Nottamun Town (Nottingham Fair)
DESCRIPTION: The narrator goes to Nottamun Town, meets odd and mad people, and sees impossible and paradoxical sights: "In Nottamun town, not a soul would look up, not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down to show me the way to fair Nottamun town."
EARLIEST DATE: before 1865 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 18(687)
KEYWORDS: madness nonsense paradox
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South)) US(Ap,So) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (12 citations):
Reeves-Circle 69, "I'm Going Up to London" (1 text)
Wyman-Brockway II, p. 6, "Fair Nottiman Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph 446, "Nottingham Fair" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph-Legman I, pp. 302-305, "Nottingham Fair" (3 texts, 1 tune)
SharpAp 191, "Nottamun Town" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Sharp/Karpeles-80E 69, "Nottamun Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 105-106, "[Nottamun Town]" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ritchie-Southern, p. 5, "Nottamun Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
Abrahams/Foss, pp. 8-9, "Nottamun Town" (1 text, 1 tune, called "Nottamun town" in the header though "Nottalin Town" in the notes and Index)
Owens-2ed, pp. 105-106, "Noddingham Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
WolfAmericanSongSheets, #1711, p. 115, "The Old Gray Mare" (2 references)
Bodleian, Harding B 18(687), "The Old Gray Mare" ("As I was a going to Nottingham fair"), H. De Marsan (New York), 1861-1864; also Harding B 18(214), "The Gray Mare"
LOCSinging, sb30373a, "The Old Gray Mare" ("As I was a going to Nottingham fair"), H. De Marsan (New York), 1861-1864; also sb20153a, "The Gray Mare"
cf. "Black Phyllis" (lyrics)
cf. "Paddy Backwards" (theme, lyrics)
NOTES [1253 words]: There were several episodes of mass insanity in Europe, probably caused by ingestion of ergot, a mold found on rye with hallucinogenic properties. - PJS
I have also heard this song explained as the effects of the delirium caused by the plague. (Indeed, MacInnis, pp. 217-218, suggests that some alleged plague outbreaks were in fact mass cases of food poisoning, although this strikes me as extreme.) This was formerly one of the explanations offered for the affliction of St. Vitus's dance (Runes/Schrickel, p. 974), which is associated with outbreaks of madness similar to the ergot outbreaks. Compare also the song "Black Phyllis," which uses some of the same words and which appears to be about syphilis.
The problem with both the ergot and plague hypotheses is that the sufferer would be rather unlikely to survive unless the outbreak was extremely mild -- which, admittedly, can sometimes be the case; Timbrell, p. 244, mentions an hypothesis that the Salem witch madness was encouraged by the sensations experienced people who had eaten a very small amount of bad grain, and Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 241, agree that the symptoms fit. The suggestion was apparently first made by Lindda Caporael in 1960 (Satin, p. 109), and has gained widespread although not universal support.
But relatively minor cases such as the possible instance in Salem are unusual; ergot is recognizable, and people normally ate it only if they had no choice. Usually, when ergotism hit, it hit hard. Several of the outbreaks of ergotism arose because of the conditions of the Little Ice Age, which caused many bad harvests and forced people to use old flour or non-cereals to make bread. Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 240, note accounts in the literature of 40,000 allegedly dead of ergotism in France in 994, and 12,000 deaths in 1129. Kelly, p. 62, thinks there were probably major outbreaks of ergotism in Europe in 1315-1322, a period of extremely wet, cold weather -- although he adds that some of the symptoms peope experienced were probably the result of starvation or vitamin deficiency.
Ergot, according to Satin, p. 96, is so-called because it resembles the leg spur of a rooster.
MacInnis, p. 213, reports that "Ergot replaces the seeds of rye, producing a purple lump that looks to the French like a cockspur, or ergot. The ergot looks quite unlike the true grain, but it was so common people thought it was part of the rye plant, until the 1850s when the true nature of ergot was understood." This even though, according to Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 239, ergot was first observed to cause problems for cattle during the Persian period (c. 400 B.C.E.). Satin, p. 96, reports that in really bad years (typically very rainy years) as much as a quarter of the grain harvest might be replaced by ergot.
Ergot, according to MacInnis, pp. 213-214, contains ergotamide (guess where the name comes from!) and a few other "active ingredients," which are related to LSD (the chemical diagrams on Le Couteur/Burreston, pp. 242-243, show that basic lysergic acid, LSC, ergotamine, and ergotamide all have the same basic structure of four carbon-and-nitrogen rings, differing only in the nature of one extended side chain) and have similar properties. Thus it can result in hallucinations. MacInnis, p. 215, notes that ergot had medical uses, especially for pregnant women, but was very tricky: "Just the right amount of the purple grain would hasten contractions; a little more and ergot was an efficient abortifacient; a little more and the woman suffered gangrene and convulsions." Ergotamine has also been used to treat migraine headaches in recent years (Timbrell, p. 247).
