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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ergot and Ergotism: A Monograph

Barger, George. (1931).
London: Gurney and Jackson.

ISBN: none

Description: hardcover, xvi + 279 pages.

Contents: preface, 6 chapters, bibliography and index of authors, subject index.

Notes: Based on the Dohme Lectures Delivered in Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Excerpt(s): German names.—Although we cannot agree with Tschirch, "that ergot started its triumphal career from Germany" - it was first introduced into official medicine in America and France-we may recognise with him that it is a German drug; the beginnings of its history are in German folk-lore. The association of theriomorphic and anthropomorphic demons with corn has been studied by Mannhardt in his [1865] and Korndamonen [1868]; when the corn waved in the wind, the corn mother was said to pass through the field; her children were the rye wolves and ergot was of her making. In Bavarian folk-lore there was a male spirit of the corn, "Kornvater," and in Austria this name is applied to ergot itself (Daubrawa). According to Nature, this spirit of the corn is known in England as "corn" or "kern baby," "corn maiden," "corn mother," "corn dolly," "hare" and so forth.

In Germany ergot seems at first to have been identified with the corn mother, as the old name Rockenmutter implies [Thalius 1588; Schwenchkfelt 1600; Stocker 1634]. The term Mutterkorn seems to be of somewhat later date [M. Hoffmann 1662]; according to Mannhardt it most probably involves a connexion with the corn mother, rather than an allusion to the action of ergot on the womb. The same idea is contained in Kornmutter, Kornmuhme, Roggenmuhme, Meelmutter, Mutterlein, Rockenmutterle, and in Mutterkornlein, Stiefmutterkorn, and a similar one in Kornvater and Kornmanner. …

Earliest references.—This great wealth of names implies an early German familiarity with ergot, in contrast to the ignorance concerning it in England. It is not surprising that the first unmistakable mention of the drug itself (as distinct from its toxic effects in epidemics) was a German book, the 1582 edition of Adam Lonicer's Kreuterbuch … (pages 6-7)

Supposed references to ergot and ergotism by the Ancients. - Kobert [1889], in a learned article, collected a large number of passages from Greek and Roman authors, referring, as he supposed, to ergot and its effects, but it would seem that he was carried away by enthusiasm for his subject. Husemann could not agree that ergot was know to the Greeks and Romans, already for the simple reason that rye was hardly grown round the Mediterranean in classical times. This does not indeed dispose of the possiblility that other cereals, or even fodder grasses, were occasionally ergotised, but a scrutiny of the passages mentioned by Kobert would seem to leave little doubt that ergot was unknown to classical writers. Passages in Pliny's Natural History, and particularly his mention of the Rubigalia, have often been cited by writers on ergot. This festival was instituted to ward off a disease of corn, which was in all probability not ergot, but rust, as the name would indeed indicate; nor is there anything in Pliny's descriptions of barley, wheat and rye, which to my mind suggests a reference to ergot. The same applies to the noxious wheat mentioned by Columella. Korbert even quotes a passage from Plautus … and suggests quite gratuitously that in this case instead of darnel (lolium), ergot was meant. Perhaps the least improbably reference to ergot itself is by Galen in de alimentorum facultatibus. In discussing seeds which are apt to be present in corn as impurities, Galen mentions a black wheat … which is formed by a change … from wheat, but is much less harmful than darnel or tares. It is not clear whether the "black wheat" was formed by an actual transformation of the seed on a wheat plant, or whether it was an entirely different species, assumed to be formed from sown wheat by a kind of mutation, in which classical writers were apt to believe (compare for instance, Columella). That "black wheat" was an entirely different plant is the view of modern writers. But if the wheat grain itself was transformed, the reference might still refer both to smut and to ergot. In the same chapter Galen discusses symptoms due to a heavy contamination of corn with darnel in a year when, owing to scarcity, the farmers and bakers did not clean the corn with the sieves intended for the purpose; the symptoms (headache, and afterwards ulcers) were not exactly those of ergotism. This passage has been dealt with at length, because it illustrates the difficulties of identifying ergot in classical writings; it also shows that Galen was fully aware of the dangers of poisonous corn, and of the need of cleaning it.

Most of Kobert's passages are not supposed references to ergot itself, but to its effects. He attempted to show that the plague at Athens in the Peloponnesian War was an epidemic of smallpox in a population suffering from latent ergotism. Thucydides states that the mortality was highest among the physicians, which points to an infectious disease (plague?). Kobert quoted modern Russian cases in support of his view that intercurrent infections of typhoid, pneumonia, etc., may cause latent ergotism to develop into gangrene. He further assumed that the Athenians lived on ergotised grain imported from what is now Southern Russia, and that the home-grown grain of the Spartans was not ergotised. Kobert's theories have been adversely criticised.

Caesar, in the Civil War mentions a grave pestilence at the siege of Marseilles, due to poisonous grain, but here there is no mention of the symptoms. The ignis sacer of Lucretius was not ergotism, to which this term was only applied in the later Middle Ages.

Kobert cites a number of isolated references to gangrene and other possible effects of ergot in the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen. Single cases of gangrene may well have been due to other causes. Hippocrates mentions abortion in certain women after a wet winter and dry spring (favouring the growth of ergot?), and elsewhere he attributes an oxytocic action to barley (assumed by Kobert to be ergotised.) … the main question must be answered in the negative: there is no evidence that ergotised cereals were known to the Greeks and Romans; nor were there outbreaks of ergotism, such as those caused by ergot of rye in the Middle Ages.

