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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 20th July 2011

I’ve been on drugs quite a bit recently. Not literally, of course, but just as subject matter for this blog. So, I thought I should try and find something a bit more light-hearted for today. Especially as tomorrow I’ll, probably, be writing about the Al Jazeera English documentary about the availability of morphine around the world.

One problem with that is the weather. We’ve had several rainy days in a row so I haven’t been out, either in my own garden or more generally, and haven’t seen any interesting poisonous plants or been able to spot how my own are coming along as we get to what should be the height of the summer.

Part of the time I haven’t been spending in the garden has gone on catching up with TV programmes I’ve missed. One of these was the latest episode of the BBC children’s series ‘Horrible Histories’. It included an item about the so called ‘Dancing Plague’ in Strasbourg in July, 1518. The plague began when one woman started to dance in the street without stopping. In only a few days, other people joined in (anything from 34 to 100 depending on which account you read) and, in the end, around 400 people suffered this compulsion with an unspecified number of them dying from the effects of exhaustion. The epidemic continued until September when the afflicted were taken away to a healing shrine and, apparently, recovered.

There have been a number of theories as to the cause of the outbreak and this was not the only incidence of such manic dancing in Europe. It is known that one such occurred in 1374 in parts of what is now Belgium but the Strasbourg outbreak is the best documented. Ergotism has been suggested, that is poisoning by the alkaloids found in Claviceps purpurea, the fungus that infects grain crops, especially rye but is, generally, rejected because ergotism is usually associated with restricted blood supply to the extremities leading to gangrene in severe cases. The argument goes that those suffering ergotism cannot dance.

The generally accepted explanation is that this was, in effect, a case of mass hysteria with participants getting themselves into a trance-like state so that, although many are reported to have asked for help, they could not stop themselves dancing.

I’m not sure that you can dismiss ergot alkaloids as a cause of, at least, the beginnings of the outbreak simply because of the ability to dance. It is important to remember that ergot is not a single substance and it could be that different proportions of the individual alkaloids produce different symptoms. Also, in the 1951 epidemic in Pont St Esprit, mentioned on 5th July, the most likely cause was those of the ergot alkaloids which are also present in Aspergillus fumigatus so it may be that a different fungus was the cause of the Strasbourg ‘plague’. There would certainly appear to be an element of hysteria but that may be what spread the outbreak rather than being the original cause and it is known that victims of ergotism often benefited from visiting St Anthony’s shrine because, as we now know, it removed them from further exposure to the fungus.  

In ‘The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire’, John G Fuller notes that quite a number of the nearly 300 people poisoned in Pont St Esprit reported, at some stage of their illness, feeling as though they had boundless energy and suffering convulsions in their legs. Though none, apparently, felt a compulsion to dance, hallucinations were a large part of their symptoms and one victim believed himself to be a circus high wire artist and acted out this fantasy causing great danger to himself and the fire service officers sent up to talk him down from the suspension cables of a bridge over the Rhone.

Another interesting aspect of the Strasbourg dancing plague is the treatment adopted to try and affect a cure. The medical authorities were of the opinion that the condition had to be allowed to work its way out and that it would help if it was made easier for victims to dance. A number of halls were thrown open and an outdoor platform was erected, all to encourage the dancers to continue.  

This is just another example of how odd some of our forebears’ medical treatments were and I’ll return to that point with some other examples in a later blog.