On the HSS walk today we found a grass flower with hard black spurs protruding. This insignificant spur is the Ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which has a long and unpleasant history. Its relationship with the grass family goes back at least 100 million years, when found in an amber fossil.

Settle down with a cup of tea and I will tell the story of the collapse of civilisations, death and derangement; all through eating a slice of bread and jam.

It all begins with Rye, Secale cereale (not to be confused with the Rye grass used for silage). It was a weed grain and occurred wherever Wheat was cultivated; they were inseparable. Rye itself was not cultivated for food until about the 5thC AD, in Eastern Europe, and was the last of the popular cereals to be brought into cultivation. 

But the danger with Rye is its propensity to be infected with the Ergot fungus and it was in the Rhine Valley in 857 A.D that the first major outbreak of gangrenous ergotism was documented. The symptoms were called ‘Holy Fire’  because of the burning sensations in the extremities of the body and it being seen as a punishment from God.

The alkaloids produced by the fungus can affect every part of the body, including the nervous system. Bread containing only 2% Ergot can cause an epidemic and result in gangrene, where victims lose fingers, toes and limbs. This is due to the alkaloid producing a vaso-constrictive chemical which cuts off the blood supply. The toxins can pass through a mother’s milk and poison the baby. Former sufferers are more prone to the symptoms when next affected. The alkaloids are very stable and do not break down during baking or with boiling for up to 3 hours.

The mortality rate could approach 50% and the great population declines in history can be explained when it is known poisoning causes abortions.

In 1039, an outbreak of Ergotism occurred in France. During this outbreak a hospital was erected by Gaston de la Valloire to care for the victims. He dedicated this hospital to St. Anthony and through this gesture, Holy Fire came to be called St. Anthony’s Fire. Monks would eventually start the order of St. Anthony and over 370 hospitals were built; each one symbolically painted red.

France was the centre for many of these severe epidemics because Rye was the staple crop of the poor and the cool wet climate conducive for the development of the fungus. In 944 AD in Southern France, 40,000 people died as a result of Ergot. 

It  was not until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuiller, put forth the concept that it was not an infectious disease but one that was due to the consumption of Rye infected with Ergot, or what the French farmers called Cockspurs. Thuiller knew the “cockspurs” had been used by alchemists in their potions to hasten childbirth but he could not convince farmers these were the cause of this dreaded disease.

In 1853, Louis Tulasne, an early mycologist and illustrator, worked out the life cycle for the Ergot of Rye and concluded that it was a fungus and this, not the Rye, was the culprit.
If you wish to read more, including frightening historic accounts of the effects of this fungus, I may oblige.