A Scientific Explanation?

In modern times, there is perhaps a valid scientific explanation for some symptoms experienced by those accused of witchcraft during the witch-mania in Europe. In 1976, Linda Caporael, a behavioural scientist, offered the first evidence that the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 followed an outbreak of rye ergot.77 

Ergot is a parasitic fungus found on cereal grasses, especially rye. This fungus thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. Ergot naturally produces a wide range of chemical compounds, all of which generate psycho-activity to some degree. Ergot also narrows and constricts the blood vessels, which if severe can lead to gangrene of the extremities. Ergot alkaloids include lysergic acid, from which LSD is made. Toxicologists now know that symptoms of ergot-poisoning include hallucinations, severe mental disturbances, delusions, convulsions, vertigo, vomiting, crawling sensations on the skin, and tingling and painful burning sensations in the extremities – all these symptoms were reported during the European and Salem witch trials. In severe cases of ergot-poisoning, peripheral vaso-constriction leads to gangrene and death. Interestingly, livestock fed with infected grain often become sterile, reminding us that causing barrenness in livestock was one of the many charges so often levelled at the accused. 

In her book, Poisons of the Past: Moulds, Epidemics and History,78 Mary Matossian, tells a story about rye ergot reaching far beyond Salem, encompassing seven centuries of demographics and weather and crop records from Europe and America. Her research determined that during the Middle Ages, ergot was a widespread parasite of cereal grains in Europe, growing especially well during excessively damp springs and summers. As heat does not break down the psychoactive compounds in ergot, they would have been present in bread baked from ergotised grains. Besides the symptoms of ‘bewitchment’, ergot seriously weakens the immune system, leading Mary Matossian to argue that drops in population because of epidemics such as the Black Death followed diets heavy in rye bread with climate ideal for ergot to flourish. Witch-hunts hardly occurred in those European areas where rye was not grown as a staple food and climate was not conducive to ergot.  

In 1951, the publicity surrounding an outbreak of ergot poisoning in Pont St. Esprit, a small town in France, gave insight into what might have been experienced over centuries in medieval times when grains made up the people’s staple diet. The local bakery in Pont St. Esprit inadvertently sold bread contaminated with ergot. Consequently, four people died, and countless others suffered hallucinations, vomiting, crawling sensations under the skin, violent convulsions, and other typical symptoms of ergot poisoning. Although inevitable speculation by the superstitious arose about possession, bewitchment, and a belief that the devil occupied the bakery, ergot was unquestionably found to be the culprit through laboratory testing.


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