Holy Fire

…is what gangrenous ergotism was called when it first appeared in Europe in the ninth century. “Fire” of course because of the burning sensation the disease caused and “holy” because it came to seen as a divine punishment. Yet within two hundred years or so the name changed. By about 1050 an order of monks became known for treating the disease, the Order of St. Anthony. The brothers were highly skilled at formulating and applying plant balms that healed wounds and relaxed blood vessels (though they also excelled at performing amputations when those treatments failed). At their peak they had some 370 hospitals in France alone, conducting all manner of therapies, among them, change of diet. Yet since the connection between rye and ergotism wasn’t understood, and because most of their patients were poor and had few if any other food options, the ergotism usually returned. However from the high Middle Ages onward, ergotism was known “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

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