Ergot is a parasitic fungus on crops, mostly poisonous to humans. It particularly likes rye. If a farmer didn’t want to lose his profits he might sell his crop anyway, ergot and all, and hurt a lot of people either through greed or ignorance. If the miller didn’t know what to look for it would end up being baked into rye bread and eaten across the village. Which would be messy. It does have medicinal properties in context. A bit of ergot, well measured, can help with menstrual bleeding. Any ancient midwife worth her salt would have some of it handy for bad births etc. It is this effect that caused Hoffman to start isolating compounds from it eventually leading to his discovery of LSD for the same purpose.
So, kids, what do we get if we munch ergot? A spot of serotonin. Lovely. Uncontrollable spasms with the serotonin. Jolt giggle jolt giggle. Hallucinations. That’s the LSD bit. And they are usually affected by the prevalent myth of the area. Nowadays it’ll be “Minions! They want me to be their leader,” or “Dementors, they want to take me to Azkhaban.” Back then it was Jolt giggle jolt giggle “ahhahahaaa the devil is here he wants to have sex with me!” Spasm spasm giggle. So if you haven’t been burnt by then, or hanged like they did in Salem, or had heart failure which can be a thing too then it gets even more fun. Tingly burning skin. “St Anthony’s Fire.” You’ve been bad. God is punishing you with the fire. This is the same symptom that helps with excessive menstrual bleeding. It leads pretty quickly to gangrene. But over years it also led to a solution, via monks with knives. “Your skin is burning? You need to go to the monks of St Anthony.”
In the middle ages if you had “St Anthony’s Fire” you would walk or donkey it from France, where Rye Bread is prevalent, to the monastery of St Anton – that I passed through today. They preferred wheat in Spain. Symptoms would improve on the path, praise the lord. Holy magicalness? Or leaving the source of the problem? Either way, by the time you arrived at the monastery you’d be symptom free. No more party time with werewolves and Judas Iscariot. Just gangrene. You don’t just get better from gangrene. Which is where the monks come in.
Monks are practical people. Supply and demand. And they wrote things down and shared them which barely anyone else was doing back then because they didn’t know how. This particular monastery was on the crusades route home so lots of injuries were coming by. The monks of St Anthony knew more about blood circulation and amputation than anyone else back then. You’d get a stick in your mouth, no anaesthetic, but likely they’d get you very drunk first. Then it’s time for some dude in a cowl with a bone saw, a tourniquet with a tao cross on it, and a load of monks holding you down and singing about God. Screamy screamy saw saw ave maria aaargh sick pass out. If you were still alive half an hour later you’d be gangrene free, considerably lighter and with a grisly souvenir of your journey. A foot, or a hand or an arm, cast in stone. They would offer your amputated foot to the flames probably as it would be stinking, but first they might cast it in clay as a nice memento of your fun trip to Spain.
The monastery is all but abandoned now.
The roof is long gone. The order left in the 1700’s so it is mostly a ruin.
It’s home to a pleasant auberge with no electricity. I would love to have stayed here and had dinner by candlelight, but it was too early in my day. I had hours of hard hot walking to come.
I found myself wondering what metaphorical poisoned rye bread I am leaving behind as I walk. What am I going to have painfully amputated when I arrive? Hopefully something metaphorical. I don’t wanna lose a foot. Nick can do his worst. It’s more likely to be a habit.
One thing I’m sure of – I’m glad I am not one of those ancient gangrenous people. The flies here are unbelievable. They’d have been eaten alive. I totally understand the cliché of Australians with cork hats now. They like getting in your face these buggers. They even get eye side of my specs. They’re always trying to get into my mouth. Right now as I sit here they’re crawling on my face and my legs and my arms and I’m just having to be zen about it like I learnt with the mosquitos in The Amazon and let them do their fly thing. It’s all just transitory discomfort. Especially compared with losing a limb with no anaesthetic because you ate bad bread.