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Ergotism is a condition caused by ingesting ergot, a fungus found on rye and some other grains. The fungi produce toxins with neurological and vascular effects, causing a variety of symptoms. Human populations have experienced ergotism for centuries and a number of historic records, particularly from the Middle Ages, document this condition. Improvements in agricultural practices have limited the risk of ergotism today; historically, the condition was a problem because people had limited food choices and in harsh winters, the only food available might be contaminated grain.
In the short term, exposure to ergot can cause hallucinations, mood disorders, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, muscle twitching, and cramping. Some patients develop reddened skin and a burning sensation, explaining the alternate name “St. Anthony's Fire” used historically to describe this condition. Since many communities relied on single point sources for their grains, ergot contamination in the fields and mills could cause hundreds of people to become severely ill across a community.
Exposure to high volumes of ergot, especially over time, can cause chronic forms of ergotism. A neurological form is characterized by convulsions, twitching, and involuntary movements. Another form focused on the vascular system causes dry gangrene. The blood supply to the extremities is cut off as a result of extreme vasoconstriction, causing the limbs to die. Historically, the damaged limbs would turn black and fall off and this was depicted in gory, but informative, detail in a number of works of art.
It is possible that some populations actually used controlled dosages of ergot recreationally in religious rites and other proceedings. These communities believed that the hallucinations were a gift from god. This condition has also been pinpointed as the possible cause behind several recorded incidences of mass hysteria and some people have suggested that it may have been responsible for repeated incidents of witchhunts in communities in various regions of the world, as people began experiencing hallucinations, paranoia, and mood changes in response to ergot exposure.
The rarity of this condition makes it uncommon in medical offices. Treatments for ergotism can include the administration of vasodilators to prevent gangrene, along with nerve blocks for patients experiencing extreme neurological symptoms. Supportive care can also involve sedation for patients with behavioral outbursts. Once the fungus has been expelled from the patient's system, the treatment can be tapered off and the patient should make a complete recovery as long as no additional ergot is ingested.
I have read that ergotism could be passed to babies through their mothers' breast milk. It must have been so heartbreaking to see the babies in pain and dying during the outbreaks.
I can only imagine what the infected mothers must have felt. If they knew they were sick, they still had no choice but to feed their babies.
Maybe since they were so small and vulnerable, they at least died quickly. Surely their little bodies couldn't stand up against the effects of ergotism for very long.
I wonder how long it took people to figure out that the fungus was causing their hallucinations and sickness. Since the article says they used ergot in rituals, they must have figured it out at some point.
That would be terrible to have contaminated food as your only source of nourishment for the entire winter. To know that you would soon become very ill and possibly lose some limbs if you ate food would put you in a tough spot. You could either starve to death or slowly rot.
I'm glad this condition is uncommon today. I don't know what ergot looks like, but I always throw away my bread if it gets any sort of fungus or mold. Some people just pick off the furry spots and eat the rest, but I say that if one spot is infected, the rest could have fungi that just hasn't become visible yet.