This article was originally published on VICE France.
In August of 1951, a strange illness descended on the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit. Victims complained of abdominal pains, delirium and hallucinations of flames and hellish creatures. Some tried to throw themselves out of their windows to escape the imaginary inferno. Others wandered the streets, their screams heard above the ambulance sirens, in scenes that must have been reminiscent of zombie films.
More than 300 people in the region were taken into medical care. Five died and about 60 ended up in psychiatric hospitals, with some still hallucinating a month later.
Today, the question of just what caused the mysterious illness still sparks debate. But many medical specialists and historians agree that it might have been rye ergot fungus, a parasite that latches onto rye crops, but also wheat, barley, oats and wild grass.
Those affected at the time would most likely have eaten bread made with contaminated rye flour and contracted what we now call "ergotism". But in the Middle Ages, people gave it more fantastical and frightening names: "burning disease", "hell fire" or "St Anthony's fire" and “St Andrew’s fire”, after the order of French monks who cared for victims.
Ergotism was likely discovered when humans began cultivating grain, about 10,000 years ago. Roman scholar Pliny is the first to mention ergot-infested grain much later, in the first century AD, but not until after historians and chemists described the Greeks using the fungus as a chemical weapon and a psychoactive drug during the celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Ergot owes its effects to its alkaloids, or organic compounds found in plants well-known for their medical benefits. Examples are morphine (from poppies), which relieves pain, atropine (from berries), a treatment for poisons, and quinine (from the bark of the cinchona tree), used to treat malaria. Each of these are part of the WHO's list of essential medicines, but each can be harmful, even fatal. They're all good, and they’re all poisonous. Similarly, the alkaloids in ergot can both heal and cause horrific illness.
In the 10th century, ergotism regularly killed tens of thousands in western Europe, when famines forced the poor to eat contaminated grain. Writers of that era described its most awful symptom: gangrene. "Several men had their limbs afflicted by sores in Paris and neighbouring towns,” wrote the historian Flodoard during an epidemic in the year 945. “The limbs, burnt bit by bit, were consumed until death ended the torment.” About 50 years later, the fungus killed 40,000 in the south of France. Monk Raoul Glaber, who was also convinced that the black and withered body parts had been burned, wrote, “At that time a terrible plague struck down upon men, that is to say a hidden fire which, when it attacked a limb, consumed it and detached it from the body.”
But despite these horrific symptoms, the same properties inside ergot are now used to treat migraines. And that’s not its only remarkable use.
Experts have identified two forms of ergotism: gangrenous, as above, and convulsive – less deadly but just as frightening. Ergot activates the same neurotransmitters as serotonin, which are essential for the proper functioning of our digestive system, our mood and our sleep-wake cycle.
In massive doses, serotonin produces what we call serotonin syndrome, when the brain sends erratic signals to the rest of the body. The intestines empty themselves, muscles contract, skin is covered in sweat and the mind becomes confused. Taking MDMA can also trigger it – if you’ve ever clenched your teeth while rushing, you’ve had a tiny taste of the syndrome.
Convulsive ergotism was a type of serotonin syndrome, with the alkaloids in the fungus harming the body by overwhelming the brain. Convulsive ergotism swept through Norway from the Middle Ages until the 17th Century, causing victims to convulse violently for hours at a time, locking their limbs into grotesque and painful positions and sometimes requiring several people to overpower a victim. The convulsions were so strong they could cause pregnant women to miscarry, while historians describe wrists and hands having to be broken in order for people to regain mobility, or spines bent so far that victims were curled up into painful "balls".
These same alkaloids have also been hugely important in obstetrics, as they cause powerful contractions in the uterus. From the 1500s, midwives fed the fungus to women to induce labour, but that stopped in the 1800s due to side effects such as uterine rupture. Today, doctors still use it for postpartum haemorrhage, or major blood-loss after childbirth.
Like in 1950s France, the ergot hallucinations in medieval Norway were mysterious and morbid. The visions were connected to the horrific physical symptoms of the disease: the burn of gangrene became the fire of hell. Naturally, in those times, the disease was often blamed on the supernatural. Victims of the sudden convulsions believed they were being harassed or possessed by demons. At other times, creatures in the visions were perceived as friends to witches in the village. Many believe the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th Century were in fact the result of hallucinations caused by contaminated rye. However, the hallucinations were interpreted as witchcraft and 20 people were hanged.
It was around that time that a few doctors and experts made the link between ergot and the weird events. Thanks to a number of methods (including pesticides and the breeding of fungus-resistant crops), ergotism was practically eradicated within the next century, save for what many believe was a re-emergence in the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit.
In the 1930s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann became interested in the fungus. His work with ergot would result in treatments for haemorrhages, infertility, Parkinson's disease and, later, a molecule of serious cultural influence: LSD. Famously, Hofmann was actually trying to create a compound to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems when he formulated LSD-25, his 25th ergot-based compound. Years after drug companies had given up on the substance, Hofmann accidentally ingested some and the rest was history.
Thankfully, LSD hallucinations are very different from the fiery visions of poor ergot victims. But the drug is just another use of a fungus that's profoundly influenced history in the West: spanning epidemics, belief in the supernatural, the pharmaceutical industry and even the arts. Everything from apocalyptic paintings of the Flemish School to the psychedelic music of the 70s carries the mark of a fungus that can take you to heaven or hell.