But getting the dosage right is tricky, since the amount of ergotamine varies with the batch, and errors can be fatal. another chemical usually found in ergot, ergometrine, constricts blood vessels, causing a gangrene-like condition which destroys the extremities (Timbrell, p. 244). Ergot contains other alkaloids which are apparently just plain poison. But it should be noted that alkaloids taste bitter; it would be easy to learn to avoid them. According to Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 238, the full list of symptoms associated with ergotism includes "convulsions, seizures, diarrhea, lethargy, manic behavior, hallucinations, vomiting, twitching, a crawling sensation on the skin, numbness in the hands and feet, and a burning sensation becoming excruciatingly painful as gangrene from decreased circulation eventually sets in."
Le Couteur/Burreston add on p. 239 that wet storage conditions (which would be particularly common during the Little Ice Age) could encourage the mold to grow even after the grain was harvested. On the other hand, Stevens & Klarner, p. 68, say that the ergot alkaloids disintegrate easily; grain that was deadly soon after harvest would be less so by spring. On the other hand, it wouldn't be very nutritious.
It is true that some hallucinations caused by ergotism were bizarre. Satin, p. 99, reports that people during the 1951 French epidemic would jump out of windows because they thought they could fly; others thought they were on fire. But this was based on eating a few baguettes made with relatively mildly contaminated flour. Even so, four people died. At higher dosages, there would have been a lot more deaths and fewer hallucinations.
Under the circumstances, possibly a better hypothesis to explain this song is that people were eating poppy products, rather than rye, to *avoid* ergotism. This too could lead to hallucinations.
Saunders, pp. 8-9, describes the symptoms: "Bread was also made from poppyseed, which had the effect of producing a 'drugged and paranoid' state. This was surely preferable to the effects of eating bread made with mouldy or contaminated grain, which could lead to ergotism (St Anthony's Fire), a disease which attacked the muscular system and induced painful spasms. Eventually, the contracting muscles cut off circulation of the blood to the extremities, which became gangrenous. One of the side-effects of ergotism was mind-bending hallucinations -- nature's gift, perhaps, to sufferers, who would otherwise have had to watch their limbs fall off in a state of sober despair."
Binney, p. 72, mentions an hypothesis that the idea of witches riding broomsticks arose because witch-wanna-bes would rub ergot into the sticks, which could result in hallucinations -- perhaps of flying.
Saunders, p. 141, also mentions that extreme hunger could produce hallucinations. And hunger was of course very common during the Little Ice Age.
MacInnis, p. 220, adds that ergotism also affected horses, causing them to come down with blind staggers; he wonders if this did not have effects on some military effects. On p. 221, he notes a major, although isolated, outbreak of ergotism as recently as 1951. Le Couteur/Burreston mention major outbreaks in Russia in 1926-1927 and in Britain in 1927.
Jean Ritchie thinks the song is from a mummer's play and not intended to be understood.
This song merges almost continuously with "Paddy Backwards," and there are probably fragments which might go with either song. - RBW
Broadsides LOCSinging sb30373a and Bodleian Harding B 18(687) are duplicates.
Broadsides LOCSinging sb20153a and Bodleian Harding B 18(214) are duplicates.
Broadsides Bodleian Harding B 18(687) and LOCSinging sb30373a: H. De Marsan dating per Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS
Last updated in version 3.5
- Binney: Ruth Binney, Nature's Way: lore, legend, fact and fiction, David and Charles, 2006
- Kelly: John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, Harper Collins, 2005
- Le Couteur/Burreston: Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreston: Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History, 2003 (I use the 2004 Tarcher/Penguin edition)
- MacInnis: Peter MacInnis, Poisons (originally published as The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories), 2004 (I use the 2005 Arcade paperback),
- Runes/Schrickel: Dagobert D. Runes and Harry G. Schrickel, Encyclopedia of the Arts, Philosophical Library, 1946
- Satin: Morton Satin: Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History, Prometheus, 2007
- Saunders: Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman, Faber and Faber, 2004
- Stevens & Klarner: Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner, Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons, Writer’s Digest Books, 1990
- Timbrell: John Timbrell, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes, Oxford, 2005
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