenomenon is detailed in a book by Sidney M Stahl and Morty Lebedun, with the completely unfunny name: Mystery Gas – An Analysis of mass hysteria.

In Malaysia, it's common for women working in factories to experience mass nausea, dizzyness and even unconciousness – a phenomenon which even until the mid 1980s was treated, quite successfully, by sending in a witch doctor or faith healer to exorcise the factory floor and expel the demons or spirits within. In one case in the early 80s, 300 women at a textile factory became nauseous and covered in rashes. Initially they thought it was a chemical in the textile dye, but nope, it was completely physchological.

So what causes them? Well, there's one thing in common. And that's a common stress in a tightly knit community – often not at all related to the hysteria. In Seattle, for example, the hysteria was blamed on stress caused by the ramping up of the Cold War, nuclear testing and impending wars in the far east – particularly on those who had fought in the second world war and were now living in relative comfort in professional suburbia, watching as the world around them seemed likely to crumble once again.

In the university case, the employees were almost all women, working minimum wage jobs whilst trying to support their partners, who by and large were studying for postgraduate qualifications or PHDs. In Malaysia, the women were working long hours for a pittance whilst trying to support their families. They were pretty fragile, and as soon as one snapped, they all fell down.

So that's the background, Tom. And it's very interesting and not very funny. So why don't we silly it up a bit, Sam style.

We're heading for the late 1400s to Europe. For a spate of nuns becoming convinced - en masse - that they were cats and dogs.

Now, the thing about nunneries is that they weren't much funnery. Places of regimented life and solitude, where young women were sent – often against their will – for several years of boredom, homesickness and a complete inability to explore the world, even by the pretty poxy standards of 15th century fun. No boys – although plenty of other women – no parties, literally nothing to look forward to. Which is why these days, now that no one's forced to go to them, almost no one is. Apart from Whoopie Goldberg, obviously.

And in 1491, in the Spanish Netherlands, something very odd happened. A group of nuns, apparently possessed by whitches familiars, began to behave like cats and dogs. They began to howl, climb trees and either throw themselves off whilst flapping imaginary wings, or to pounce on other nuns like a cat. They started pawing and rolling around in the dirt, and presumably, began to lick their own or each other's arses and bring the bishop soggy tennis balls or half eaten mice.

Unsurprisingly, exorcists were bought in, who were apparently sexually propositioned en masse by the nuns. A surprisingly long exorcism, that one. Took a few days longer and was much more exhausting than initially expected. I hope they charged the Abbot double for all their troubles.

At around the same time, at a nunnery in France, unfortunately we don't know exactly which one, for some reason it's not mentioned in any sources apart from being 'a large French nunnery', one senior nun began, at the same time every day, to meow. Initially it was just for a brief period when she wanted some kibble, but pretty quickly it became a regular occurance for several hours a day... And the sisters began joining in. Pretty quickly the entire convent was meowing for several hours, like clockwork – every day. This freaked the fuck out of the townspeople living nearby as the screeching echoed over the rooftops, to the extent that the army had to be bought in armed with sticks and barricade the front entrance to the nunnery. Amazingly, and not entirely surprisingly, as soon as the army threatened to beat up the nuns unless they stopped that racket, they were almost immediately cured.

But there were plenty of cases where intervention wasn't so successful. Again, at around the same time across the border in modern Germany, there was a sudden outbreak of nuns barking and biting one another. It began somewhere in either Saxony or Brandenburg with nuns latching on to one another for prolonged periods of time, only releasing their jaws once they got too tired, and starting again once they'd rested. Pretty quickly news spread about the biting nuns, but rather than keep people away, the disease spread with the news, spreading through the local nun community, and pretty quickly into France, the Netherlands, and even all the way to Rome itself.

It must be a bit like that scene in Father Ted when dougal is so hungry Ted starts to look like a magic speaking burger. And I can imagine in all that white and gold the pope looks a bit like a Magnum or a Mr Whippy.

Eventually after several weeks the biting pandemic died down and everything returned to normal, but there we go Tom, the meowing and biting nuns of the 1490s.

