Madeleine Ferrières

История пищевых страхов от средних веков до начала ХХ века

Из главы 7. Скрытые страхи.





The Dangers of Rye Bread

"In that time, the disease of the ardents blazed among the Limousins." Thus the pen of Ademar de Chabannes, writing in 997, cited one of the well-founded fears of the year 1000. The epidemic was known by forty different names in six different languages, the most common being Saint Anthony's fire or sacred fire, or the disease of the ardents, the "ardents" being those who burned with an internal "fire" that consumed them before causing their limbs to swell up and dry out. "May Saint Anthony's fire burn you!" was the worst curse that one could wish on an enemy, because the pain was horrible, and in the end it killed you.1 It took a long time to make a sure diagnosis, to distinguish gangrene in its two forms, dry and convulsive, from the other "fires." Ademar de Chabannes would have to wait seven hundred years for a likely etiology to be established, linking the disease to food, and eight hundred years for the scientific world to accept the relationship between gangrene and the ergot fungus of rye. The cause supplanting the symptoms, it was then that the gangrene would take its current a name of ergotism. As for ergot itself, Candolle, a botanist working at the beginning of the nineteenth century, would identify it as a parasitic fungus, a cryptogam of the rye grain.

When it appeared in the Middle Ages, the fire was like the plague: sudden and invasive. And it was like leprosy: polymorphous (the name hid beneath it perhaps two or three gangrenous diseases). But it was not contagious like the plague, and it was not as deadly as the plague. Nevertheless, it was debilitating enough to provide past societies with a large share of disabled, maimed, armless, and legless cripples and sufficiently widespread throughout the Continent and in every social stratum to elicit prayers to Saint Anthony for a cure. There was a religious order of hospital workers, the Antonians, who served the sick. And there was an abbey, Saint-AJitoine-en-Viennois, at the edge of the Dauphine region, that served as both pilgrimage site and hospital to welcome and care for the ardents.

When, after a long lull, the disease reappeared in 1638 in France, the monastery experienced a resurgence. Two Benedictines visited it in 1639: "The monks have charitably reopened their hospitals, so long closed, to the destitute who have been stricken; with much compassion we viewed twenty of them, some without feet, others without hands, and a few without feet or hands, because this disease can only be cured by cutting off the limbs that it first attacks. There was a very skillful brother there, who lacked nothing. He showed us feet and hands cut off a hundred years ago that were just like those he cut off every day, that is to say, black and completely dry"2 Any visitor could see, exhibited ex-voto in the door of the abbey church, mummified limbs resembling dry wood.

In 1638 the collective memory remained vivid enough for the resurgent disease to be quickly recognized as a nonconvulsive form of Saint Anthony's fire. Gangrene ran rampant for two centuries and was Particularly virulent during "those tempests of hunger, "as the bishop Esprit Flechier called them, that ravaged Louis XIV's France.3 Beyond France, there were signs of epidemic crises throughout the empire: Alsace was affected, as was England in 1661, and Sweden as well. If this disease recalled Saint Anthony's fire, it was clearly less democratic than the disease of the ardents, which struck men and women from every social stratum. "It treats the poor worse than the rich, "and, among those poor, this gangrene especially affected country folk: it had become a rural disease-morbus ruralis. It was the peasants who "burned" from gangrene, and particularly the peasants from the poorer countries, from Silesia to Saxony to Sologne.4

Beginning in years 1630-1650, Sologne was generally considered the center of the epidemic. Sporadic outbreaks of gangrene kept devotion to Saint Anthony alive. In 1682, when the prior of Sennely decided to remove the saint's statue from his church, he met with strong resistance. The statue was "ridiculous and shameful" with its pig, but the faithful faithfully brought it offerings, in the form of gift pigs.5 Not only did gangrene rage, but so did fevers, comparable to malaria. The Sologne fevers, the Solognots' gangrene, not to mention the red disease peculiar to Sologne sheep: all this explained the notoriety of this poor region of marshes and sandy soil.

