In my final year at University, where I was reading for a degree in French Literature, thanks to a new syllabus tried out by the French Department, I was allowed to specialise by choosing four options. I was only too happy to drop 19th-century Romantic moaning (as I saw it) and 20th-century anxiety and depression (as I saw it), and throw myself into (again as I saw it) the certainty and serenity of the Middle Ages, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. This covered, among others, a course entitled “Literature of the Reformation”.
Eager to get ahead, I took a walk to the Theology Department, and asked if I might attend the relevant lectures, to gain better knowledge of the historical and religious background of the French literature I was about to study. Dr F., a specialist in the subject, was thrilled with my enthusiasm. “Yes, of course, you’re very welcome to come to my lectures. It will be a pleasure to have someone from the French Department,” he said in his soft Irish accent, green eyes sparkling with eagerness to share his scholarly passion.
His classes were popular, and for good reason. Dr F. not only seemed to know everything there was to know about the Reformation, but – unlike some of his fellow academics – was a good communicator and a charismatic teacher. And, yes, he was also a very good-looking young man.
Then, one day, he set an essay about Martin Luther’s doctrines. “Oh, no, that’s all right,” I said. “I shan’t trouble you with extra marking –” (Meaning: I don’t want to have to write an extra essay on top of my French Department workload.)
“Oh, please do write it. It will be a pleasure to have your essay, too.”
He may have added something about how interesting it would be to have the point of view of a non-Theology student.
I was stuck.
It was approaching midnight before the morning the essay was due. I sat in my room with a mug of coffee, staring at a blank page from my Oxford pad, with no idea whatsoever what to write. I glanced at Owen Chadwick’s book about the Reformation, on my desk. I hadn’t read it yet and it was a little too late to start. I chewed on my pen, put another Lyons’s coffee bag into my mug, reached out for a chocolate hobnob, and thought of Martin Luther. The monk who married a nun. The monk who brought Protestantism to Germany. I suddenly remembered something else Dr F. had mentioned: that Martin Luther suffered from constipation, and spent a considerable amount of time on the loo, where he thought up many of his theories. Constipation. I wondered why. Come to think of it, what caused constipation? I decided to take a little break from the essay and consult my slowly-but-surely growing collection of layman medical and nutrition books. I had recently developed an interest in medicine, health and anatomy/physiology, and read anything I could lay my hands on on the subject, and which was formulated in a language I could understand. While leafing through my books, I remembered once accidentally causing myself diarrhoea by taking an excessively high dose of Vitamin C. Consequently, would a regular intake of ascorbic acid or a diet rich in Vitamin C alleviate constipation? I knew that chronic constipation contributed to toxicity in the blood stream, which – I assumed – could then affect one’s perception. I also suspected that spending hours shut in a toilet, just waiting for your body to make up its mind to evacuate unwanted matter, could give you a lot of time to think and develop philosophical hypotheses.
Suddenly, I was on a roll, chasing after a crazy theory. I scattered all my nutrition books on my desk. I can’t remember the exact details of what I thought I discovered on that long autumn night, twenty-five years ago. What I do remember is not going to bed at all and writing pages and pages about the effect of a vitamin or mineral deficiency on our cognitive abilities and even emotional states, about the optimum dose of specific vitamins in terms of units and milligrams, of the anti-oxidant effects of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, and its benefits to – among many other things – a healthy digestion. Having been drilled by my French academic education that every essay should follow the Introduction-Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis-Conclusion pattern, I set out to prove that Martin Luther’s theological doctrines and thought process was heavily influenced by his chronic constipation which, in turn, had been caused by a vitamin deficiency. If Luther had taken some ascorbic acid, there may not have been a Reformation. QED. I wrote and wrote, almost feverish with enthusiasm for my “discovery”.
By morning, the top knuckle of my right middle finger was black with ink, and, despite the total lack of sleep, my eyes were wide open with satisfied excitement and elation. I picked up my essay and, after a quick breakfast, went to put it into Dr F.’s pigeon hole.
A week later, we all got our essays back. Dr F. kept mine till last. I waited impatiently to see what mark I’d received. He approached my desk with a slightly puzzled expression. He handed me my work. There was a slight frown. “I’m afraid I haven’t marked it,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t quite know how to. What you say is very interesting but, well, it doesn’t really belong in the Theology Department. I’d say take it to the Medical Department, but there isn’t one here…”
He was very kind, not once suggesting I’d been a smart arse. I collected my work with a sigh of slight disappointment. In retrospect, I realise I was lucky he didn’t throw me out of his class. He stopped setting me any more essays, though.