Tom's notes:


Audience interactions;

o Mango Man has kindly explained why Sam was correct to label a pumpkin a fruit

o Erik; thanks for the messages. If we ever are in Seattle, we’ll definitely meet up for a beer!

o Who said about when in doubt, do an Indian accent?

o Sam, you are such a disappointment to your family. Your mother is so ashamed. Your brother, he is a doctor. Your sister, she is a dentist. You? You do this silly podcast. Why don’t you get a proper job? This podcast rubbish is no better than a pindi-pundi wahla. Is that what you are want to be? Offering men a route into Bombay on street corners? Hmm? Buttering the chicken the wrong way for baksheesh?

This week I wanted to draw the attention of listener to how shit and miserable some periods of history were.

· Actually, how shit most periods of history were.

· In fact, how shit all periods of history are in comparison to life in developed nations post WWII.

· Through the power of contrast, I hope to make everyone feel much better about their predicament.

On that subject, the predicted deaths from coronavirus are very large, but compared to pandemics from the past, it’s predicted to kill only a small percentage of the population.

· Obviously this will be of no consolidation to anyone who has lost a loved one due to coronavirus, and many people still will, it is not by objective to offend anyone or make light of anyone’s misfortune. What I am simply trying to do is put it in historical context.

So, I mentioned that coronavirus is only predicted to kill a small percentage of the population.

· A very worst case scenario is that it will kill 1% of the population. For the UK, with a population of 66 million people, that is 660,000 people. Which is a massive number!

· But this really is a very, very worst case scenario and very unlikely.

· For non Brits, the UK government is hoping to keep the number of deaths to 20,000.

o As an interesting comparison, the UK lost 450,000 lives in WWII, 67,000 of which were civilians with a population of 47 million compared to 66 million.

o So, at the current rate, there’s a good chance that we’ll have quite a similar number of deaths from coronavirus as civilians casualties in WWII.

However, let’s now look at some other pandemics from history.

· Let’s start with a well-known one; the Spanish Flu killed around 20-50 million people between 1918 and 1920.

o There’s a nice silver lining for those who managed to survive WWI.

o That’s in the region of 1 to 3 percent of the world population.

§ It was also knocking off kids and young adults, as opposed to coronavirus which is targeting people who are elderly and with existing medical conditions.

· The Black Death that took place between 1346 and 1353 killed, according to some academics, around half the population of Europe in 4 years.

o Obviously some areas were hit harder than others, with the Italian city states being particularly unlucky due to the importance of trade to these cities.

o Areas that were particularly badly hit lost as much as 80% of the population.

o People make the mistake of thinking that the Black Death was a one off event.

§ The first recorded plague, from the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is actually called the Plague of Justinian (I deliberately didn’t mention this last week). And yes, this killed millions of people and had a massive impact on the course of human history.

o During the Middle Ages there were outbreaks of the plague almost every decade in Europe! It became just part of life.

o The last major outbreak took place in Marseille in 1720.

o In the mid 19th century around 10 million Chinese lives were lost to the plague and there were outbreaks in San Francisco and Sydney at the start of the 20th century.

· As is also well known, and we’ve joked about this heartily on many occasion during this podcast, European Old World diseases absolutely smashed the Americas, the New World.

o Some experts have even gone as far as to say that 95% of Native American deaths were the result of Old World diseases such as the flu, cold, smallpox and measles.

o Away from the Americas, around 50% of Aboriginal Australians were killed by smallpox when the continent was colonised by Europeans.

So there you have some gruesome context for coronavirus. Don’t moan about not being able to get to the gym, because it could be a shitload worse (for a start, you could be one of the unfortunate minority who have had a loved one killed).

Right, now on to the main topic of today! The 30 Years War!

o This is a cracker Sam because the period between 1618 and 1648 in Continental Europe was really not a very nice time and place to live.

o It’s one of the most miserable periods in history. Truly terrible. Not much going for it at all. Really rather crap.

So I’ve already talked for a long time already so I’m going to have summarise quite a lot here!

