Imagine an entire town overcome by a collective waking nightmare. It’s the stuff of fantasy to be sure. Just read Brian McNaughton’s The Return of Lrion Wolfbaiter or play a little Skyrim. You’ll get there.
But is it also the stuff of history? Is there a scientific explanation for events such as the Salem Witch Trials, when a sleepy, repressed new England town erupted into an orgy of superstitious accusations, urine cakes and heart-wrenching persecution?
It brings us to ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that contains toxic compounds similar to LSD. When it infests grains it sometimes makes its way into contaminated bread. And if everyone gets their bread from the same baker, then you can imagine how bad things get.
It happened all the time in the middle ages and as recently as 1951 an entire French village suffered from its ravages. Humans suffer from two varieties of ergotism and here are the associated symptoms, according to this 2007 Medicina article:
- Gangrenous ergotism (AKA ignis sacer or holy fire): nausea, limb pain. Extremities may turn black and mummified, causing infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints.
- Convulsive ergotism: painful seizures, spasms, convulsions. Hallucinations, mania or psychosis may occur.
As Oliver Sacks points out in his excellent book Hallucinations, some historians attribute ergot poisoning as a possible factor in the Salem Witch hysteria—and it may explain the dancing plague reported between the 14h and 17th centuries as well. Either way, it’s all a sobering (and horrifying) example of how something as simple as the wrong loaf of bread can alter our perception of reality.
Image Info: A detail from Matthias Grünewald’s The Temptation of St Anthony. Note the character in the bottom left corner, said to represent the symptoms of ergotism. (Wikimedia Commons)
Originally Published at HSW: Ergotism: How an Entire Town Becomes a Psychedelic Nightmare
Robert Lamb is a senior writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. If you’re into that sort of thing.