For scientific circles in the classical age, it became something of a privileged observatory for rural pathologies, conveniently close to Paris. There, each theorist could try out his own methodical system. The aerists thought that the marsh air, the bad air (malaria, as Italian doctors called it, after Ramazzini, the great Padua university professor) was responsible for the intermittent fevers. Fagon, the king's doctor, stubbornly maintained that the atmosphere was responsible for the selective grain disease that attacked certain ears and spared others: There is fog that ruins the wheat, but, for the most part, the ears of rye are protected by their barbs. In those that the malignant humidity reaches and penetrates, it blackens the skin and alters the grain."6 The nutritionists thought that the gangrene originated with food, following the lead of German doctors, who attributed the disease to the consumption of "horned rye." Those who fell into neither school of thought considered gangrene a disease with multiple causes. They attributed it to the peasants' scanty diet, their lack of cleanliness, and the excessive cold.

The theory that linked gangrene to rye ergot was presented for the first time at the Marbourg Medical School in 1597 in Paris, in a report to the Royal Academy of the Sciences. The academy had sent one of its own, Perrault, to investigate "this strange disease that almost exclusively attacks poor people and in years of scarcity"7 The multifaceted Perrault-anatomist, architect (his most beautiful work, the Louvre colonnade, was close to completion) - after studying the question of wheat bread, was confronted with the question of rye bread. Upon his return to the capital, he noted in his report that he "had learned from the doctors and surgeons of the country that rye sometimes went bad, in such a way that those who consumed bread made with large quantities of the bad grain would lose body parts to gangrene, some one part, some another; that, for example, one lost a finger, another a hand, another a nose, etc., and that this gangrene was not preceded by fever, or inflammation, or considerable pain, that the gangrenous parts fell off by themselves."8

This was in 1672. The academician drew his information from the humble knowledge of local practitioners and from patient observations by doctors in the Hotel-Dieu d'Orleans, which accepted the most severe, and often desperate, cases. A surgeon in Montargis told him that this disease attacked rye crops almost every year, especially crops grown in light, sandy soil, that there were few years when it did not happen, "but that the harmful grain naturally made no one sick when not found in great quantity."9

Others had observed that over the course of particularly humid years, rye developed a parasite that the Gatinais called bled cornu and the Solognots called ergot. If Berry, Blesois, and Gatinais were attacked nearly every year, it was because the ergot developed in poor, wet soils. Sologne was the "province that unfortunately produced more ergot all by itself than the whole of France" according to the abbot Tessier. The Solognots were big eaters of rye bread. Cases of gangrene appeared mid-August, after a few weeks of consuming rye flour, and slackened through autumn, when, with the buckwheat harvested, grain consumption did not rely exclusively on rye.

This interpretation, factoring in food, was not immediately accepted. The academicians were not convinced by the series of deductions that led from spring rot to summer heat to food poisoning. The fact that all the Solognots who consumed the same bad bread were not all victims of gangrene greatly increased their doubts. Finally, nothing definitively proved that gangrene was a result of poisoning. Was ergot something to fear? In an attempt to dispel the uncertainties and provide a definitive answer to the question, two men well known in learned Paris circles, the abbot Tessier and Parmentier, resorted to experiments on the living. By running trials - Tessier on a beautiful glossy pig, Parmentier on dogs - they obtained different results: the pig died of convulsions; the dogs survived. Parmentier thus proclaimed ergot innocuous and denounced the worry over food, "the absurdity of the fears regarding this so-called poison."10 In the face of Parmentier's skepticism, Tessier responded that the dose administered was not strong enough and that one could not reasonably be reassured by tests done with such small quantities of ergot. After 1776, following demonstrations done by Paulet, Jussieu, and Tessier, most members of the scientific community admitted that the gangrene originated with food. No one could deny that ergotized rye was a risk, but no one could prove that it was a known danger. The result was a unanimous recommendation to the government: that tests be ordered on criminals condemned to death-in other words, that the bread served in prisons be more or less tainted with ergot. And they added, "This is a way of rendering crime itself useful to humanity."11


"Deaf to the Cries of Danger"

