Photo: Jan Mandijn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A Medieval Outbreak Gave People Nightmare Hallucinations And Caused Their Limbs To Fall Off

From the Black Death, which fundamentally transformed the world, to the sweating sickness that felled people in hours, medieval Europeans dealt with all kinds of mysterious and agonizing ailments. And here's another to add to that list: St. Anthony's Fire.

St. Anthony's Fire made sufferers feel like their limbs were on fire, and it was caused by ergot, a fungus that could infect rye grain. Hundreds of hospitals sprung up to offer St. Anthony's Fire treatments, but no one knew what caused the disease, which made people's limbs turn black and fall off. For centuries, Europeans wondered: Is St. Anthony's Fire contagious? Was it sent by God as a punishment? And could anything cure the disease?

One crafty nobleman marketed his cure as "holy grains" (i.e. uninfected grains), but thousands succumbed to ergotism before farmers realized the black cockspurs on rye grains were deadly. And it turns out there's a connection between St. Anthony's Fire and LSD – which might have influenced Renaissance art. 

Photo: Jan Mandijn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • It Started With Limbs That Felt Like Fire And Hellish Hallucinations
    Photo: Michael Hurst / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It Started With Limbs That Felt Like Fire And Hellish Hallucinations

    The disease started with a faint burning sensation in the skin. Soon, red spots covered the infected person's body, who felt like their limbs were on fire. Then, their arms would swell and turn bright red. Terrible hallucinations would plague them, convincing them demons were assaulting them before dragging them on a journey to Hell.

    Finally, gangrene would set in, and the victim's fingers and toes would drop off one by one. Once infected, few survived.

  • The Same Fungus That Caused Limbs To Fall Off Also Created LSD

    The hallucinations people suffered after eating the ergot fungus were real — so real that the fungus is chemically linked with LSD. In 1938, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman was experimenting on the ergot fungus when he accidentally synthesized a psychedelic drug called LSD. 

    In fact, the chemical similarities carry over to the effects of the substances. Both cause severe hallucinations, and both have a long history of influencing art — ergotism shaped some Renaissance masters, while Acid drove the psychedelic art movement in the 1960s.

  • Some Renaissance Masterpieces Were Inspired By Fungus
    Photo: Slowking4 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Renaissance Masterpieces Were Inspired By Fungus

    Northern Renaissance painters in the 16th century wrestled with dark themes in their works, particularly in depictions of St. Anthony. One 16th-century painting (pictured above), The Temptation of St. Anthony, attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, shows Anthony being carried away into the skies by fantastic beasts. The creatures, flying on huge fish and surrounded by winged creatures, drag the saint off into the clouds.

    The image echoed rumors that St. Anthony's Fire caused flying hallucinations, making victims believe they could take flight. The building in the background of the painting is consumed with flames, also potentially a reference to the disease. And many art historians believe that St. Anthony's Fire influenced many of the great Renaissance paintings. 

  • St. Anthony Was Tormented With Demonic Hallucinations

    Why was St. Anthony's Fire named after St. Anthony of Egypt? Anthony was a desert hermit who wandered the Egyptian wilderness, and during his travels, the Devil tormented Anthony with hallucinations. Demons constantly attacked the saint in graphic ways. As St. Anthony's biographer wrote it, "[The demons] approach in different guise, and... they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers."

    These torments are only in Anthony's head, though, "For they are nothing and quickly disappear." The similarity between St. Anthony's hallucinations and those brought on with ergotism linked the two, leading to the name St. Anthony's Fire.

  • The Worst Outbreak In France Claimed 40,000 People

    In 944 CE, an outbreak of St. Anthony's Fire struck southern France, taking the lives of 40,000 people. The cool, wet climate that year helped the fungus grow, infecting rye that was then ground into flour. As peasants milled rye and used the flour to make bread, they did not know it was tainted with a deadly toxin. 

    In 945 another outbreak struck Paris. This time, the cure was a stockpile of "holy grains" distributed by Hugh the Great, an aristocrat who passed out uninfected grains at St. Mary's church. Before victims realized the disease was caused by moldy grains, Hugh's grains were described as miraculous — but in actuality, they just weren't infested with ergot. 

  • Nearly 400 Red Hospitals Were Built To Treat The Disease, And Their Cure Was Effective

    St. Anthony's Fire was so common that an entire religious order was founded to treat victims. The Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony, dating back to 1095, built more than 370 hospitals. The hospitals were painted red, so that even illiterate peasants would know what disorder they treated. And the hospitals had a good track record for curing the disease, even though they didn't understand the medical cause behind St. Anthony's Fire. 

    While sufferers of St. Anthony's Fire might have seen divine intervention in their recovery, it's more likely the lack of rye bread at the hospital cured the disease.