Bread, Madness and Christianity


St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

Medicine Net tells us this about the monk (who lived c.251-356 CE):

Anthony’s spiritual combats with what he envisioned as the forces of evil made his life one long struggle against the devil.

The devil’s assault on Anthony took the form of visions, either seductive or horrible, experienced by the saint. (This is according to St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria.) For example, at times, the devil appeared to Anthony in the guise of a monk bringing bread during his fasts, or in the form of wild beasts, women, or soldiers, sometimes beating the saint and leaving him in a deathly state. Anthony endured many such attacks, and those who witnessed them were convinced they were real. Every vision conjured up by Satan was repelled by Anthony’s fervid prayer and penitential acts. So exotic were the visions and so steadfast was Anthony’s endurance that the subject of his temptations has often been used in literature and art, notably in the paintings not only Matthias Grunewald, as mentionned, but also of many other artists ranging from Hiëronymus Bosch and Max Ernst.

From these psychic struggles Anthony emerged as the sane and sensible father of Christian monasticism.

You’ll have noted the reference to Satan bringing the monk bread during his fasts.*** Ergot-laced bread? Anthony certainly seems to be in the throws of an ergot-induced hallucination. But then many descriptions of religious visions sound like that.

Bread is often mentioned in conjunction with witches, the devil and occult practices, possibly because it was such a common staple. In the 1692 witch trials in Salem, the accused were described as holding a satanic mass and eating red bread during it, and later offering townsfolk “sweet bread” as enticements:

A week later, eleven-year-old Abigail Williams, Parris’s niece, and seventeen-year-old Mercy Lewis, a servant in Thomas Putnam’s house, told the Reverend Lawson that they had just witnessed a performance of the devil’s mass in the village. The satanic mass that Williams and Lewis claimed to have seen was a counter ritual performed the same day as a public fast that was held in Salem Town to benefit the afflicted village girls. According to Lewis “they [the witches] did eat Red Bread like Man’s Flesh, and would have her eat some: but she would not; but turned away her head, and Spit at them, and said ‘I will not Eat, I will not Drink, it is Blood,’ etc.”

…These two witches “would have had her [Warren] eat some of their sweet bread & wine & she asking them what wine that was one of them said it was blood & better then our wine but this depon’t refused to eat and drink with them … Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Johnson Jr. of Andover told the court that “there were: about six score at the witch meeting at the Villadge that she saw … she s’d they had bread & wine at the witch Sacrament att the Villadfe & they filled the wine out into Cups to drink she s’d there was a minister att theat meeting & he was a short man & she thought is name was Borroughs: she s’d they agreed that time to afflict folk: & to pull done the kingdom of Christ & to set up the devils kingdom …”

In the book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Volume 2, Charles Mackay writes of witches’ rituals:

The place called Blockula, whither they were carried, was a large house, with a gate to it, “in a delicate meadow, whereof they could see no end.” There was a very long table in it, at which the witches sat down; and in other rooms “there were very lovely and delicate beds for them to sleep upon.”

After a number of ceremonies had been performed, by which they bound themselves, body and soul, to the service of Antecessor, they sat down to a feast, composed of broth, made of colworts and bacon, oatmeal, bread and butter, milk and cheese. The devil always took the chair, and sometimes played to them on the harp or the fiddle, while they were eating. After dinner they danced in a ring, sometimes naked, and sometimes in their clothes, cursing and swearing all the time. Some of the women added particulars too horrible and too obscene for repetition.

Once the devil pretended to be dead, that he might see whether his people regretted him. They instantly set up a loud wail, and wept three tears each for him, at which he was so pleased, that he jumped up among them, and hugged in his arms those who had been most obstreperous in their sorrow.

Bread is also mentioned because it played such an important role in the Christian liturgy. There are more than 350 references to bread in the Bible, starting in Genesis with “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and unto dust shalt thou return.” The Open Bible site lists 107 verses about bread and grain and here are others.

But it’s really the symbolic role for Christians that matters: the body of Christ consumed in the symbolic (and arguably cannabalistic) act of communion. So having bread in a satanic ritual would be an appropriate perversion of that symbolism.*****

Wikipedia tells us there may be a more prosaic link with witchcraft – the stuff lurking in the loaves:

The convulsive symptoms that can be a result of consuming ergot-tainted rye have also been said to be the cause of accusations of bewitchment that spurred the Salem witch trials. This medical explanation for the theory of “bewitchment” is one first propounded by Linnda R. Caporael in 1976 in an article in Science. In her article, Caporael argues that the convulsive symptoms, such as crawling sensations in the skin, tingling in the fingers, vertigo, tinnitus aurium, headaches, disturbances in sensation, hallucination, painful muscular contractions, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as psychological symptoms, such as mania, melancholia, psychosis and delirium, were all symptoms reported in the Salem witchcraft records. Caporael also states there was an abundance of rye in the region as well as climate conditions that could support the tainting of rye. In 1982 historian Mary Matossian raised Caporael’s theory in an article in American Scientist in which she argued that symptoms of “bewitchment” resemble the ones exhibited in those afflicted with ergot poisoning.