All those who, like the abbot Tessier, had gone to Sologne to research the problem and were convinced that the disease originated in food remarked that "the indifference of the native is notable; those who thresh the rye are not concerned about it, and neither is the miller."12 The millstone ground rye and ergot, grain and parasite together, and it all was turned into flour. Grow something else! said Tessier. Why not switch to the potato, which would thrive in the poor soil, with much higher yields? The answer was no surprise: to abandon grains and dark bread, whether rye or buckwheat, "many Solognots seem to believe a disgrace."13 Thus Tessier, disgusted both by such resistance to novelty and such resignation to gangrene, drew a rather severe portrait of the Solognot. Physically, he was a pale and sallow figure, under five feet tall, with a weak voice, languid eyes, and a slow gait. Morally, he was ruled by ignorance, stubbornness, routine, stupidity, and imbecility, these last two terms used according to their medical definitions. Undernourished people had weakened mental faculties.14

Basically, the Solognots were more stupid than their chickens. Because unlike the Solognots, some pointed out, the chickens had a good regime: they got up early, ate when they were hungry, were happy, went to bed early, and never ate anything adverse to their constitutions. And they were wary of eating ergotized grain: "However cleverly it is mixed into their feed, they prefer to go three or four days without eating."15 Ignorance, when it was a matter of the food risks of ergotized rye, was vigorously fought. There was a relentless information campaign to combat it throughout the eighteenth century. Where the epidemic raged, both the intendants and the agricultural societies seized any opportunity for warning people. The population was informed through billboards posted on walls and memoranda distributed to parish priests, lords, and other "charitable persons/'16 The whole food safety policy was a preventive one, aimed at informing people of the dangers incurred by consuming ergotized rye flour and urging producers to sift the grain better to separate it from the parasite. In 1762 Duhamel du Monceau wrote: "It is always easy to separate out the majority of the ergotized grains with the help of a sieve, because most of the diseased grains are much larger than the healthy grains. Sologne peasants sift their grain in the years when it is not expensive, but, in years of shortage, they are careful about wasting ergotized grain. And that is why they are stricken with a dry gangrene that makes their extremities fall off"17

In fact, the information campaign was successful; the Solognots seemed to be perfectly well-informed. But although they heard, they did not listen. If it was not ignorance, then what prompted the Solognots to continue braving the danger of ergotized rye? That question baffled most observers. And asking the question also elicited answers. Here is a brief sampling of such testimony:

Abbot Tessier wondered, "By what fate does it happen that these men, convinced that ergot can make them sick, have no difficulty leaving it in the grain they eat? Because I cannot doubt the way the inhabitants of Sologne think about ergot. All those I asked in that country gave me examples of its grievous effects on individuals in their families. What can be the cause of their indifference on so essential an issue except their extreme poverty, which renders them deaf to the cries of danger?"

An Orleans doctor noted, "Finally, is it not surprising that the inhabitants of Sologne who, knowing the bad effect of this food, continue to get food poisoning, fully aware of the cause?... But we must consider that Sologne produced hardly enough grain to feed its inhabitants. There is great poverty there. Thus, to satisfy hunger, nothing must be wasted. And the only means of preventing them from using this bad food would be to provide them the equivalent in good grain."18

All the observations agreed on two points. Eating rotten rye was a survival technique. The peasant found himself in a double bind: he could not sell ergotized rye, which was not marketable; he had to eat the grain or go hungry. The second point was that the risk was acknowledged universally but assessed relatively: in year when rot did not effect the whole harvest, one avoided ergotized rye; in years of shortage, one did not, and the threshold of vigilance dropped to zero.

Let us look beyond these basic observations. Was such risk accepted with no forethought? The fate of poor imbeciles trapped by necessity who had no choice? Was it not also calculated, resulting from a more or less conscious, more or less rational choice?

