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Old 06-30-2004, 12:06 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Madness of Crowds & Revolution

In response to a question from cthulhu about the role of ergot poisoning in the French Revolution:

I read a very intersting book a few years ago called "Poisons of the Past". The author studied peasant diet and its impact upon violent outbreaks. The incidents studied included witch trials in England and America, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. The latter occurred at a time during which extensive medical records were maintained. The author noticed a high incidence of ergot poisoning among the "revolutionaries".

Ergot is found on diseased rye and affects the brain much like LSD. Rye was the staple diet for peasants in France and was a large component of the diet in England and early America.

As a comparison, the author also studied the diets of economically similar peasants, such as those in Ireland, who ate a non-rye based diet. In this case, the peasants' staple was oat.

The author's conclusion is that peasants were able to be rallied to commit mass acts of violents due to the mind-altering affects of ergot. It was not the cause of the violence and revolutions, but it contributed to the breakdown of civil behavior.
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Old 06-30-2004, 12:16 PM   #2 (permalink)
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The idea, though interesting, is essentially unprovable. Personally, I doubt that ergot poisoning had a very large impact on the French Revolution, as mob anger is usually a sufficient cause for all sorts of "uncivil" behavior. Of course, the very act of revolution is, by definition, uncivil.

Last edited by cthulu23; 06-30-2004 at 12:18 PM..
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Old 06-30-2004, 12:19 PM   #3 (permalink)
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It is unprovable - but it is interesting to ponder.

It does cause me to think about the growing apathy in the U.S. and if there is any relationship to the nutrition free fast food diet.

Food is a drug.
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Old 06-30-2004, 12:21 PM   #4 (permalink)
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I suspect that American apathy is a by-product of the mental junk food that we are consuming.
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Old 06-30-2004, 12:25 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Not this American. I can proudly state that I have never watched Survivor, American Idol, The Bachelor or any other reality TV show crap.
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Old 06-30-2004, 12:58 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I meant "we" in the national identity sense...
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Old 06-30-2004, 01:09 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Interesting theory, though as cthulu said, unprovable. If I'm not wrong, ergotism wasn't even that usual disease after the medieval times.
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Old 06-30-2004, 01:10 PM   #8 (permalink)
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I agree with Cthulu here. The vast majority of what passes for culture in America is crap. When we're not living vicariously through characters in Hollywood movies and sleazy novels, we're attempting to fill the empty spaces and bolster our "status" with mass-produced toys. We are both actors and participants in the Spectacle. Reality television is only the latest and most easily recognizable manifestation of the phenomenon.

It's funny that you brought LSD up though. If you watch Pink Floyd The Wall on acid, you'll understand exactly what I'm saying.
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Old 06-30-2004, 02:04 PM   #9 (permalink)
 
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sorry, i didnt see this had already started---just getting home.

do you know who wrote this book please?
generally, the realm of unprovable theories is a funny one. you could also argue that astrology explained the french revolution, or that shifts in the magnetic field did, and how's to prove anything to the contrary, really? data on shifts in magnetic fields werent kept, so why not?

since in the course of my day job, i teach courses on the french revolution, i would be obviously interested in this.....
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Old 06-30-2004, 02:06 PM   #10 (permalink)
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The book is "Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History" by Mary Kilbourne Matossian.
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Old 06-30-2004, 02:40 PM   #11 (permalink)
 
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thanks.

do you remember how exactly the explanation works?

i was thinking as i ran some errands that there might be some problems up front with it, in terms of sequence of actions that brought about the revolution---in other words what exact actions does the book try to explain and who carried them out?

i can see in principle how the impression "they had to be tripping" might fit into some situations--things like the decision of the king to pay for intervening in the american revolution by floating bonds that the state later defaulted on, which (through i complicated set of moves) caused the revolt of the notables (aristo-types) in 1787--but that wouldnt fit with an argument about peasant diet, and besides everything that happened can be easily explained on other grounds.

