|Burning for St Anthony’s Fire|
Burning for St Anthony’s Fire - Ergot and Witchcraft in the Medieval Period
It is 15thC Germany and the hapless victim twitches and convulses at the feet of the Church jury. There is no doubt in their mind that she is possessed of the Devil. The accused babbles incoherently and seems unaffected when prodded with the ‘witch needles’. Regretfully the jury passes the verdict of witchcraft and the brush wood is piled around the base of the stake in preparation for the purification of the afflicted by fire. St Anthony’s Fire has claimed another victim.
St Anthony’s Fire
Also known as ‘sacred fire’ and ‘invisible fire,’ St Anthony’s Fire is a medieval disease that was given it’s name from one of the key symptoms. In some iterations of the disease the sufferer’s skin blisters and turns black, as if burned by fire, but with no associated pain. What the individual is actually suffering is the gangrenous form of ergot poisoning, a type of fungal poisoning caused by the ergot fungus which grows on rye. When the rye grains are ground to flour and eaten as bread or porridge the consumer becomes poisoned.
Ergot (claviceps purpura) is a fungus that grows on rye. The fungus germinates in warm damp conditions after being dormant in the cold.Ergot is most likely to occur in a wet summer following a harsh winter. Humans can survive 01.-0.3% ergot in rye grain, and 8-10% is fatal (http://www.pearson-college.uwc.ca/pearson/fungi/ergot.htm). A lot of rye will have the ergot spores on it but usually conditions are not conducive for it to germinate and grow. Only under specific climatic conditions can the fungus flourish and result in an ergot breakout.
Types of Ergot Poisoning
Ergot poisoning takes three forms: gangrenous, convulsive and hallucinogenic.Gangrenous.Gangrenous is the type that gave the disease it’s name through the exterior signs of gangrene. The ergot causes the muscles that control vein and artery walls to contract causing blood flow to sections of the body to be cut off. In the advanced stages whole limbs would mummify and snap off at the joints. As a result of the loss of nerve endings on the skin surface it is quite possible the sufferer would demonstrate the symptoms of ‘witch spots’ or areas that did not respond to pain when pricked. Initial symptoms may also include a crawling or prickling sensation, as if something was crawling across the body.
Convulsive.Convulsive ergotism is caused by the disease attacking the central nervous system and is characterized by nervous dysfunction. This is demonstrated by the victim is twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and wryneck (a more or less fixed twisting of the neck) which seems to simulate convulsions or fits. In some cases, this is accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations, as well as a number of other symptoms (http://www.iamshaman.com/hbwr/ergot_of_rye.htm).Hallucinogenic.Ergot contains lycergic acid (a key component of LSD) and causes some suffers extreme hallucinations in conjunction with either the gangrenous or convulsive symptoms. The hallucinations were also often accompanied by strange jerky dancing, jumping, screaming, insomnia and disorientation. All of which could be easily interpreted as symptoms of witchcraft or possession.
St Anthony’s Fire as an Epidemic
A plague of "fire" is first mentioned in 945AD, in and around Paris. Limbs were ‘burnt up’ and gradually consumed, until death ended the torment. As many as could went to the church of St. Mary in Paris and were saved by Duke Hugh who fed them with daily rations. When some of the patients went home, the quenched fire was rekindled, but returning to the church, they again recovered. The duke was Hugh the Great, Count of Paris and father of Hugh Capet, the founder of the royal dynasty. Evidently he had a store of ergot free grain, and relapses occurred when the patients fell back on their own infected supplies (Barger 1931 pp 40-44).
Ergot and Plague
Ergot and plague coexisted in this particular period of medieval history and victims or ergot poisoning would have been extremely vulnerable to plague having already been weakened by the ergot. St Anthony’s fire is also closely associated with famine when shortages of food force the consumption of lower quality grain that would have a higher possibility of being infected by ergot.
Ergot and Witchcraft
The link between ergot and witchcraft could go one of two ways, the afflicted could accuse another of practicing witchcraft against them or the afflicted could be identified as being in league with dark forces through their behaviour. Those most likely to be accused would be those attempting to assist the afflicted, such as doctors, healers and herbalists who may be interpreted as in some way contributing to the situation of the victim.
Ergot Poisoning and Geography
Rye is a very hardy grain and was favoured on the continent in medieval times. Due to its robust characteristics it was often the staple diet of the poor. Germany and France were particularly prevalent consumers of rye and it is here we see the most common occurrence of St Anthony’s Fire and the highest incidents of witch trials. The most common ergot outbreaks take place in the alpine areas of France and central Europe. The absence of temperate wet conditions further north reduces the probability of ergot poisoning in Scandinavia despite their rye consumption, and the absence of harsh winters further south reduces the probability in the Mediterranean. Rye is not commonly grown in Wales, Ireland, Spain and central and southern Italy, excluding them from risk of ergotism.
Ergot and Dairy
Those societies that had a strong dairy industry and the consumed large volumes of milk, butter and cheese were less vulnerable to convulsive ergotism because the dairy consumption stimulated the production of phytase, a bowel bacteria which in turn breaks down the elements of the ergot that cause the convulsive symptoms (Kipple 1997 p.54). The English were still as vulnerable to the gangrenous strain but because this lacked the more spectacular symptoms of convulsive and hallucinogenic ergotism it led less readily to the assumption of witchcraft.
Although in no way the single cause of religious hysteria in the medieval period, ergotism could be considered a contributing factor to some of the behaviours that would have been interpreted as witchcraft. This is a disease that medieval medicine had no opportunity to identify and would have remained a mystery, both in its origins and treatment. In response to the inexplicable it is understandable that religion is used to contextualise these strange behaviours and symptoms. Unfortunately in the case of St Anthony’s fire these ‘inexplicable’ symptoms would have led observers to unfortunate ‘evil’ conclusions and the resulted in the unjust persecution of either the afflicted or those associated with them for witchcraft, demonic possession or other such religious crimes. Lack of data will preclude modern historians from ever accurately assessing how many innocent individuals burned due to St Anthony’s Fire.