The Solognots took into account various factors that made the risk acceptable. The parasitism varied according to the degree of maturity of the grain, and it was rare for all the ears to be parasitized. And Solognots recognized that the effect somehow depended on dose. "The harmful grain naturally makes no one sick when not found in great quantity"19 But how to define this absolutely vital threshold? Tessier and Parmentier both tried, by mixing healthy and ergotized flour in proportions of about eight to one. In this attempt at a quantitative assessment of the risk, Tessier approached the truth, but he was unable to define a maximum dose having no effect on animals or to extrapolate to humans. Now, defining an acceptable dose was perhaps what the villagers were attempting with their limited means, based on memory, their entirely empirical methods, and the hope that the quantity of ergot absorbed would not be enough to produce anything more than the earliest effects of ergotism: a certain sensation of drunkenness and pins and needles in the limbs.20 The other variable was, indeed, the effects. Dry gangrene developed according to different pathological stages, following a course that was not at all inevitable and causing mutilation only in the final stages. It was rare for the disease to prove extensive, requiring amputations. To lose a limb was not fatal, and to die from the disease was rare. In bad years, when the Solognots with ergot numbered in the hundreds, only a few dozen were hospitalized in Orleans, where the most serious and desperate cases were treated. The others escaped with a few minor afflictions, vivid hallucinations, and occasional spasms. Let us not underestimate this variable. The villagers had enough experience with the disease to know the clinical effects very well. On one particular point, they knew more than the doctors. Noting early on a relationship between the ingestion of ergot and the frequency of spontaneous abortions, Sologne midwives (and those in Germany, Tessin, Lyons) discovered one of ergot's virtues: it prompted uterine contractions. They administered it to women giving birth, at the beginning of labor, thus accelerating the delivery. The practice was included in the 1782 L'Albert moderne, but it was either unknown or rarely adopted among the learned medical community Obstetricians introduced ergometrine, one of the alkaloid extracts of rye ergot, in the maternity wards one hundred years after the last gangrene epidemics. Urban medicine was a century behind simple rural practice.21 This all relates back I to that unrecognized expertise, that knowledge of plants and their properties, that "science of the concrete" that learned circles scorned, rendering them generally incapable of understanding the behavior of the poor in times of food crises.


Rustic Drugs

Now that we have entered the hidden genetic world of the parasite claviceps purpurea, we know that it contains alkaloids and its composition is quite similar to that of LSD. Thus we can better understand the disorders provoked by the gangrene in its early stages. All ergotism began with a phase of psychological troubles, described by classical age clinicians as: "drowsiness and dreams, ""vertigo, din, dizziness, " indeed even "a frenetic delirium, ""it is certain that made into bread, it [ergot] provokes vertigo, and feelings similar to intoxication";22 "as soon as the peasants ate this harmful bread, they felt almost drunk."23 This was ergotic drunkenness. Did it cause fear? For some, it took the form of "very laborious sleep and disturbing dreams"; for others, the intoxication could be gentle and prompt hallucinations quite unlike the nightmares populated with strange and monstrous beasts caused by that earlier form of gangrene, Saint Anthony's fire.24

Quibbling over the effects of spoiled rye returns us to the blunt question of rustic drugs. We could avoid it, hide behind some great historian, postulate with him that the range of available dope in the country was quite limited, practically nothing outside of "the simple and rough high of wine and alcohol-and, in any case, not the gentle dreams of oriental drugs."25 Artificial paradises were not yet available to the poor. The silence of documents seems to confirm this opinion. In their books, the naturalists treated "stupefying" plants with timid prudence. These learned gentlemen did not want to know, or, if they did know, it was inadvertently, thanks to experiments made "by mistake" or "by accident." Thus the one who "ate some mandrake root mistaking it for licorice" experienced drowsiness and delirium, and that was how its narcotic effects came to be known.26 In written accounts, the consumption of rustic drugs was always involuntary, when it was not unavoidable, as in the case of ergotized rye. Nevertheless, it is impossible to confirm this received idea. Unsuspected artificial paradises were indeed to the underfed. We see drugs only as physiological stimulants for escapism. They can also respond to other needs. "There are certain drugs that are not at all nourishing, some of which appease hunger for a short time; such is the case with smoking tobacco, which by making one spit a lot, gets rid of a share of the humor that causes hunger."27 Lemery, the author of these lines, shared the opinion expressed by Fuchs, one of the first naturalists to study tobacco: "The aforementioned smoke received through a cornet appeases hunger and thirst without otherwise intoxicating, a fact ratified daily by sailors."18