According to Schelenz ergot seems to have been used in Chinese midwifery at a very early date. Leclerc considers that ergot was know to the Moorish physician Avicenna (980-1037)…

Ergotism in the Middle Ages.—The chronicles of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly in France, mention epidemics of a disease which they call fire, often "holy fire" or ignis sacer, and sometimes arsura, clades or pestis igniaria, feu sacre, or mal des ardens. In the thirteenth century this fire became associated with St. Anthony and St. Martial, and was also known as ignis Beatae Virginis, invisibilis or infernalis. References to it became rarer and ceased in the fourteenth century, until it was identified in the eighteenth as gangrenous ergotism. The name ignis sacer had already been used by ancient writers (e.g. Lucretius) for an entirely different disorder, a chronic skin disease or erysipelas, and was also used in the fourteenth and subsequent centuries as a synonym for ignis persicus or anthrax. These and various other sources of confusion in the nomenclature misled some epidemiologists, until Fuchs [1834] cleared up the matter by basing his inquiry on the symptoms mentioned in the chronicles.

He found the earliest reference to ergotism in the Annales Xantenses for the year 857. (I) a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death…

A plague of "fire" is first mentioned in 945, in and around Paris. Limbs were burnt up and gradually consumed, until death ended the torment. As many as could reach the church of St. Mary in Paris were saved, and Duke Hugh 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 sound grain, and relapses occurred when the patients fell back on their own supplies (pages 40-44).

About this time there are other less precise references to ergotism; Ramazzini attributed an epidemic of 1693 in Lombardy to rubigo (rust), Hoyer one of 1699-1700 near Mulhausen to honey-dew, which he considered identical with rubigo. Hoyer did not connect the epidemic with ergot, although he stated that in 1699 there was more "Mutterkorn" in Thuringia than had been observed in living memory … The disease reappeared in a mild form in Switzerland in 1716, and in this and the following year an outbreak of the purely convulsive type occurred both in Holstein and in Saxony, giving rise to numerous publications (nearly a dozen in 1717) … In Saxony grain was, however, regarded as the cause of the convulsions; this was implied in the local name "Kornstaupe" … The Saxon epidemic was also dealt with by Wedel and by Wilisch. The latter writes of the "rare disease" of which few have heard and still fewer have seen anything. Severe cases differed only from true epilepsy in that the patients were conscious. Often three-quarters of the grain consisted of ergot and other impurities. It was even the subject of a printed sermon and of a theological thesis; a belief in witchcraft was still prevalent and many believed the sufferers from convulsive ergotism to be possessed by demons. About this time some cases in St. Annaberg in Saxony led to much controversy, … Arnold in his translation [1726] of Bishop Hutchinson's Historical Essay on Witchcraft, discusses this controversy at length. Albrecht [1743] remarks that "through ignorance of natural causes" the common people were apt to "ascribe the symptoms of this peculiar disease to the action of spells" (statim ad fascina refert). Later in the eighteenth century the help of the clergy was enlisted in teaching the people the harmful effects of ergot. (pages 70-71)

Conditions favouring the growth of ergot.—A heavy infection of rye, such as caused epidemics in the past, is rare, and only arises through a coincidence of several circumstances. It has long been known that the chief factor is wet season, at least on the Continent of Europe (in Ireland the growth of ergot is said to be favoured by a dry summer). There must be enough moisture in the spring for the germination of the sclerotia and the development of ascospores, but the dissemination of the latter is favoured by dry and windy weather. The atmospheric conditions during the flowering period of the rye are doubtless of the greatest importance; normally this period lasts only for a week, but it may be much prolonged by cold and rain. When infection has once taken place, the growth of the sclerotium is favoured by heat, which probably also increases its alkaloidal content and toxicity. All these factors contributed in exceptional years to make the rye crop particularly dangerous …

Apart from the weather, local factors may have considerable effect, particularly in hilly country. Often a particular valley or even a single low-lying field was much more heavily ergotised than its neighbours, and led to sporadic outbreaks of ergotism.

The great susceptibility of rye, as compared with other cereals, is based on the fact that rye, unlike wheat or barley, depends largely on cross-fertilisation, and opens its glumes in order to receive pollen from other plants; after fertilisation the glumes are again closed, but when owing to adverse weather or other circumstance, pollination does not occur, the glumes remain open much longer, and the risk of infection by ergot conidia is thereby increased. Ergot is generally more abundant on the edge of a field than in the middle, probably because the plants on the periphery are not so readily pollinated, or are more frequently visited by insects. (pages 98-99).

Much interest was aroused when Stoll [1918] discovered a third ergot alkaloid, ergotamine, which crystallises readily and has a physiological activity indistinguishable from that of ergotoxine. It can be converted into an inactive isomeride ergotaminine. Stoll's new pair of alkaloids are evidently very closely related to the older pair. They occur only in certain specimens of ergot, and it has been questioned whether these are of the official variety. Smith and Timmis described the crystallisation of ergotoxine, so that now four distinct crystalline alkaloids have been obtained from ergot.

As a drug of great pharmacological interest, ergot has been much more closely investigated than any other fungus, and has thus been found to contain a number of substances of general biochemical interest, which have not been observed in green plants. Ergot contains a number of simple amines, usually found only as the result of bacterial action. It was through the investigation of ergot extracts that the remarkable and unsuspected pharmacological properties of histamine were discovered, which have since given rise to a voluminous literature. Ergosterol, first accurately studied as a constituent of ergot by Tanret has been found widely diffused in nature and has acquired great biological importance as the parent substance of vitamin-D. Ergothioneine, a base discovered in ergot by Tanret, was later encountered in mammalian blood, and may ultimately lead to the recognition of a new unit of protein. Thus the chemistry of ergot has a general interest, exceeding that of any other drug. (page 124)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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