Imagine this: Lying on your filthy straw bed, one rat running pell-mell over your burning toes (or what’s left of them on your right foot) and another hovering like a vulture near your face, you groan and inhale the fetid odor of rot. Your left foot fell off yesterday — you vaguely remember your sister wrapping the shrunken, blackened flesh in a cloth, gagging from the smell as she did. When you stop shaking long enough and banish the Bosch-like nightmares crowding your brain, you scream so long and loudly that your neighbors begin to whisper about witchcraft. That is, if they’re not ill themselves. You too wonder, “Am I bewitched?”
No, you’re not bewitched, although people believed for a long time that witchcraft caused outbreaks of ergotism (including the Salem witch trials). You’re suffering from ergotism, a disease brought about by eating moldy rye or other grains infested with the fungus Claviceps purpurea.
You might have a sixty-percent chance of surviving an attack of ergotism, but you might wish you hadn’t.
If they didn’t die, so many people in medieval Europe ended up crippled from the horrifying pestilence of ergotism that artists like Bosch drew countless figures of cripples and beggars.
There’s a quiz out there in cyberspace, “What Medieval Plague Do You Have?” If you answer right, this is what you get:
Although this quiz and its results might seem hilarious, there’s nothing amusing at all about the gangrene that can develop from the vasoconstrictive effects of an ergot infection.
Two types of ergot infections gripped sufferers: convulsive and gangrenous.
Gangrenous ergot struck France many times and the symptoms always horrified onlookers and victims alike:
In the beginning of the illness we find the same symptoms as in spasmodic ergotism; the first symptom being violent cutaneous irritation, formication, and modification of sensibility in the peripheral nerves. Identical symptoms also appear in connection with the stomach and intestinal canal—retching, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea; the symptoms connected with the central nervous system are also the same—headache, and giddiness; occasional contractions of the flexor muscles are also observed; the changes in the cardiac contraction and in the fulness of the arteries, the disturbances in the activity of the organs of the senses are identical with those of spasmodic ergotism. This condition may last a longer or a shorter time, so that the epidemics may be distinguished as malignant or mild. The symptoms which characterize gangrenous ergotism as such often appear within from two to seven days, but are frequently delayed for two and three weeks. An erysipelatous redness shows itself on some spots in the periphery, most frequently on the toes and feet, but also on the fingers and hands, more rarely on the ears and the nose; soon after the epidermis is raised like a bladder by serous exudation; the ichorous contents of this are soon discharged, and a gangrenous spot more or less large is left. Then dry gangrene develops very rapidly at the affected spot. [From: Cyclopædia of the Practice of Medicine, Volume 17, by Hugo Ziemssen, Albert Henry Buck, George Livingston Peabody (1878), p. 915 – 916]
The vasoconstrictive properties of ergot make it useful today in treating various medical conditions, chief among them migraine and childbirth. Ergot in small amounts hastens labor, but this same property allowed ergot to be used as an abortifactant in the past.
The scourge of ergotism in France becomes very apparent when you realize that in French, there are twenty-five different ways of saying it. St. Anthony’s Fire and ignis sacer (Holy Fire) are just two. The word “ergot” comes from the French word “argot” or “cock’s spur,” due to the resemblance of ergotism-inducing fungus (Claviceps purpurea) to the spurs on roosters’ legs.
Ergot does indeed resemble a cockspur.
The earliest mention of ergot appeared on an Assyrian tablet. The writer carved it in stone, saying that ergot was (is) “noxious pustle in the ear of grain.”
Because ergot thrives in cold, damp conditions, northern France suffered over 100 outbreaks of ergot over the centuries, with one of the earliest outbreaks on record occurring in 944 AD when 40,000 people died. By 1039, when a nobleman named Gaston de la Valloire, who survived the disease by praying to relics of St. Anthony in Dauphiné where Crusaders brought the saint’s remains, the disease appeared with regularity. François Eudes de Mezeray’s Abregé Chronologique de l’Histoire de France mentioned this ergot epidemic. Valloire started a hospital and an order of monks called The Order of St. Anthony the Great (officially sanctioned in 1218) came to staff the hospital and care for the afflicted. Not until 1670 did a Dr. Thuillier, who apparently served as a physician to the Duke of Sully, figure out what caused ergotism. Most people of the day believed that witchcraft caused ergotism and some writers suggest that myths of werewolves evolved because of ergotism’s effects on the central nervous system of its victims.
Small, black tube-shaped sclerotium. That’s ergot.
These little packages pack a huge wallop chemically. In particular, lysergic acid derivatives — peptide alkaloids — underlie the effects seen in ergotism. Derivatives of lysergic acid also form the base of LSD, synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938.
The importance of ergot historically lies not only in the vast number of deaths that occurred, but in the deformities and other effects left once the victims healed. There’s some speculation that the lingering impact of ergotism might have contributed to the catastrophic death tolls from the Black Death. According to Matossian, the greatest mortality occurred in areas where large grain surpluses, infected with ergot, attracted large numbers of rats. The rest is history, as the old adage goes.
Some commentators like Georges Lefebvre (THE GREAT FEAR OF 1789 Rural panic in revolutionary France) believe that the civil unrest of the summer of 1789 (La Grande Peur) came about because of ergot-infected rye eaten by peasants. Mary Kilbourne Matossian also wrote a well-respected analysis of the panic of 1789 (full-text). The following map from Matossian illustrates the cropping patterns superimposed over sites where panic originated.
For such a small fungus, ergot certainly played a big role in the lives of millions of people. Until they learned what caused ergotism, many people no doubt endured repeated bouts of it, much as people still suffer from continuous attacks of malaria in many areas of the world. Such incessant episodes of disease play havoc with immune systems, overall longevity, and morbidity.
And, seriously, ergot still causes problems in animals. Not to be an alarmist, and I’m saving this comment for last, but ergot could still be troublesome for humans, too. Modern fungicide sprays have virtually eliminated the risk of ergotism. No variety of rye is resistant to ergot.
But who knows about all those organic flours made from unsprayed fields? Ergot affects wheat, barley, and oats as well as rye. Processing, even in organic mills, may eliminate the risk of ergot. But what about the die-hards who mill their own seeds for their flour and feed for their animals … ?
For more on ergotism, see:
“When the Bread of Life Kills,” by Cynthia Bertelsen. (2011)
Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (2004)
“St Anthony’s fire and living ligatures: a short history of ergometrine,” by Caroline De Costa (2002)
Fungi in the Ancient World, by Frank Matthews Dugan (2008)
“Convulsive ergotism: epidemics of the sertonin syndrome?,” by Mervyn J. Eadie (THE LANCET Neurology, 2002)
“Ergotism and ergot alkaloids — a review,” by Kent Kainulainen (2003)
Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History, by Mary Kilbourne Matossian (1989)
“Bosch’s Cripples and Drawings by His Imitators,” by Erwin Pokorny (2003)
Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History, by Morton Satin (2007)
“Biotechnology and genetics of ergot alkaloids,” by P. Tudzynski, T. Correia, and U. Keller (Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 2001).
“Ergot of Rye — I. Introduction and History,” University of Hawaii
Recipe for Rye Bread:
© 2011 C. Bertelsen