Rye was grown in Salem in the 17th century, and bread made from its grain a staple in the town’s food. The late 17th century saw many cold, damp years, which would have promoted ergot’s growth. You can read the NYT article from 1982 here.

There’s a good article at the U of Hawaii’s botany department on the history of ergot and its effects. It deserves reading. Here is one section:

The occurrence of Claviceps purpurea must have began with the cultivation of rye since it was far more common on that host than in other grains. Rye was a weed grain and occurred wherever wheat was cultivated. Often it became the dominant plant when wheat fields were abandoned. Thus, in a way, where ever civilization became established, rye would follow it there. However, it was not cultivated for food until some time, in the early Middle Ages (around the 5th. Century), in what is now eastern Europe and western Russia.

It was in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., that the first major outbreak of gangrenous ergotism was documented. It was at this time that the symptoms (but not the knowledge of what caused the symptoms) from consumption of ergot was called Holy Fire. “Fire” because of the burning sensations, in the extremities, that were experienced by the victims of gangrenous ergotism, and “Holy” because of the belief that this was a punishment from God. The victims’ toes, fingers, arms and legs often became blackened as a result of gangrene, and would eventually die from the infections in these extremities. In addition, the victims often suffered from convulsive ergotism, as well, from the psychoactive properties that may occur in the ergo. Numerous epidemics of ergotism followed, with thousands dying as a result of the continual consumption of infected rye, with the most susceptible victims often being children.

In 1039, an outbreak of ergotism occurred in France. During this outbreak, however, a hospital was erected in order to care for the victims of ergotism, by Gaston de la Valloire. De la Valloire dedicated this hospital to St. Anthony, and through this gesture Holy Fire came to called St. Anthony’s Fire. Monks would eventually start the order of St. Anthony and over 370 hospitals would be built for those ailing from Holy Fire, in the name of St. Anthony. Each hospital was symbolically painted red to inform the illiterate that aide was available to help alleviate their pain. Those who came often did find relief from ergotism. This was probably due to the absence of rye bread from the victims’ diet during their care in the hospital. However, those inflicted by ergotism, and healed, were likely to be inflicted again since the cause of this strange disease was unknown.

Although there is no doubt that ergotism occurred in the Middle Ages, medicine was at a very primitive state at this time, and some of the symptoms that we associate with ergotism can be due to other illnesses. Thus, the outbreaks of ergotism couldn’t always be confirmed. However, it seems rather certain that by the 8th. and 9th. centuries, in the kingdom of the Franks, ergotism was present and would continue to be present in this area for the next eight hundred years. From the year 900 AD, when records evidently became common in what is now France and Germany, to around 1300 AD, there were severe epidemics of ergotism over large areas every five to ten years.

What is now France was the center of many of these severe epidemics because rye was the staple crop of the poor, and the cool, wet climate was conducive for the development of ergot. Ergot infection of rye was more likely during these wet periods because the rye flower remained opened longer, which provided more opportunity for the fungus to infect the flower. The regular rye grain and the hard, purplish black, grain-like ergot produced by the fungus were harvested and ground together during milling. The flour produced was then contaminated with the toxic alkaloids of the fungus. In 944 AD, in southern France, 40,000 people died of ergotism. Because the cause was unknown, no cure was available (you don’t have to known the cause of a disease to cure it, but it sure helps; also knowing the cause of a disease does not mean an immediate cure will be found). Until people realized that the consumption of ergot was the cause of the disease, there was no rational way by which treatment could proceed.

It was not until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuillier, put forth the concept that it was not an infectious disease, but one was due to the consumption of rye infected with ergot that was responsible for the outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire.

So why did people keep using rye and why didn’t it affect everyone? Two articles came to mind. First is one from Jonathan Kent’s blog on his BBC series about bread, and the second post which has a lot about ergot and rye:

John (Letts) explained that he’s discovered, and had confirmed through spectral analysis, that the sourdough baking method ‘de-natures’, ie neutralises, ergot.  My ears immediately pricked up because I associate ergotism very much with the mediaeval period.  That’s partly because we have records of outbreaks of St Anthony’s fire, as it was known, from that era but also because various things, from the Children’s Crusade (which may be apocryphal or constructed from a variety of separate incidents), to the particularly horrific mediaeval imagery of hell.

That combined with an article on Science Daily, titled Why Sourdough Bread Resists Mold:

Sourdough bread resists mold, unlike conventionally leavened bread. Now Michael Gaenzle and colleagues of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, show why. During sourdough production, bacteria convert the linoleic acid in bread flour to a compound that has powerful antifungal activity. The research, which could improve the taste of bread, is published online ahead of print in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
<snip>
Genuine sourdough bread differs from ordinary bread in having an extra fermentation step, over and above yeast fermentation. This step is mediated by lactic acid bacteria, typically of the genus Lactobacillus, says Gaenzle… L. hammesii produced substantial quantities of hydroxylated monounsaturated fatty acids which the researchers found strongly inhibited mold formation. A second antifungal fatty acid produced by cereal enzymes contributes to the antifungal activity of sourdough.

If you remember my previous post, What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten? I mentioned how some medieval breads were made by the sourdough method, but many others were made by taking yeast from beer vats – the latter a more common technique for manchet (the period’s white bread) bread. Rye was used in maslin bread – mixed grains. Rye isn’t native to western Europe, however. It was imported from the east and grew like a weed among the other grains. Back to Jonathan Kent:

Ergot requires damp conditions in the spring. It’s hardly surprising that ergot would be more prevalent on the North Western seaboard of Europe than in the continental interior.

Now John, being an archaeo-botanist and an expert on thatching, has done a lot of work on patterns of cereal growing through history and points out that rye moved westwards with the collapse of the Roman Empire as the Germanic peoples moved across Europe and settled areas like the low countries, northern France and Britain. So during the 5th and 6th centuries we see rye move into areas where the climate lends itself to a greater likelihood of ergot infection.

You’d think that as the use of rye expanded and it became a more common group, the reports of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would parallel it.* And in some cases, it does. But not exactly.

John Letts has another suggestion:

…here John’s key discovery about the impact of the high lactic acid levels on ergot is critical. The rye growing Germanic peoples made their bread almost exclusively from rye flour. It’s not possible to get rye to rise using the sort of yeasts produced as a by product of brewing. It requires a sourdough method, ergo (as opposed to ergot) pure rye loaves will not tend to result in ergotism – I won’t say cannot, but that is the inference.

So to produce ergotised bread one needs a mix of rye and other flours that are sufficiently ‘light’ that they can be raised with yeast and not a sourdough leaven. In the very early mediaeval period the Normans introduced rivet wheat and rivet produced a very white flour.

Ergot on ryeThe maislin bread of Chaucer’s time was a mixed bread – rye and other grains: wheat, barley oatmeal, etc. It was often begun with a sourdough starter – but the manchet bread was not. Back to Kent’s blog:

Moreover mediaeval farmers typically grew crops of mixed grains, a maslin, for the simple reason that if disease or weather affected one species or strain there was a chance that the others would survive.  It was a hedge against famine.  It meant that wheat and rye were grown and milled together and where the flour was suitable to make a yeasted loaf there was the possibility that ergot would both be present and that there would be no lactic acid to neutralise it.

You didn’t really need to add rye flour to the dough: some amount of it was likely to be included because of the common milling of all grains.  And, of course, ergot infects more than just rye: rye is simply the most common host. But its presence would have helped it spread to other grains both in the fields (through spores) and in the milling process.

So why didn’t the farmers see the fungus and remove the infected grains? It is very visible, and was common enough. But no one at the time recognized it as anything unnatural. As the U of Hawaii tells us:

Although the ergot is far different in appearance than the true grain, its occurrence was so common that it was thought to be part of the rye plant, until the 1850′s, when the true nature of the ergot was understood. Although the common name indicates that this fungus is a disease of rye, it also can infect several other grains, with rye being the most common host for this species.

