Monday, March 31, 2008

Death by Rye Bread

At first glance, the title of this entry might be mistaken for a murder mystery, but indeed, large numbers of people in history were plagued with a host of strange symptoms and died from eating rye bread.

Especially during the Middle Ages, whole populations of towns and regions began manifesting strange symptoms, such as nausea, pain in the limbs, seizures, violent retching, and hallucinations. Their bodies would become grossly deformed. Some would jerk, hop, leap and scream in a wild dance, which would not stop until they collapsed unconscious from exhaustion. Fingers, toes, hands and feet felt as though they were burning with fire, then turned black, became mummified and broke off at the joints.

At the heart of these tragedies was a parasitic fungus which commonly infests rye grain but can also be found in other grains and fodder grasses. The name of it is Claviceps purpurea or ergot (pronounced AIR-got). Ergot is a seed-like fungus which grows within the flower of a host plant. The host is affected by reduced yield and stunted growth, but the real problem arises when ergot infested grain is ingested as food. The deadly syndrome called "ergotism" can devastate and kill humans and animals.

Of course, people in early history had little knowledge of fungi. They knew these symptoms as ignis sacer, "holy fire;" ignis infernalis, "hell's fire;" or "St. Anthony's fire."

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia and MedicineNet, Anthony lived in Egypt around the middle of the third century. He began his ascetic life at age 20 after inheriting his parents property which he gave away in order to devote himself to religious exercises. Anthony completely withdrew from the world and is regarded as the father of Christian Monasticism and the technical religious life in every aspect. His hermetic style became the norm in Northern Egypt. During one period of 20 years, he shut himself up in an old fort and never saw another person. His food was thrown over the wall.

Anthony's life was one long struggle. He had recurrent visions of the devil in the form of wild beasts, women, and soldiers who sometimes beat the saint and left him near death. Those who witnessed these attacks upon him were convinced of their reality. Anthony met every vision with steadfast prayer and penitential acts and these were noteworthy enough to be included as subjects in literature and art. St. Anthony is considered to be the patron saint of lost causes. When all others have failed, he is the one people pray to.

Monks founded the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony near Grenoble, France, and it became a center for persons suffering from the disease of ergotism.

In "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?," Linnda R. Caporael outlines the case against ergot as the catalyst for the Salem Witch trials. The eight girls who were thought to be victims of witchcraft exhibited the same symptoms as those suffering from ergotism.

One of the most famous derivatives of ergot is lysergic acid or LSD. Two Swiss researchers discovered its effects when one accidentally ingested a small quantity and became the first person to go on an "acid trip."

On the plus side, however, Ergot does have some medical benefits. Although it can cause abortions, in small quantities it aids in childbirth. Ergot derivatives are also used to cure migraine headaches.

These days, we know much about this fungus and how to prevent exposure to it. The last outbreak of the disease occurred in 1951 in Pont-St. Esprit, a small town in France. St. Anthony's Fire has finally been extinguished.

For further information, read Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for October, 1999.

No comments: