The Ergot Epidemic
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Mold in Human History - The Ergot Epidemic [Book review]
In her book, Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History, Mary Kilbourne Matossian (a history professor) presents overwhelming evidence that the population of Europe was held down for 500 years by endemic mold-induced food poisoning called ergot or ergotism. Although most sources attribute this long epidemic to fungi in the genus Claviceps, she also gives credit to the genus Fusarium. Both genera infected rye kernels before and after harvest, producing toxic, long-acting alkaloids (e.g., ergotamine).
In northern Europe the poor, who lived on rye bread and little else, were the most affected. Women miscarried and children died frequently. Those who survived childhood had chronic illnesses, gangrene, and mental disturbances. Their hallucinations and seizures were interpreted as witchcraft, possession, or divine inspiration. No one knew that their diet was responsible for their misfortune. Not until wheat and potatoes began to replace rye did the epidemic abate.
Wealthy households were never affected as much as poor households, because their servants prepared the grain as gruel, boiling it over a fire for about a half hour, which broke down the toxin. They also enjoyed a more diverse diet, including meat and white bread.
Ergot was responsible for the low birth rate and high death rate in Europe from perhaps as early as 1250 to 1750. It even provided occasion for the Salem witch trials, because the early settlers of Massachusetts planted rye, ate rye bread, and experienced hallucinations and seizures just as the Europeans did. Even as late as 1945, ergotism was still retarding the population growth of Russia.
As a strong influence on population and quality of life in Europe for half a millenium, mold had a massive effect on the course of history. (Matossian’s book is fascinating! You can buy it for $23.90 from Books Now by calling 1-800-266-5766, ext. 1494.)