Tobacco was widely introduced in rural France as early as 1629, the date that marked the creation of the first royal tobacco tax. Since we know that fiscal policy never follows far behind consumption, this is an invaluable indicator of its widespread use. Considering tobacco solely as a substance consumed for pleasure and a good stimulant for the intellect will not explain its success. There had to have been stronger psychological drives to make it so popular. Lemery provides us a key here. As a stimulant, tobacco had little initial appeal. As an appetite suppressant, it had every chance of success. The need to suppress hunger, to fool it, was just as strong as the need to satisfy it. More precisely, the drug was another means for combating shortages, as it neutralized the sensation of hunger or, even better, created compensatory dreams filled with lands of plenty. In a climate of insecurity over food supply, it responded to a physiological need first, more than a need for pleasure.

Without access to luxury drugs, the poor could draw on the infinite repertoire of local plants, wild or cultivated, stupefactive substances that were less distinguished but just as effective. The narcotization of the countryside was achieved well before the arrival of tobacco. Rustic drugs were denounced by dieticians and administrators, offering us good opportunities for spying on these furtive practices.

In a chapter on edible seeds in his Traite, Delamare mentions wild mustard seed which "fortifies the stomach and facilitates digestion, " and likewise hemp seed, called cannabi in Provence: "The seed of hemp was formerly among a number of vegetables that were served fried for dessert, but at present this evil stew is entirety banished from the table... Whoever ate much of it would alienate his mind; the dry leaves or it's flour mixed in a drink would render those who consumed it drunk, stupid, and dazed"29 Delamare speaks of its consumption in the past tense, as a thing of the past; Champier, writing a hundred years earlier, presents it as a current phenomenon, although reserved for times when securing provisions was difficult.

Seeds and grasses of all kinds, with questionable virtues, were part of a certain peasant culture. Let us be clear in our understanding of rustic drugs. The word "drug" itself, with its modern-day resonances, invites error on our part. The very narrow category of "drugs" established in the nineteenth century does not correspond to those native stupefactive substances that the poor had found in nature or culture. They did not prompt social fears, because they were ambivalent, remedies according to one aspect, poisons according to another-but isn't that the very definition of all medicine, depending on the dose? They were not ranked with those substances consumed for pleasure, they were not taken through the nose but through the mouth: in our sources, they were classified with edible seeds and foods. Edible seeds, coming from secretly cultivated cereals or wild grasses? Of course, the peasant, that frugal eater, knew about them. In a chapter on cereal diseases in his Histoire de l'alimentation, Champier drew up a compendium of the knowledge of that time, highlighting how diseased grain could be harmful to eat. When flour from such grain tasted good, it produced bread that tasted as good or even better than bread made with healthy flour, so the threshold for perceiving risk fell: that was the case with ryegrass, and that was the case with ergot. And there was the added problem that the first-and often the only-effects were sensations not wholly disagreeable. By means etymologically eccentric but medically justified, Champier related the two words, ivraie and ivresse, ryegrass and drunkenness, signaling the gentle euphoria or, at worst, the visual hallucinations that accompanied its ingestion: one "saw things" when one ate ryegrass bread.30

In central Italy, ryegrass, that self-propagating plant, grew with wheat, was harvested with it, and milled with it, finally becoming an ingredient in those "ignoble" breads with toxic effects denounced by the botanist Pietro Mattioli: "The bread, when a notable quantity [of ryegrass] enters it, makes the men who eat it become stupid, as if they were drunk, and they fall into a heavy sleep; that is why in Tuscany, we are very careful to separate the ryegrass from the wheat, to avoid the harm done to the head by such intoxication and sleep."31 This was a Sienese, a city dweller, speaking. In the cities, the police supervised grains. It was their responsibility to "watch particularly that the flour and bread meant for human consumption not be full of ryegrass, so as not to disturb the stomachs or the minds of those who eat it."32 Countryfolk behaved differently. Targioni carefully observed them, and he denounced the damaging effects and the "malice" of bread with ryegrass, because it tasted sweet, so much so that it was difficult to distinguish the poisoned flour. He spoke of his great astonishment at seeing ryegrass cultivated around Camugliano and the inhabitants putting it in their bread (a sixteenth of the flour-subtle dose!) to enhance the flavor, without the slightest effect on their health.33