So what does this have to do with witchcraft? Plagues and outbreaks of disease, including outbreaks of madness, were commonly referred to as “punishments” from God. People suffering from hallucinations or convulsions were either being punished or had become the devil’s playthings through the intervention of witches. The Medical Dictionary says:

Research by Linnda Caporael (1976) suggests that many of the people whose accusations resulted in the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts were genuinely suffering hallucinations and other symptoms of convulsive ergotism. Similar eruptions of ergotism also occurred in Essex and Fairfield counties in Connecticut that damp and cool season, though in Connecticut no one went to the stake. Notable epidemics of ergotism, at first seen as a punishment from God, occurred up into the 19th century. Fewer outbreaks have occurred since then, because in developed countries rye is carefully monitored. When milled the ergot is reduced to a red powder, obvious in lighter grasses but easy to miss in dark rye flour. The last reported outbreak in an industrialized country, which caused more than 200 cases and 4 deaths, occurred in 1951 in Pont St. Esprit, France. In less wealthy countries ergotism still occurs: there was an outbreak in Ethiopia in mid-2001 from contaminated barley. Whenever there is a combination of moist weather, cool temperatures, delayed harvest in lowland crops and rye consumption an outbreak is possible. Russia has been particularly afflicted.

And from the U of Hawaii:

Matossian (1988) linked the occurrence of ergotism with periods where there were high incidents of people persecuted for being witches. Emphasis was placed on the Salem Witch Trial, in Massachusetts, in 1692, where there was a sudden rise in the number of people accused of being witches, but earlier examples were taken from Europe, as well… She looked at where these incidents occurred, the temperature, rainfall, the crops grown in that area and who was affected.

…Matossian found that a large proportion of the trials were concentrated in the alpine regions of France and central Europe where Rye was usually grown as the staple. Also, it was in these areas that the best source of “primary” records were kept… Trials were also more common during years when the spring and summer months were usually cooler, and even more so if the climate was colder and wetter than the norm. Cooler temperatures would be more favorable for ergot formation on Rye and even more Ergot would form if the rainfall was greater.

…Once victims of ergotism began exhibiting symptoms of alkaloid poisoning of Ergot, people began to look for the “witch or witches” that caused this sickness and misery to occur. In Salem, Massachusetts, the witch hunt began, on January 20, 1692 when three pre-teen girls began began to exhibit symptoms of what Matossian interpreted as convulsive ergotism. This would, of course, have been interpreted as acts of strange behavior on the part of the people of Salem. They began blasphemous screaming, had convulsive seizures, were in a trance-like states.

…pressure was placed on the girls to reveal the names of the witches, which they did. They named three women: Tituba, Reverend Samuel Parris’ Carib Indian slave, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. The Reverend Samuel Parris was the minister in the town of Salem. Of the three women, Tituba was the only one to confess to being a witch. The two Sarahs maintained their innocence throughout. Sarah Good would be hanged for witchcraft and Sarah Osborne would die in prison. During her confession, Tituba testified that there was a conspiracy led by witches that was occurring in Salem and from there the witch hunt was on. Soon more people came forward to tell stories of how they were somehow harmed by witches and of the visions that they had seen. This led to accusing more people of witchcraft. As the end of the year neared, 20 people accused of being witches were executed.

…during these bouts of ergotism, their accusers reasoned that if someone could cure illness, they also had the power to cause it as well.

And similarly from the Tom Paine’s Ghost site:

The connection between ergotism and witch trials was first proposed by Linda Caporael in 1976 where she hypothesized in the Journal Science that Ergot could have been the real world cause of the supposedly supernatural events that transpired in the village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

In her paper Caporael outlines the evidence for ergotism being the scourge that set off the string of hangings accompanying the infamous witch trials in Salem. She points out that the symptoms of ergotism; spasms, the sensation of ants crawling under skin, and the feeling of being disemboweled – were all recorded by the court clerk when taking the testimony of the affected teenage accusers. Indeed the very fact that the accusers were female and in their teens also implicates ergotism as these are the most susceptible individuals in any community where there is an outbreak. Lastly, she turns to the geographic distribution of the bewitchment. Here she reconstructs a map of Salem village where she hypothesizes that a contamination of grain grown on the eastern bank of the Wolleston river could have been the only source of ergot and still affected all the families involved.

Caporael’s work inspired historian Mary Matossian to conduct further investigations into the possible connection between witch trials and ergotism outbreaks throughout the middle ages up until the 19th century. In her book Poisons of the Past Matossian lays out an incredibly convincing argument that outbreaks of ergotism indeed correlate to increased incidence of witch trials throughout the medieval period. She explains how tree ring thickness measurements compiled for every year from 1269 – 1977 C.E. can be compared to an annual index of number of witch trials with statistical correlation in southwestern Germany and the Swiss alps.

So there’s the link: bread, madness, witchcraft and Christianity. A common food leads to a cultural event and the development of religious ideology. Almost all of our descriptions of witches – their appearance, behaviour, familiars, rituals – are post-biblical. Because the Bible has little to say on how witches behaved or looked, people made up their own descriptions to suit their religious views. And I suspect some of those descriptions were born of experiences with ergot by the writers themselves, not just in those they accused of being witches.

