Food Poisoning:  Then and Now  [18th Century CE to the Present]

A recently savored loaf of onion rye bread brought to mind Mary Kilbourne Matossian’s Poisons of the Past:  Molds, Epidemics, and History, which argued that food poisoning, especially from ergot growth on damp rye, influenced mass outbreaks of delusion, violence, and religious mania more than was previously generally thought.

Even the Great Awakening that convulsed Colonial American religious and social practices from the 1730s to the 1750s may well have owed something of its fervor to the effects of the compounds associated with grain molds.

Some American historians tried to dismiss Matossian’s argument out of hand without considering the evidence:  they had roughly the same credibility as those who denied Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings because of their belief that Jefferson was more interested in books and architecture than women, even after DNA analysis made their position untenable.

Certainly humanity has shown itself prone to ingest dangerous substances, willingly or unknowingly, ranging from soma quaffing Indo-Europeans, through Romans who systemically poisoned themselves with lead pipes and tableware, and not stopping with the Celts whom Posidonius describes drinking undiluted the wine Greeks added to their water as a disinfectant.

Ergot produces a wide range of mind altering chemicals, some related to LSD.  Its psychotropic properties were well known to medical and recreational users by at least the 19th century, as chronicles of the 1881 – 1884 Greely expedition to Greenland make clear:  the medical officer whiled away idle snowbound hours with the aid of a carefully husbanded supply of ergot, though its relationship to his probable complicity in acts of cannibalism was never conclusively demonstrated.  The carefully excised lumps of flesh removed beneath neat flaps of the corpses’ skin, however, suggest an uncommon surgical skill.

Some British reviewers attacked Matossian’s book with a peculiar virulence.  One critic savaged her for a supposed lack of notes and bibliographical references, evidently not noticing the 25 pages of citations before the index in addition to the sources cited with each table in the text.  It was not the proudest moment in the history of English scholarship.

The introduction of the potato as a basic starch for the poor in Europe and progressive displacement of rye bread by wheat bread seems to have broken the cycle of periods of mass hysteria and jacqueries following periods of unusually damp weather conducive to ergot growth detailed in Matossian’s book.

But I have little doubt future historians will look at the levels of sugar, salt, and fat in the mass produced and highly processed food of our days, and our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac disease, and wonder at our ability to blithely poison ourselves.


Further reading: 

  • Matossian discusses the effects of eating spoiled food in Poisons of the Past.
  • A brief discussion of ergot with reference to the Greely expedition can be found in Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail.

2 thoughts on “ Food Poisoning:  Then and Now  [18th Century CE to the Present]

  1. Highly amused by the idea of ergot food poisoning (LSD-like) being responsible for ‘regligious mania.’ Wonder what we can blame it on today?


  2. Matossian provides numerous instances of medieval and early modern upwellings of religious mania and/or political uprisings following unusually wet conditions favoring ergot growth in rye eating lands. Regarding recent strange electoral choices in the United States, perhaps investigation into patterns of fast food or bacon consumption might reveal interesting correlations, though it may prove difficult to demonstrate causality. Maybe over-sugared donuts and sweet tea? Or believing television represents reality? Or multiple diet and environmental factors? One thing’s for sure: Grandma’s garden and kitchen could provide recreational alkaloids as entertaining as those in fashion today, and at a lower cost to boot.


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