Wed
Feb 27 2013 1:00pm

Ergotism: How an Entire Town Becomes a Psychedelic Nightmare

Ergotism: How an Entire Town Becomes a Psychedelic NightmareImagine 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

3 comments
Mouldy Squid
1. Mouldy_Squid
This isn't the first time I have heard people connecting ergotism to the Salem witch hysteria. The connection is tenuous at best. There are few actual symptoms of ergotism reported during the hysteria. Two of the girls are said to have contorted and complained of pinching and being pricked with pins (which could be taken as symptomatic of ergotism), but these are not very different from the symptoms reported in other witchcraft cases where ergotism is not suspected. Those victims who reported spectral apparitions did not show other symptoms of ergot poisoning. Ergotism makes for a great theory, very neat and compelling, but I don't see enough evidence for it in the case of Salem.

The Dancing Plagues do not have a much better connection to ergotism. Several of the symptoms here align closely, but there are several other factors that suggest some other kind of physiological disfunction. Most of the afflicted were residents of larger towns, not small villages where everyone would have had a point of commonality. Also, the afflicted were said to be dancing and leaping, rather than convulsing. The transient nature of the plagues, by which I mean that the afflicted were often moving between population centres, also doesn't support ergotism. Onlookers would often become afflicted as well, which points to some kind of contagious hysteria rather than a poisoning. Dancing plague outbreaks seemed to have occured at times of particular hardship or natural disaster rather than randomly which would be expected of ergotism.

Ergotism certainly was common enough; it was known as St. Athony's Fire, but it doesn't really account well enough for it to have been the source of either the Dancing Plagues or the Salem witch hysteria.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I hadn't heard of the gangrenous ergotism--things breaking off is a pretty nasty side effect.
Tudza White
3. tudzax1
Good show Squid. Here's some more stuff for you to read Robert

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4333

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