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Ergot, witchcraft and civilization

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ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Ergot, witchcraft and civilization

I spent some time reading up about ergot and rye this past week. Really fascinating stuff. It has had a significant impact on European civilization and was likely the reason for Christianity's whole outlook on witchcraft - all through bread.

I did a (rather lengthy, sorry) blog piece about what I found:

http://ianchadwick.com/blog/bread-madness-and-christianity/

It has links to many of the sites I discovered while researching. What it does for me is to underscore the important role bread played in our cultural and social development; how bread impacts everything in our heritage.

I have a lot more research to do in related areas, and I'll let you know when I post anything new.

I am as fascinated by the history of bread as by making it. This is what I like to do when I'm not baking. Here's what I do when I bake:

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GAPOMA's picture
GAPOMA

Ian,

Saw your post and read your blog.  Thought it was very interesting, so I forwarded a link to my daughter who can only eat rye breads (wheat allergy), is an early modern european historian, and taught classes on witchcraft at Rutgers recently.  Definitely thought she'd be interested, and she was.  But ... here's her response.

Interesting? Yes. True? No.

 The connection between the rye used in early modern Europe and America and possible illness (hallucinations, etc) is indisputable. HOWEVER. This research, connecting the witch craze to a fungus in rye bread, came out in the mid-1970s during a period when historians were looking for factors outside of religious and social forces to explain this heightened period of witch activity. This theory took hold quickly because it makes so much more sense to us in the modern day than do any socioreligious theories. About 10 years after the first publication (and after a slew of other historians trying to use similar methods), another historian proved that this bread fungus was incredibly rare in early modern Europe and America. The first historian was a true historian with very little agricultural or biological background; the second actually looked at the climate data, soil conditions, etc from that period -- the biology behind it -- and the conditions were not at ALL right for this fungus. Many of the biggest crazes, in addition, were in areas that wouldn't have eaten rye bread (social history). 

For me (as an imunologist working in an immunology department), the more interesting question is what the toxin dosage must have been on a per loaf or per day basis.

Clearly St. Anthony's Fire is a known condition, and clearly it existed during the time you discuss.  Apparently there just isn't a clear cause/effect related to rye bread intake.

Definitely interesting though!!  Thank you for posting!!! :)
ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Thanks for that. I always like the discussion and counterpoints. My post was based on what I read from other, contemporary sources - I'm not a mycologist, epidemiologist or even a scientist (I'm a former reporter and editor). 

One thing I was unable to confirm online was the amount of ergot required to trigger the effects. I know that LSD was in micrograms; an amazingly tiny amount. But what about he alkaloids of ergot? Could a similarly small amount have that effect? Still want to read more.

Do you mind if I post your comments on my own blog?

GAPOMA's picture
GAPOMA

I totally agree about the amount/dosage of ergot required.  FWIW my daughter told me on the phone that this research had been done, but she didn't have a reference handy off the top of her head.

And I'd be happy to have you repost my comment on your blog.  I considered posting there directly, but decided against it as I was already on TFL and didn't want to sign up. ;-)