History and Geography

First allusions to ergotism are concurrent with the French monastic hospices, which cared for the common people and which took special note of the disease. Along with these observations came the designation of patron saints for ergotism, including St. Benedict of Umbria, St. Martial of Limoges, St. Geneviève of Paris, St. Martin of Tours, and St. Anthony of Egypt whose remains were carried to France in the eleventh century. From this last saint the name St. Anthony's fire was derived.

In his Handbook of Geographical and Historical Pathology (1883-6), August Hirsch recorded 132 epidemics of ergotism between 591 and 1789. Accounts of ergotism are also found in the Annals of the Convent at Xanten, near the Rhine, detailing an outbreak in 857, and are described by François Eudes de Mézeray in the seventeenth century as St. Anthony's fire. Later French epidemics of the gangrenous type reportedly killed 40,000 in 922 and 14,000 in Paris alone during 1128-9. The spasmodic form occurred in Spain in 1581 and 1590 and in Germany in 1595; epidemics in the Sologne district of France, in Germany, and in Switzerland recurred throughout the seventeenth century. The French districts of Sologne and Dauphiné, frequently subject to flooding, suffered continuously from outbreaks of ergotism, as did Artois, Lorraine, and the Limousin. The disease also affected the Netherlands, Sweden, Majorca, Italy, Poland, and central Russia, where outbreaks were reported as late as 1926. Hirsch noted three epidemics in the British Isles, and during the American Revolutionary War soldiers stationed in upper New York State reportedly sickened on ergotted flour shipped from Ohio. A later American outbreak reportedly occurred at a New York prison in 1825.

More recent research has suggested that ergotism can explain the convulsions and hallucinations that attended religious revivals, including the Salem witchcraft affair, as well as the time of "The Great Fear" (between July 20 and August 6, 1789), which swept through the rural countryside prior to the French Revolution, and even the seasonability of mortality and conception patterns in Europe.

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