Was it just a bad acid trip?
July 30, 2006 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a story idea which involves the European witch hunts in the middle of the last millennium. I have read that they may have been caused, in part, by mass hallucinations resulting from a fungal infection on the rye crop. Rye ergot is an ingredient in the manufacture of LSD. Is there anyone who can point me to some research (valid or not) which might confirm/deny the mass hallucination angle?
posted by hobocode to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There was an episode of PBS's Secrets of the Dead on this.
posted by jrossi4r at 1:29 PM on July 30, 2006

I know ergot has been discussed in the context of the Salem witch trials. Googling "ergot salem" gets you many more hits. I'm don't know if similar research has been done in the European witch hunts.
posted by pombe at 1:31 PM on July 30, 2006

Be sure to check out this previous MeFi thread: Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?
posted by ericb at 1:34 PM on July 30, 2006

Dr. George J. Wong, Associate Professor of Botany, University of Hawaii at Manoa on Ergot of Rye.
posted by ericb at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2006

This review of Ergot and Ergotism: A Monograph might prove helpful; from the section on Ergotism in the Middle Ages:

"It was even the subject of a printed sermon and of a theological thesis; a belief in witchcraft was still prevalent and many believed the sufferers from convulsive ergotism to be possessed by demons. About this time some cases in St. Annaberg in Saxony led to much controversy, … Arnold in his translation [1726] of Bishop Hutchinson's Historical Essay on Witchcraft, discusses this controversy at length. Albrecht [1743] remarks that "through ignorance of natural causes" the common people were apt to "ascribe the symptoms of this peculiar disease to the action of spells" (statim ad fascina refert). Later in the eighteenth century the help of the clergy was enlisted in teaching the people the harmful effects of ergot. (pages 70-71)"

That would seem to support your theory.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2006

I tend to dismiss this out of hand, as witch hunts and trials were going on in England to a high degree during this period as well. It's a wonder that the folks in Salem didn't burn people for being suspected "papists".
posted by thanotopsis at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2006

As mentioned is the other MeFi thread -- The Straight Dopes take on it:
Q. Were the witches of Salem a result of poisoning with ergot fungus?

A. Not likely.
posted by ericb at 1:45 PM on July 30, 2006

I'm a "dismiss out of hand" too.

Perhaps people want to believe there was some external cause for so many people doing so many unforgiveable things.

Was McCarthyism influenced by poisoned pop-tarts? Did Krystalnacht start out with over-ripe pumpernickel? Was Cambodia's "Year Zero" prompted by ergot-y rice? It'd be nice if it were true. Then it'd be an interesting bit of trivia, not just people being evil.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Single women (usually widowers reluctant to remarry) owning land assets on the borders of the town tended to be over-represented in those accused. Therefore, a large part of the motivation for accusations seems to have been economic opportunism by landless and land-constrained males eager to expand their holdings or otherwise get more land "into circulation".

A big motivation seems to have been land use disagreements.
posted by meehawl at 2:08 PM on July 30, 2006

There was a documentary shown on the ABC in Australia on the Salem Witch Trials a few years ago, where they tested the conditions, plants grown etc in the area, and confirmed that it was most likely a fungal rot that caused the hallucinations. It was made in Britain (well, at least the hot was British) but I can't for the life of me remember what it was called, and my old school books are inaccessible so thats the best I can do.
posted by cholly at 2:17 PM on July 30, 2006

host, not hot. dammit.
posted by cholly at 2:18 PM on July 30, 2006

You may find it worthwhile to read Acceptable Risk, a novel by Robin Cook that has a subplot focusing on the rye hallucination angle in the Salem witch trials.
posted by i love cheese at 2:25 PM on July 30, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses thus far. It's very helpful. The Wong citation esp. I suppose that I'm inclined to "dismiss out of hand" as well, 'cuz people can be some evil (see the Abbot book on execution through the ages, reviewed in this week's Times). But, hey, a plot device is a plot device. So thanks again and thanks in advance.
posted by hobocode at 2:40 PM on July 30, 2006

The book that proposed the link in the case of the New England witch hunts was A Fever in Salem, by Laurie Winn Carlson.
posted by megatherium at 3:16 PM on July 30, 2006

There's a chapter in the book Napoleon's Button's that deals with this subject. The book focuses on the role of chemicals in history, and the chapter in particular focuses on the hallucinogenic properties of different herbs/fungi that the women might have eaten. They relate them to other drugs as well, some of which are covered in other chapters.
Even if the book is science-oriented, it makes sure to give lots of historical information as well.
posted by cynthia_rose at 4:03 PM on July 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Agrees with AmbroseChapel...people are just wretched creatures and obviously not an affliction of post modern society.
posted by jamie939 at 4:39 PM on July 30, 2006

Come on people. The Catholic Church decreed that the property of anyone called out as a witch was split between the Church and the accuser.

The Catholic Church also decreed that anyone who didn't enthusiastically participate in witch hunts was to be treated as a witch themselves.

Confessions were obtained by torture. Everyone called out as a witch confessed, eventually. A number of judges who felt that torture produced unreliable confessions (for instance, confession to crimes that the accused couldn't possibly have committed) objected to the practice, and they themselves were burned.

So to recap:

-- financial reward for witchhunters (and the Church!)
-- prospect of being burned alive if you tried to stop it from happening

Applying Occam's Razor, we see that we have a complete rationale for the practice already in hand, and need no further explanation.

Many Catholic apologists have tried throughout the years to justify the witch hunts and the Inquisition. Did these mass hallucinations extend to Rome? Did they force the Pope to create the Holy Inquisition? Did they force the Pope to officially approve of torture to extract confessions? Did these hallucinations extend until A.D. 1850, which was (I believe) the last heretic burning by the Catholic Church?

