A Rye Old Saint or the Devil You Know

Rye bread

Without any doubt corn, has to be the most important crop of all. But what is it? Well, to an American, corn is maize, to an Englishman it would be wheat, and for a Scot it could be either barley or oats. To put it simply corn is the word used in the English language to describe the most commonly grown local cereal crop (whatever that might be). So if the language was spoken in northern Europe it would mean rye and similarly it would be rice in Asia. Never mind the technicalities of species definitions, corn is the crop that people everywhere use to make the two commodities that are essential for civilised living namely; bread and beer! Consequently, just about anywhere on the planet you will find the locals eating something that is just about recognisable as bread and drinking some form of beer. Today this huge variety may form the basis of the beer festival or baker’s window display, but historically it resulted in a story so strange that miracles and saints had to be invoked to explain it.

In those long-gone days of the Dark Ages, before western society had much scientific understanding of cause and effect, the staple grain of northern parts of Europe with its harsh cold winters and hot summers was rye. In Holland, Poland, Germany and northern France where rye bread was commonly eaten, there were frequent outbreaks of what was called the Holy Fire (ignis sacer) or St Anthony’s fire.  The condition was thought to result from the sufferer being visited by the devil or being possessed by evil spirits.  Those poor souls inflicted with the Holy Fire reported intense pain, burning in the skin, convulsions and experiencing vivid hallucinations. More extreme cases were associated with the arms and legs becoming gangrenous, the limbs rapidly turning black, mummifying, drying out and most alarmingly just falling off without warning or bleeding.  Outbreaks often affected entire villages. In Aquitaine, in 994 AD 40,000 people are thought to have died from the Holy Fire. It would seem quite reasonable therefore for a traveller happening across a settlement whose inhabitants were experiencing mass hallucinations and screaming out in pain, to conclude that the population had been taken over by evil spirits and that the only solution would be to call in the church to exorcise the entire township or burn the residents as practitioners of the dark arts.

Faced with just such a desperate situation the Bishop of Aquitaine exhibited the bones of St Martial. More famously and as it turns out effectively, the bones of St Anthony the Hermit (not a job you see advertised much these days) were purported to offer a cure. The old saint lived originally in the desert near Alexandria. After his death his bones were taken to Constantinople when the Saracens seized Alexandria. In 1070 they were moved again by the Crusader Geslin II to Vienne in France. Here an order of monks dedicated to the shrine of St Anthony become famous for their ability to cure St Anthony’s fire and oddly enough for their abilities to perform amputations.  Pilgrims to the shrine suffering from St Anthony’s fire drank a liquor called St Vinage that had been exposed to the bones of the Saint on Ascension Day, and it is reported that, all were cured in the space of seven days, except for those that died (which is always good to have in the small print).

In these enlightened days we are less inclined to believe in evil sprits. The true cause of St Anthony’s fire and the reason that a pilgrimage to the shrine at Vienne was indeed able to affect a cure are related to the consumption of rye bread. In wet years rye is frequently infected with a fungus which causes hard black spike like objects to form within the head of cereals. These ergot fungi are known to infect a wide range of grasses including most of our important cereal crops, but are particularly common in rye and particularly in wetter years. Unfortunately ergot fungi have been found to produce a range of highly toxic chemicals. Some of these have the effect of constricting blood flow and are responsible for the burning sensation in the skin and in extreme cases the loss of limbs, and because of this old herbalists used ergots to stop the blood flow after child birth and to induce abortion.  Another of the alkaloids found in ergots is closely related to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and this of course is responsible for the hallucination experienced by those suffering from St Anthony’s fire. So we have a scientific explanation for the symptoms. What about the cure?

Imagine you are suffering from a burning in the skin, and your mind is playing games with you, so on advice from the local clergy, you set off from home somewhere in northern Europe to the shrine of St Anthony in France. On foot, this takes several weeks and your supply of rye bread sandwiches would rapidly run out.  The further south you travelled, the more likely it would be that the bread you ate would be made from wheat flour and certainly it would be likely to be drier and thus less contaminated by ergots. By the time you had reached Vienne, your diet would have been free of rye and ergots long enough for your symptoms to have disappeared. A miraculous cure! Assuming your legs had not fallen off on route.

History is littered with tales of humans doing the weirdest of things and many have been interpreted as possible cases of ergot poisoning. For example, it has been suggested that the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 when 19 people were hung as practitioners of the dark arts, were the result of them being poisoned by ergot contamination. Weather records do indicate that the two summers involved were particularly wet and that these were followed by dry summers with no records of witchcraft. As recently as 1951 in Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France, seven people died and 50 were sent to asylums because of their erratic behaviour. This was widely reported as an outbreak of St Anthony’s fire, but the true cause may have been mercury poisoning resulting from fungicide coated grain. This brings us right up to date. Warnings issued by agricultural scientists argue that eating organic food could be injurious to health because it could be potentially contaminated with toxic fungi.  In contrast organic farmers argue that these scare-stories are over stated and it is much better to consume a few natural contaminants than be poisoned by artificial chemical pesticides. Better the devil you know!



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