Drugs and danc­ing

BBC History Magazine - - Letters -

I write in re­sponse to He­len Carr’s ar­ti­cle ( The Me­dieval Dance of Death, Christ­mas) where er­got mould is men­tioned as a pos­si­ble cause of the dance epi­demic in the Mid­dle Ages. In John G Fuller’s 1969 book, The Day of St An­thony’s Fire, he de­scribes an out­break of what sounds like the me­dieval phe­nom­e­non, only this time oc­cur­ring in the Provençal vil­lage of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951. All those af­fected had eaten bread from a par­tic­u­lar bak­ery, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that the flour had been brought to the vil­lage in rail­way wag­ons used to trans­port mer­cury-based fer­tiliser.

Ac­cord­ing to Fuller, the trou­ble with that ex­pla­na­tion was that the vil­lagers’ symp­toms did not re­sem­ble those of mer­cury poi­son­ing; much more likely, he ar­gues, is that the flour was con­tam­i­nated with er­got, which is the ba­sis of ly­ser­gic acid (and there­fore of LSD). What the vil­lagers were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing was a ter­ri­fy­ing com­mu­nal trip in which vic­tims danced, leaped out of win­dows and jumped off bridges into the Rhône.

In the Mid­dle Ages, out­breaks of plague led to labour short­ages and labour short­ages to de­lays in gath­er­ing in the har­vest – thus giv­ing er­got time to form on the grain. Even if Fuller’s ex­pla­na­tion is not prov­able, it re­mains an in­ter­est­ing spec­u­la­tion. Stephen Lycett, Sal­is­bury

Reader Joseph Ben­nett was im­pressed with our re­cent ar­ti­cle on the Hal­i­fax dis­as­ter

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