You Can't Keep Blaming Everything in the Past on Ergot Poisoning

Breughel's Dance at Molenbeek
Breughel's Dance at Molenbeek

I don't mean to place responsibility squarely on your shoulders – you may be entirely blameless in the matter – but it's up to all of us to put a stop to it. For the last fifteen years or so, it seems you can hardly tour a historical estate in Massachusetts or watch a British murder mystery without hearing:

  • "Oh, what if it was caused by ergot poisoning?*"
  • "Ergot poisoning would explain many of these symptoms"
  • "Likely it was ergot poisoning, poor devils"

If you listen to this sort, you'd believe that ergot poisoning caused everything from the Battle of Hastings to William Blake. Did a historical figure have bold visions? Ergot poisoning. What about the Dancing Plague of 1518? Ergot poisoning. Salem witch trials, or witch trials more generally? Friend, you'd better believe that was a serious case of ergot poisoning!

What happened to the lost Eastern Settlements of Norse Greenland? What caused the night battles of the benandanti? What was the cause of the Children's Crusade, who was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and just why did the White Ship founder on the rock known as Quillebœuf outside Barfleur on a cold November night in 1120? That's trouble with a t, and that rhymes with e, and that stands for ergot poisoning. What links Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the Oracle at Delphi? Ergot poisoning!

It was ergot poisoning that convinced the so-called witches of Europe they could fly with the Devil, and it was ergot poisoning that convinced their church persecutors to go on witch hunts in the first place! If there was a parade in some remote alpine canton, or any kind of popular folk tradition that involves throwing fruit, it's evidence of a grand underground pagan conspiracy caused by ergot poisoning!!!! Religious syncretism is also caused by ergot poisoning! Ditto the Great Cat Massacre of the 1730s. Bog bodies, that's ergotism; ceremonial magic, probably ergot poisoning. Pharmakon is ergot poisoning and ergot poisoning pharmakon.

When you need the cause of an unexplained behavior of phenomenon to be drugs, but not drugs on purpose, why not reach for a handy bottle of ergot poisoning? It's got most of the effects of a hallucinogen, but you won't have to furnish an explanation as to why the entire Puritan legal apparatus of Salem Colony was tripping daily.

Later "ergot poisoning" as a catch-all explanation for unexplained phenomena migrated out of historical study and into popular culture, becoming to procedurals of the 2000/10s what "I ate/absorbed my twin in the womb" was to comedies of the same period: suddenly and bafflingly everywhere, without explanation. "Why not add some ergot poisoning, just in case," everyone seemed to say.

When did "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" get replaced with "If someone in the past did something we find baffling today, it was probably because of poisoned bread! If they'd been eating regular bread like we do, they'd share all our values and cultural expectations," that's what I'd like to know! Who do you blame for this? I prefer Piero Camporesi and the rest of the Italian cultural historians of the 1980s, but I'm open to blaming more!

*You know what I mean. It's that fungus that can infect rye and either kills you or drives you insane or gives you gangrene. And of course sometimes people have gotten ergot poisoning, but it's usually pretty specific one-offs like at Pont-Saint-Esprit and everyone who survives it says things like "We noticed the bread that day was grey and mostly liquid." You know if you've gotten ergot poisoning, is what I'm trying to say!!

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]