Ryegrass bread, rye bread: beyond Paris's pure wheat bread, we have hardly any idea what breads were made from. And the mixtures varied, moreover, from one region, one year, or one season to another. Before the French Revolution, Taine drew up an incredible catalog of these mixtures, and no regional historian since has failed to mention region-specific grains.34 Bretons on the island of Batz, for example, ate a bread made of barley, three-quarters rye, and one-sixteenth wheat.35 This universal practice of mixing bread flours led to unbelievable compromises. In the country, stupefactive seeds were added or, rather, not removed. A doctor in Grenoble named Villars noted the dangers of a certain lentil variety cultivated in Champsaur and Devoluy to feed animals, and humans when necessary: "The poor peasant, afraid of lacking grain for the year, has observed that a dozen or more such lentil seeds mixed with the rye that he uses for bread makes the bread harder and heavier and that his children and servants eat less of it."36 (The Alpine peasant's solution was no worse than the remedies proposed by certain scientists in times of shortage. In the indigestible repertoire that Parmentier drew up-six hundred pages long-listing all the substitutes for bread, he cited grasses, legumes, and roots. Postulating that the starch was the most nutritious part of the grain, the pharmacist traced starch in all the vegetables. He found it in the horse chestnut, the tuberous vetch, the colchicum, and even hellebore and mandrake, and he did not hesitate to advise mixing them with good flour in times of shortage.)37

This variety of lentil was both toxic and rich in protein, let us say, poisonous and nourishing, which called for cautious behavior. The precise amount shows that such mixtures were not necessarily improvisations made in response to great urgency but products resulting from calculated risk. Must we continue to think that, threatened with food shortages, people ate anything they could? Nothing is less certain. These doses, arrived at by trial and error, mean something. A dozen lentils in Dauphine bread responds to our current notion of an additive: a substance added intentionally; it is understood that one knows what one is adding and in what quantity.38 With a sixteenth part of ryegrass in Tuscan bread, we are approaching the weak dose, the homeopathic dose of the poison recommended by Paracelsus in 1530.

The Solognots ate rye bread in summer; the less poor could resort to a mixed bread of rye and wheat and then to buckwheat bread or rye and buckwheat, once the buckwheat harvest was in. Thus their bread contained varying proportions of rye and varying proportions of ergotized rye as well. The main precaution was not making bread from 100 percent ergotized rye. And since this bread did not taste bad, it diminished any fears: the disease could be avoided, Solognots thought, as long as one did not eat rye bread all the time. And, in fact, attacks of the gangrene lessened as the grain diet evolved. These supposedly imbecile peasants had, in the end, their own alternative policy of prudence. Unable to achieve zero risk and eliminate ergot from their diet, they sought to limit its harmful effects. The desperate need for sufficient quantities of food could accommodate a calculated risk. Between the certain danger of dying from starvation and the probable risk-not always proven or proven to varying degrees-of gangrene, the Solognots chose the lesser of two evils. The effects of these self-intoxication practices in terms of mental health have yet to be evaluated. They could be enormous, leading to an imaginary universe "where images of monsters and nightmares ferment, described by poems, ballads, stories, and legends in countless situations of fear, astonishment, ecstasy, wonder, feverish excitement, and irrational emotion."39 Not long ago, a large segment of popular culture discovered such a universe through domestic drugs.

After 1850 Solognots no longer had to make this difficult choice. Pine plantations took over the drained marshlands, and cultivation of the potato, perfectly adapted to the poor soil, allowed the food system to be diversified. Thus gangrene lost its hold and ceded its territory.


extract from  Madeleine Ferrieres, «Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears», Columbia University Press, 2005