“Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action and over 600 is clearly the work of an ancient Sumerian demon or some shit” – Cezary Jan Strusiewicz
A single curious notation in Albert Krantz’s Historia Saxonica (“Saxon History,” published 1520 A.D.) cited in the 1613 De historia medica mirabili (“Medical Wonders”) of Marcellus Donatus notes “a strange disease reported in a place called either Niverva, Nivers, or Nineruam during the time of Godfrey of Bologne’s ‘Christian War’. It was said that people there were burning of invisible fire in their entrails, and that some people cut off a foot or a hand where the burning began to prevent it from spreading further”.
Dating and locating this outbreak is an exercise in trawling historical records for clues. We are assured that it occurred during the Christian War (by which they mean the First Crusade) involving the prominent Frankish knight Godfrey of Bologne (or Bouillon), placing the approximate time of the event between 1060-1100 A.D. At first, it seemed to me that Godfrey, who would be ostensible ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, was simply a conveniently well known point to date from, and if the First Crusade was truly underway at the time, we can narrow it down to 1096-1099. That’s a fairly targeted time period to investigate. The secondary problem is to determine where it occurred.
The epicenter of the epidemic is said to have been in either Niverva, Nivers, or Nineruam, which is a gloriously vague set of details, since none of these locations appears to have been prominent enough to merit much mention in the historical record. There is of course, the strong possibility of transcription errors, spelling variations, and all the various and sundry ways in which language changes over the years. Albert Krantz, the author from whom reference to the fiery epidemic originates was a 15th Century German Historian from Hamburg, Germany, who travelled extensively in Europe, and whose writings are considered a hallmark of impartiality given the times he lived in. Now Godfrey’s home duchy of Bouillon was pretty much southern Belgium. Bouillon is roughly the same distance from Hamburg, Germany, as it is from Nevers, France. Add to that, that Nevers has historically been referred to as Nevirnum and Nebirnum (dating from Roman occupation), and it would seem highly likely that Krantz’s original reference is describing an epidemic of spontaneous combustion in 11th Century Nevers, France.
The idea that the folks in 11th Century Nevers inexplicably found themselves beginning to set alight, and in order to prevent full-body combustion found it prudent to hack off whatever appendage the conflagration seemed to be starting in is odd enough to mention by itself, but having suggested the approximate location where it occurred, there appear to be other strange instances of spontaneous human combustion associated with Nevers at a much later date. An account of an 1820 incident in Nevers was reported by Dr. Charpentier, physician to the royal forces of the marine, at nearvy Guerigny.
On the 15th of January, 1820, at ten o’clock in the evening, several neighbours of Mrs. P—, of Nevers, perceived a peculiar odour, which they thought similar to that of broiled animal matter and burning wool, only more disagreeable and nauseous. They saw neither smoke nor vapour issue from any of the adjacent houses; and at last, agreeing amongst themselves that this odour was produced by the burning of the remains of an old Carmelite nun, who had died in the neighbourhood that day, they retired to bed without making any further inquiries. On the 13th, in the morning, a woman, living near the place, who had a second key to the door of the house, because she was in the habit of going there daily to assist the servant in attending on her mistress, opened the door to go and perform her ordinary duties. On entering the room, a dense vapour issued out, accompanied with an insupportable stench that almost suffocated her. She retreated from the house, crying out in the most violent manner for help. The neighbours came about her; and, after waiting a few moments to let the vapour escape, they proceeded to examine the state of the room. They found neither Mrs. P— nor her servant. At first they saw no appearance of dead bodies, but they immediately recognized that Mrs. F.’s bed was entirely burned. Its different parts, however, preserved their form; but, on the slightest touch, it all sunk away, and the bedstead, pallaisse, mattress, feather-bed, sheets, blankets, and curtains, were reduced to a cinder. Before they stirred these cinders they examined the fire-place, in which they found no wood, nor any charcoal, in combustion: the fire had not been covered, and it had probably gone out for want of wood. A candlestick stood in the fireplace, and another, on the ground, in the middle of the room; there was no candle in either of them. On proceeding to examine the ashes, or remains of the combustion, there was found, in front of the spot which had been occupied by the bed, the extremity of a leg covered by a stocking, with a shoe on the foot, and which was recognized to be part of the right leg of the servant. It was the only portion of the body of this woman that had not been reduced to ashes. The cranium of the mistress, devoid of the scalp, which had been burned, was found in a situation corresponding with that in which the head would be as the woman lay in bed. This was the only portion of her body that had not been utterly destroyed by combustion, excepting a small fragment of the neck, or rather the skin of the neck that had been enveloped in a red kerchief, which had probably served as a cravat, and of which there were yet some remains immediately attached to the preserved portion of the neck. The Servant’s bed, which was very near to that of the mistress, was untouched, as well as the table, chairs, and other furniture of the room, excepting a wooden clock, hung up against the wall beside the bed, that, having preserved its form, fell into ashes on the first movement. . .Although the room had no ceiling, the beams and rafters, which were very near to the top of the bed, were not burned, but they were black and felt very hot. All the things about the room, especially such as were close to the bed, were extremely humid; which was owing, without doubt, to condensation of the dense vapours with which the room was filled on being first entered. As there were no other persons in the house than these two women, and the accident not having been discovered until the ensuing morning, no one can possibly know the cause of it (London Medical and Physical Journal, 1821, p339-340).
Now, what should strike us as particularly odd about this case is that it is one of the few instances of dual spontaneous human combustion, and just happened to occur in the same place where in the 11th Century, strange reports of a plague of widespread spontaneous human combustion were afoot. I think it behooves some savvy epidemiologists to see if they can identify historical clusters of spontaneous combustion in the interest of public safety. I don’t want to burst into flames simply because they left out the fact that folks have been combusting for 700 years out of the tourist brochures. Some fates are more easily avoidable than others.
“An Extract, by Mr. Paul Rolli, F. R. S. of an ltalian Treatise, written by the Reverend, a Prebend in the City of Verona; upon the Death of the Countess Cornelia Zangari Bandi, of Cesena. To which are subjoined Accounts of the Death of Jo. Hitchell, who was burned to Death by Lightening and of Grace Pett at lpswich, whose Body was consumed to a Coal” Royal Society (Great Britain). Philosophical Transactions v43, Giving Some Account of the Present Undertakings, Studies, And Labours of the Ingenious, In Many Considerable Parts of the World. London: C. Davis, Printer to the Royal Society of London, 1744.
Donatus, Marcellus (Marcello Donati). De Historia Medica Mirabili Libre sex. J.J. Porsius, Frankfurt, Germany, 1613.
“Medical and Physical Intelligence”. The London Medical and Physical Journal v45. London: R. Phillips, 1821.
It may be a random detail, but nonetheless: I’m reminded of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, in which he wrote that one of the ways someone can overcome the curse of lycanthropy is to sever a limb; and, I think this might also occur elsewhere in lycanthropic lore. Given that lycanthropy might be one form of what has been called the furor heroicus, the “battle fury” that is often accompanied by extreme heat, I wonder if these things might not possibly be related, at least in the medieval minds that originally produced these accounts…?!?