Drugs and dancing
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