tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)
“An old cautionary tale has it that there once was a kingdom in which all the grain crop one exceptional year somehow became poisoned, causing anyone who ate its products to go insane. That posed a terrible dilemma for the king and his advisors, for the stores of grain from previous years were very modest, not nearly enough to feed the entire population of the land, and there was no way to procure food from without. The kingdom would face either widespread famine and starvation, if the harvest was destroyed, or widespread madness and chaos. After much deliberation, the king reluctantly decided to have the people go ahead and eat the grain, hoping its effects would be temporary, that at the very least human lives would be preserved. ‘But,’ he added, ‘we must at the same time keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years. That way there will at least be a few among us who will remember that the rest of us are insane.'”
—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale
This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that lead to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.
Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.
Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:
“On Christmas Eve in 1021, 18 people gathered outside a church in the German town of Kölbigk and danced with wild abandon. The priest, unable to perform Mass because of the irreverent din from outside, ordered them to stop. Ignoring him, they held hands and danced a ‘ring dance of sin’, clapping, leaping, and chanting in unison. The enraged priest, recorded a local chronicler, cursed them to dance for an entire year as a punishment for their outrageous levity. It worked. Not until the following Christmas did the dancers regain control of their limbs. Exhausted and repentant, they fell into a deep sleep. Some of them never awoke.”
—John Waller, A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania
Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism. The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.
It wasn’t until the physician Denis Dodart, in 1676 C.E., has the insight that “St Anthony’s Fire” did not behave like other infectious diseases with which he was familiar that a formal connection between ergot on rye and the disease was articulated. But, informally, this was already well known:
“Millers in the Middle Ages frequently kept clean rye flour for the affluent, selling flour made from ‘spurred rye’ — that infected with Ergot — to poorer customers.”
—Richard Evans Schultes, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers
Millers understood the difference in the flours and why some rye was ‘spurred’ long before Denis Dodart. People also understood the connection, because the ‘spurred rye’ was eaten last, when all the other stores of food were gone and the spring crops had not reached the point of harvest, a period once referred to as “the starving time”. It wasn’t until the famine in continential Europe in the 1770s that an alternative food source, i.e., the potato, was adopted that food security became important to nations and famine in Europe was brought under control. With an alternative, there was less need for the poor population to eat ‘spurred rye’. Even then, as late as the 1800s, there were some documented epidemics where up to 40% of a population dependent on ergot contaminated rye for food would die from the disease, which were presumably better odds than surviving a famine without eating it.
Knowing the context beyond “somehow became poisoned” changes the way we understand the king’s situation. On one level, it’s a cautionary tale on ignorance. Ergot is a completely preventable disease. Before milling, the rye grain needs to be soaked in a saline solution which seperates the ergot from the grain. Ergot spores live in the first inch of soil and only live for a year, which means that deep tilling and crop rotation can be effective in eliminating it. But, you cannot address a problem, if you don’t understand it. It is why that there were waves of ergot poisioning decimating urban populations every few years for centuries. This cautionary tale was a fact of life for community leaders in a previous time.
On another level, it invites us to revisit our notions of madness and the role of hallucinogenics in society and for individuals. If it is true that in a time when everyone is mad from ergot that it is important that a king “keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years”, perhaps it is equally as important to keep a few mad people that will remember what it’s like to not be strapped to the yoke of sanity. Our literature is filled with stories of shamen, oracles and seers that can see beyond the social framework of the sane. There are spiritual traditions — mostly among aboriginal communities but also within civilized society, such as the Eleusinian Mystery cults — where a ritualized experience of madness is a valuable vehicle for personal and social transformation and bonding. Perhaps in a world where ergot poisioning has been eradicated, some hallucinogenic ergot should be kept aside for those that would choose it. Why would anyone choose it?
“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying…There seems to me at least a moderate chance that they will make you more interesting without your consent – whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on exactly how interesting you want to be.”
—Scott Alexander, WHY WERE EARLY PSYCHEDELICISTS SO WEIRD?
The current trends of LSD microdosing suggest that trying to be a little more interesting might pay real dividends in our society. One is left to imagine the power of a communal approach to expanding openness, such as in a context like O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, where hallucinogenics are taken as part of a religious experience.