L. Claviceps purpea, Eng. ergot. This is a hornlike black fungus that affects rye and sometimes other grains in late summer. It most commonly appears after a cold winter, continually humid conditions and overcast weather in the spring. Perhaps the country most affected by it has been Russia but it has affected people and livestock in Spain, England and Europe in general.
Ergot contains lysergic acid, the active principle of the psychedelic drug LSD. If ground into flour with rye and made into bread, it poisons consumers.
There are two types of ergot, the convulsive and the gangrenous. In medieval times there were outbreaks of St. Anthony's Fire (gangrenous ergot) see fuego de San Antón.
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The convulsive type affects the nervous system causing convulsive fits. Convulsive ergot was also known as “St. Vitus’s Dance.” Before medical definitions of the disease became clear in the latter part of the 19th C, medieval towns and convents were thought to be bewitched.
Like the Black Death, 2% of ergot content in bread could eliminate entire villages during the Middle Ages. Ergot began to disappear after the 1750’s with the incorporation of the potato and increased availability of wheat. Some beneficial drugs are prepared with ergot, which are used to treat migraines, to induce labor and to control urinary bleeding. See centeno and pan de centeno. [Drummond. 1964:86-87; Hartley. 2003:528-529; and Matossian. 1989:xii-xiii:9-13]