“The afflicted thronged to the churches and invoked the saints. The cries of those in pain and the shedding of burned-up limbs alike excited pity; the stench of rotten flesh was unbearable.” This was the famous description given by François Eudes de Mézeray, the famous French historian of the 17th century, to describe ‘Saint-Anthony’s-Fire.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
This description isn’t in the least exaggerated. This was the actual condition of people in France in the middle ages who suffered from the dreaded disease.
Ergotism is a disease which is caused by the consumption of foods that are contaminated with the fungus called Ergot. It is parasitic and grows on crops like wheat and barley and produces highly potent and harmful alkaloids which upon ingestion cause hallucinations, irrational behavior, convulsions, vascular restrictions that can lead to gangrene and loss of limbs, and death. It is also to be noted that the compounds produced by the fungi are chemically related to the psychoactive compound called lysergic acid diethylamide also called LSD. This is the explanation given by toxicologists as to why the patients experienced such evocative hallucinations.
The outbreak has been thought to be caused due to the consumption of rye bread which had been contaminated by the fungus. Rye was initially considered to be a weed grain as it grew wherever wheat grew. But gradually it came to be cultivated in lands which were abandoned or weren’t potent enough for the cultivation of wheat. Thus, in a way we can say that wherever civilization went, rye would follow it there. Since bread was the staple food in France at the time and the fungi were parasitic and proliferated very quickly, it was responsible for the death of above 40,000 people thus making it a food-borne epidemic.
Why is it called Saint Anthony’s Fire?
Well, that’s the funny part. The world before science was indeed a strange time to be alive. People who’d contracted the disease at that time thought that they were possessed by the devil. Well, you can’t blame them, imagine waking up one day with the feeling of your skin burning and seeing vivid hallucinations (Yikes!). With the spread of religion, the idea of “faith healing” (Curing an ailment through prayers) was also being widespread. This didn’t seem illogical to them at the time and even if it seemed, nobody had the right to question it as the church was an institution of supreme power and authority and anyone who went against it was called heretics and was imprisoned. That’s where St. Anthony comes into the picture. He was a religious saint who was tested by the devil with several temptations. Anthony’s faith in his religion had granted him the strength to fight them all. The condition’s association with St. Anthony was further strengthened because the vivid hallucinations induced by the alkaloids were linked to the visions shown to Anthony by the devil. Surprisingly, monks of Saint Anthony’s order were able to successfully treat and cure the patients.
Is this the first concrete proof of faith healing? Was it a miracle?
It’s just a case of misunderstanding. Yes, the patients were cured. But it wasn’t due to faith healing though. We must consider the fact that the majority of the patients were peasants who’d consumed substantial amounts of rye bread. In the well-endowed institutions set up by the monks to treat the disease, the patients were given foods made of high-quality grains such as bread from wheat. They also applied a lard-based ointment on the gangrene affected areas of the body and called this “St Anthony’s water”. They were also given concoctions of different herbs and medicinal plants which may have flushed the toxins out of the body. Thus, they were cured by the ‘evangelic’ efforts of St. Anthony’s monks.
The sad part though is how most of the people who were diagnosed with the disease, died without knowing the real reason for it and how they were cured as the real reason behind it was only discovered back in 1676, by the French Royal Academy of Sciences.
Hence, this became civilization’s first foodborne epidemic. Making it one of the most important and interesting cases for food toxicologists.
The world before science was indeed, very strange.
Also, coming back to the modern world, if you want to learn about the potential use of telematics in the food sector, do check our article.