The things the sick ate, sweetmeats and sugar, seemed priceless – Marchione Di Coppo Stefani, Florentine Chronicler of the Black Death
Subtleties or ‘soteltes’ have adorned the feast tables of the rich from the 11th century. These curiosities, sculpted in sugar, usually depicted objects and symbols of luxury, power and enjoyment: castles and churches, beasts and birds, fighting knights and dancing ladies … even genitalia: ‘A fad in France and England was to serve up male and female sexual organs rendered in sugar. Even the church was not immune to this risque humour, and until the English outlawed the practice in 1263, Communion wafers were commonly baked in the shape of testicles.’ Sugar is, here, the common substance conjoining the sacred and the profane, the singular locus of a precious, transcendent enjoyment. It is not surprising, then, that for victims of the ashy pest that swept through Europe in the 14th century, sweetmeats and sugar became the last taste of a sickly joy before death, perhaps even a foretaste of the sweetness of heaven.
Black rats (Rattus rattus), of course, and the fleas that they carried, were the primary vectors of this pestilence, and consequently of the divine, a function by which they moved from being simply ‘pests’ – whose ubiquitous presence signified an annoying neighbourliness – to the very image of otherworldliness: a plague of rats signifying, as Reza Negarestani suggests, an entirely different order of existence, whose multi-dimensional mobility and ‘pestilential rationality’ threatened the very survival of humanity. But with their fleas, rats also seemed to pass on, in the looking glass or mirror of pestilence, something of their own rationality to human posterity: in the following centuries a plague of European humans and their rat companions swarmed into the Americas bearing new diseases, bringing death and extinction wherever they went.
A totem figure of human movement and endeavour, the first rats that leapt from European ships onto the shores of the Americas were the advanced guard of an invading force that would change the political and agricultural landscapes forever; with the addition of African slaves to supplant the dearth of labour in the wake of Europe’s ‘megadeath’, sugar production became industrialised, and luxury commoditised for the new mercantile classes – whence the old association of sugar with transcendence, enjoyment and death was revitalised for a new radical age. In 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge added his voice to an ‘Anti-Saccharine Society’ of like-minded consumers by denouncing sugar as a luxury commodity, ‘an unnecessary sweetener that turned sour in the mouth, for it reeked of the blood of slaves …’ And anticipating a correlation between the camarilla of absentee capitalist magnates that transformed this flourishing commonwealth into a vast sugar factory just a century earlier, and the rats that eat up to forty-percent of the crops farmers struggle to yield there today, Eric Williams lamented, ‘King Sugar had begun his depredations’.
In her work the Irish artist Emer Roberts evokes the unsettling correlation between rats and humans; at the core of her practice, meticulously crafted sculptures such as Rat and Child (2009) broach this interrelationship through the themes of death and the sacred. Following this, our culinary collaboration introduces the body of a black rat cast on the point of death immersed in a chocolate and strawberry sabayon cocktail, redolent of secular luxury and transcendent wealth. The glass, along with its memento mori, is itself made of sugar but this ‘glass’ now no longer provides simply a mirror of death for Rattus rattus and Homo sapiens in the mutual sarcophagus of plague; it is, rather, an exemplary instance of the general transparency of a plane of sugary immanence. On the glistening horizon of an existence entirely defined by sugar and its consumption, we offer a foretaste of the divine in the glass of pestilence.
Words taken from MOUTH, view source here.