There is NO EVIDENCE of any mass ergot poisoning.

Admittedly, the people were and are suffering from a mass hallucination. That hallucination is that God wrote a book, and in that book He instructed humans to kill everyone who didn't believe in Him. But that hallucination is not a product of ergot fungus.
posted by jellicle at 4:49 PM on July 30, 2006

Nice points there, Jellicle. I'd say NOW you've got a plot device there, hobocode... Corrupt officials of the Catholic church drugging the villagers with halleucentory ergot so they can prosecute them as witches and steal their land.

Its got everything! Even evil Catholics!
posted by lucidreamstate at 5:00 PM on July 30, 2006

It isn't hallucinations as much as the spontaneous abortions and numbness in fingers and toes, gangrene extremities.
"It was at this time that the symptoms (but not the knowledge of what caused the symptoms) from consumption of ergot was called Holy Fire. "Fire" because of the burning sensations, in the extremities, that were experienced by the victims of gangrenous ergotism, and "Holy" because of the belief that this was a punishment from God. " link
posted by hortense at 5:10 PM on July 30, 2006

You should also try and hunt out books about some of the odd things that the human psyche can do in groups, such as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Also for background, Christopher Hill's brilliant The World Turned Upside Down, though focused on the English Civil War, does feature several mad sects that sprang up in that time of political stress.
posted by athenian at 5:20 PM on July 30, 2006

Sorry, should have mentioned that Extraordinary Popular Delusions has a chapter specifically on witches.
posted by athenian at 5:22 PM on July 30, 2006

The standard English-language history of the witch craze in Europe is, these days, Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors (or "Neighbours," depending on your flavo[u]r of English). Briggs (following a generation of other researchers) shows that witchcraft reputations took years or even decades to solidify to the point that people were willing to bring suspected witches to trial (except in the case of short-lived witchcraft panics, which very quickly collapsed, as in Salem). That makes the ergotism thesis rather unlikely. Pietro Camporesi, in Bread of Dreams, argues that ergotism was widespread in premodern Europe but his conclusions have not been widely accepted by other historians.

BTW, Briggs also shows that about 50% of witchcraft trials resulted in not guilty verdicts. Not everyone accused of witchcraft was executed, despite the popular myth. (Indeed, in Salem, those who confessed were not executed; the executed were those who persisted in maintaining their innocence.)

And Salem itself is unusual. For a good treatment of "normal" witchcraft in colonial New England, see John Demos's masterful book, Entertaining Satan. While I'm on the subject, the mentality of elite witchcraft belief has been explored in the long and challenging book Thinking with Demons by Stuart Clark.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:24 PM on July 30, 2006

Come on people. The Catholic Church decreed that the property of anyone called out as a witch was split between the Church and the accuser.

Excuse me if I have my history confused, but in the Salem witch trials, weren't we talking about a particularly Puritanical community, and therefore anti-Catholic? Certainly, the Puritans were a staunch Christian group with a very strict moral code, but as I remember it, they were on the winning side of the anti-monarchy, anti-Catholic civil war in England, right (at least, until the Restoration)?
posted by thanotopsis at 7:14 PM on July 30, 2006

I took a class at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor on witchcraft and this very theory was covered for weeks on end. If you could get ahold of that reading list, you'd probably learn a lot.
posted by k8t at 7:36 PM on July 30, 2006

Excuse me if I have my history confused, but in the Salem witch trials, weren't we talking about a particularly Puritanical community, and therefore anti-Catholic?

You are not confused. Salem was settled by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1626.

These settlers were indeed Puritans (English Protestants).
"...the Puritan ideology contained a strong belief in the omnipresence of the devil and his eternal struggle to seduce the Christians to turn away from God. The problems that the first generations of English settlers had to face could always be seen as divine castigations for sinful behavior, or as the threat of Satan trying to establish his rule on earth. So the people had always observed carefully if their neighbors displayed any signs of occult practices, and tried to fight against them when they thought to have discovered a witch."

posted by ericb at 8:42 PM on July 30, 2006

Massachusetts Bay Colony, aka Massachusetts Bay Company, was a chartered company that went onto form a settlement in Charlestown, MA in 1628/1629 -- with John Winthrop as the Governor. A year later the Company moved to the mouth of the Charles River and formed Boston -- fulfilling Winthrop's goal of creating the biblical "City on a Hill."
posted by ericb at 9:01 PM on July 30, 2006

hortense has it - oral consumption of ergot mold does not tend to cause mass hallucinations, but rather those symptoms instead. When absorbed through mucous membranes, however, the effect is much more hallucinogenic and the side-effects much milder. Thus, the theory is that the image of a witch riding on a broomstick was derived from the fact that "witches," mostly women with knowledge of herbal lore, would masturbate using broomsticks coated in the ergot mold. link.

As far as mass hallucinations go, I personally dismiss that out of hand as well. It seems to be a rather silly, unfounded connection of two unrelated things - the use of ergot by "witches," and the mass witch trials.
posted by po at 11:25 PM on July 30, 2006

Slightly off-topic but if you haven't heard of them might I suggest throwing the Benandanti into the mix? They were shapechanging religious warriors for the force of good (in the same style as the Nightwatch books/movies). They used rituals to take on the form of animals and were subjected to the inquisition and tried as heretics. They used to protect the local villages from evil influences. I have no idea what it is that you are writing exactly, but they are interesting and fit in to the right time period.

Good luck with your story!
posted by longbaugh at 6:30 AM on July 31, 2006

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