The 30 Years War started, as all super devastating wars should, as an argument about the right way to worship an imaginary deity and live your life to please him. Yes, it was a war that started with Protestants and Catholics arguing.

o In 1619 Ferdinand II became Holy Roman Emperor and decided that everyone should be a good Catholic like him, because he was great, and always right.

o Since 1555, and the Peace of Augsburg, the semi-autonomous regions of the Holy Roman Empire could choose to be Protestant (Lutheran) or Catholic.

o The Holy Roman Empire at this time was an odd entity, it was like a super state made up of lots of other little states. Anyway, lines were soon drawn between the Catholic regions and the Protestant regions. Fight!!!

o Like in the playground, a fight broke out between 2 kids and all the other kids started getting excited.

o Someone shouted ‘BUNDLE’ and before you know it, there’s a huge pile of boys having a good scrap.

o As it turns out, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, was the boy who shouted ‘Bundle’.

o Sweden wanted to protect Protestants in the northern areas of the Holy Roman Empire and Adolphus also wanted a scrap too.

§ As it turns out, he was a good fighter and a pioneering military commander.

o The Spanish then saw an opportunity to tighten control of the Netherlands

o Yes, I know, confusing isn’t it? Why would the Spanish be interested in a country so far away from them? Well it’s to do with the bloody Habsburgs, a medieval dynasty that built a huge and confusing empire through marriage).

o As it turns out, the Holy Roman Empire and Austria were also Habsburg and France thought ‘fuck this’ were not being encircled by these bloody Habsburgs, and so they decided to get stuck in too on the side of the Protestants.

o Anyway, what ensued was a colossal bundle, which at times included England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

Anyway, why was this period of history so shitty?

o This war is ranked as one of the most destructive in history.

o The area now called Germany was particularly badly hit.

o Not only were there battles and general military nastiness, but plagues, disease, famines, bankruptcy, marauding mercenaries and devastated towns.

o The pandemics that occurred during this war were exacerbated by the sheer amount of movement; troops and refugees were moving everywhere!

§ Refugees and soldiers were also living in close quarters with questionable sanitation (as you could easily imagine)

§ There were outbreaks of plague, typhus, dysentery and scurvy (arghhh! The pesky scurvy!)

o Some areas of Germany lost between half to two-thirds of their population. To make things worse, there was also a major outbreak of witch-hunting. Nice one guys, let’s all stick together and get through this – BUT WAIT, WITCH!!!!!

But to finish, I’d like to talk about a particularly odd and silly event that led to the 30 Years War called the Third Defenestration of Prague.

o Now this caught my eye during my research because I remember coming across defenestration at University when studying one of the crusades and it made me laugh back then.

o Do you know what Defenestration means Sam? It’s very nice! It means to kill someone by throwing them out of a window.

o Sounds very grand doesn’t it? The Third Defenestration of Prague. Not so grand if you called it ‘the third time we through some blokes out of the window’.

As mentioned, the 30 Years War broke out because Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire were having their freedoms removed, particularly by Ferdinand II.

o On May 23rd 1618 Four senior Catholic noblemen, representing Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, met senior Protestant noblemen, backed by a mob, who were upset because the construction of Protestant chapels had been stopped by Ferdinand and the land given to Catholics.

o These Protestant noblemen had earlier started a protest rally outside Prague Castle and it was creating quite a scene. After all, they were Protestants! Chortle.

o The Catholic noblemen were interrogated by the Protestant noblemen to see who was complicit in Ferdinand’s plans to stop the construction of the Protestant chapels.

o The Protestant noblemen decided to let a couple of the Catholic noblemen go (because they were nice blokes) and kept 3 of the hard line Catholics in the room: William Slavata and Jaroslav Martinic, with their secretary Philip Fabricius.

o And what do you do with 3 people responsible for eroding your right to practice your religion freely?

o You throw them out of the third floor window of Prague Castle.

They survived.

o The Catholics claiming it was due to angels softening their landing

o Protestants claimed that it was because they landed on a pile of dung!

o Philip Fabricius was later given the title of Baron of Highfall by the Emperor! Haha! Get it!

o On the subject of silly names, I also came across, in my research, a wonderful couple of Habsburg nobles; Phillipe the Handsome and Joanna the Mad.


Here’s one read by David Ginola. The smell of aspiration, the odour of belief. Remove self-doubt with a sniff of the snout. Everest by Maurice Wilson, a perfume for men. Whizz-pop and up we go. (Episode 52).

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