During the Middle Ages, throughout Europe there were cases of hallucinations and collective follies that after centuries have been attributed to the intervention of a powerful hallucinogen: the ergot of Rye. A fungus that infects the raw material with which the inhabitants of Europe cooked their bread in depressed times. Join us to know the Ergot of the Rye, a hallucinogen that went mad in the Middle Ages .
The Ergot of Rye It is also called Claviceps purpurea or Ergot. It is called ergot because it has the shape of small curved brads in the shape of small horns. They measure between 4 and 6 cm. long by about 4 mm. Wide. They sprout at the same time as the spikes and turn from a whitish color to a bluish black. It nests preferentially in the ovary of rye, especially in wet years or neglected fields, although it can also be found in wheat, oats and barley.
Ergot of Rye
The danger of ergot of rye they are the strongly toxic substances that it contains: ergotinin, ergotinic acid and esfacélico acid, among others. In the Middle Ages it was not removed when grinding rye and caused important health disorders when ingested, even though in other places of the world like China its utilities were known as a drug, especially in obstetrics, both to contract the uterus and to avoid postpartum hemorrhages.
The disease that produces ergot of rye it has been known for centuries as "Fire of hell" or "fire of San Antonio" and at present it receives the name of ergotismo. In the Middle Ages, its origin was unknown and its process was not documented until the 19th century. The symptoms of continued intoxication are in addition to hallucinations and irrational behaviors and convulsions, skin lesions worse than those of leprosy, so that the extremities are consumed until they get rid of the body. This occurs because ergot alkaloids have a vasoconstrictor effect so strong that they impede blood circulation, cause gangrene and loss of limbs. In addition to being crippled, the patient was very likely to die due to these injuries.
Detail of the painting "The Temptation of San Antonio" by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516), which shows a patient suffering from advanced ergotism.
In the municipality of Castrojeriz, in the province of Burgos, there was a convent called "San Antón", in which the monks took care of and in some cases healed the sick of "fire from hell" who were on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as the only remedy for their evil. The monks managed to heal some sick people, if they were not very affected, giving them to eat only bread made with wheat. Wheat is difficult to contain ergot of rye and without really knowing the reason, they managed to improve the health of those affected.
Remains of the San Antonio Convent in Castrojeriz
3 Cases of madness attributed to Ergot Ergot
It is normal for ergot to cause hallucinations among those affected since among the chemicals it contains is lysergic acid, which is the precursor of LSD.
- Dance Epidemics in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the so-called "Dance Epidemics" that we already talked about in Supercurioso in the article were given in different places in Europe: Strange deaths: the Dance Epidemic of 1518 . This case, like that of other acquaintances of mass hysteria, is thought to have been caused by massive intoxication ergot of rye.
2. The Great Fear during the French Revolution
Between July 20 and August 6, 1789, there was a popular movement of collective fear that especially affected the French peasantry. Some authors believe that the famine could lead to mass consumption of rye bread or other cereals made with contaminated grain and that this would produce the "Great Fear" as this movement is known.
Marie Kilbourne Matossian, a historian at the University of Maryland, believes that contaminated food could have influenced the incidence and intensity of political unrest.
3. Pont-Saint-Sprit 1951
The massive poisoning at Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951 is attributed to the ergot of rye . This historical episode is also known as "Le Pain Maudit" which means "the cursed bread".
During the summer of 1951, in the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in France , 7 people died, 50 were admitted to psychiatric and 250 more were affected to a greater or lesser extent by a strange poisoning. The patients suffered chills, stomach pain, vomiting, hot flushes, seizures, hallucinations and even suicide attempts. The Medical Journal British Medical Journal stated that the outbreak of poisoning was produced by the ergot of rye . The only connection between those affected was having eaten bread from the bakery of Roch Brian who apparently used flour with rye that would have been contaminated with the ergot fungus.
Did you know the terrible effects of Ergot of Rye ? Did you know that it had affected so many people during the Middle Ages? At present it is difficult to occur cases of "fire of San Antonio" due to the powerful fungicide treatments against the ergot of rye. As an extra data we will add that some historians believe that ergot could be the cause of the hallucinations that served as the basis for the accusations in the witch trials of Salem . Do you know other cases of poisoning by this fungus? Share it with us!
Images: Peter d'Aprix,