So the question foremost in your mind must be, how much did the effects of ergot poisoning create the modern Christian view of witches and witchcraft? And that’s an interesting place to end this lengthy ramble. ****

Susan might have been able to direct you to the link between bread and madness without all this writing, just point to my recent obsession with baking bread., which has obviously extended to the history of bread.

~~~~~

* There is another disease called Erysipelas, which is sometimes also referred to as St. Anthony’s Fire, and may have had outbreaks in parallel with ergotism, but is caused by “an acute streptococcus bacterial infection.” Early records may confuse the two. The Medical Dictionary tells us:

Once referred to as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” erysipelas can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages. The etiologic agent was once thought to be the ergot alkaloids produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, found in contaminated rye.

** The Medical Dictionary tells us:

The blight…was identified and named by Denis Dodart who reported the relation between ergotized rye and bread poisoning in a letter to the French Royal Academy of Sciences in 1676 (John Ray mentioning ergot for the first time in English the next year), but “ergotism” in this modern sense was first recorded in 1853.

The University of Hawaii, on the other hand, gives us a different history:

It was not until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuillier, put forth the concept that it was not an infectious disease, but one was due to the consumption of rye infected with ergot that was responsible for the outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire.
On his visits to his patience, in the country, he noted the food that was set out on the tables. There was usually pork or beans, but the main staple and what always seemed to be present was a loaf of rye bread, which always seemed to be prominently displayed in the center of the table. A few families began eating potatoes by this time and Thuillier initially believe that this was the possible cause of this disease, but at this time it had not yet become popular enough to be a standard fare in family meals and St. Anthony’s Fire had been known hundreds of years prior to the introduction of the potato to Europe. …

Passing through fields of rye infected with ergot, Thuillier suddenly realized that he had walked by this answer countless numbers of time… He then looked into his records and found that in years when ergot infection was high, the “Fire” raged and thousands died. Although he was convinced that this was the answer, the evidence at hand was still not conclusive and Thuillier could not convince the farmers that this was the cause of this dreaded disease. It would be another two hundred years before Ergot was demonstrated to be a fungus that was causing gangrenous and convulsive ergotism.

 *** Some people today still think bread is satanic. Oh wait, that’s just the gluten in it. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a religious fanatic and a diet-fad fanatic.

**** To be fair, there are other theories, such as dire economic conditions that caused hallucinations and mass hysteria:

Psychology obviously played an important role in the Salem events; the young girls who accused their fellow townsfolk of witchcraft are believed to have been suffering from a strange psychological condition known as mass hysteria. However, the new theory suggests the hysteria may have sprung from dire economic conditions. “The witchcraft trials suggest that even when considering events and circumstances thought to be psychological or cultural, key underlying motivations can be closely related to economic circumstances,” Oster wrote.

But I am unconvinced, and prefer the ergot-bread theory, in part because it gives me better justification to purchase interesting books on the history of bread and gives me something to think about while baking.

Bioweb also suggests that ergot and its hallucinogenic effects may have a link to Greek philosophers:

…The ancient Greeks had many temples that they would go to for various reasons, and one of them was the Temple of Eleusis. It was at this temple that “great mysteries” were revealed. In order for anyone to go to this temple, however, they needed to fast, rest and make other sacrifices. …when they broke the fast, they did so by drinking Kykeon, a sacred PURPLE potion. It is believed that this was derived from Claviceps purpurea and that the ergot alkaloids caused the terrors, hallucinations, tremors and sweats the reoccur in descriptions of pilgrimages to this temple. This attracted the interests of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Homer.

The U of Hawaii also suggests a link between bread and the Black Death:

Matossian (1988) believed that while deaths could ultimately be attributed to Bubonic Plague, the consumption of grains infected with T-2 or related mycotoxins compromised the immune system and increased the likelihood of death in human and rats. Because of the increase in death of rats, the fleas carrying the disease would require a new host, which in heavily populated area, often was a human host. This led to a higher death rate than might have normally occurred. She also presented evidence, based on what seemed to be selectivity of the disease, based on age and wealth, grain storage and environmental moisture.

Rich stuff, all this history connected to something as simple as bread…

***** There were famous witch trials in Europe, too, of course. In 1542, Henry VIII passed a law making witchcraft punishable by death in England. The first trials, at Chelmsford, in 1556, included a cat named Satan who ate “bread and milk” and a few drops of its owners blood.