the great fear doesnt work exactly, though it did involve country folk....

most of the main action that drove the revolution happened in paris intitially---do you remember if the category peasantry is extended to include them? if the author does that, then it would not really be a surprise that i hadnt heard of him....

maybe la vendee?

i dont know--sorry for all the questions, given that you read the book a while ago---but am thinking about it a bit and there we are.....
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Old 06-30-2004, 02:53 PM   #12 (permalink)
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I read the book 14 or 15 years ago, so my memory is a bit hazy. I did google up the following from a review:

(Note, the emphasis of the book is on how an infected diet has affected the course of history.)

from the book jacket: "Matossian begins by analyzing statistics on
fertility and mortality kept in Russia between 1865 and 1914... the
consumption of rye bread correlated with epidemics of food poisoning
that often resulted in mental illness, a decline in fertility, or
death ... witch persecution in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
Europe, showing that witch trials were concentrated in areas where rye
was the main cereal and the climate was cold and damp ... colonial
America, examining the throat distemper epidemic of 1735-36, the Salem
witchcraft persecution of 1692, and the Great Awakening of 1741, and
relating all of these to mold poisoning."

Of course the main mold she's writing about is ergot, Claviceps
purpurea. Her thesis is that there were periods when rye bread was
consumed heavily, even when it had the pink tinge caused by an ergot
content of 3-5%. Few cared that the grain had mold on it in the field
or in storage. They ate it and suffered symptoms of various severity.
Ergotamine is vasoconstrictive and can cause "dry gangrene", where
fingers and toes or chunks of flesh turn black and rot off. Ergonovine
may act as an abortifacient.

.........................................

"Between July 20 and August 6, 1789, waves of panic swept over the
French countryside. The new rye crop was just harvested, but there
were rumors that brigands were coming to seize it. Many people
believed they had glimpsed these bandits and feared it was already too
late: women would be raped and murdered, children massacred, homes set
afire. As tocsins rang, the peasants, weeping and shouting, fled into
the woods to hide or armed themselves with pitchforks, scythes, and
hunting rifles ... The 'Great Fear' among the landless aroused a great
fear among landowners, an apprehension that the peasants might seize
property and turn upon their masters. To forestall any such
catastrophe, the National Constituent Assembly met on the night of
August 4 in Versailles...and voted to abolish what was thereafter to
be called the 'ancien regime'." Matossian found physicians reports of
marked increases in "nervous diseases" in the second half of July, and
that "ergot horns were found on about one-twelfth of all ears of rye."


Link
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Old 06-30-2004, 02:56 PM   #13 (permalink)
 
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ah, so it's the great fear---that makes sense, i guess---i'll check it out and maybe get back something on it after i've read it.
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Old 06-30-2004, 03:12 PM   #14 (permalink)
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fascinating stuff.
reminds me of the ergot craze that accompanied the social revolutions of the '60s...and yes, the junk food epidemic of today.
good discussion too.
thanks.
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Old 06-30-2004, 03:29 PM   #15 (permalink)
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The ergot poisoning theory is good as far as it goes, and I can certainly attest that diet affects one's rationality and attitude; but it seems to me that, if ergot poisoning was a major factor in the events mentioned, there should have been perennial mass hysteria and civil unrest in those areas where the climate and diet matched those conditions, rather than momentary isolated incidents.
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Old 06-30-2004, 03:34 PM   #16 (permalink)
 
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in principle, i agree with sinistermotives....but like i said, i'll have a look.
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Old 06-30-2004, 03:50 PM   #17 (permalink)
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The ergot was not a perennial problen; it occurred under certain weather conditions. Perhaps humans have a certain tolerance level which was breached.
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Old 07-01-2004, 03:01 AM   #18 (permalink)
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someone suggestion the Salem witch "project" was similar:

ergot and witches

as i understand it, it produces toxins and LSD... LSD being very non-toxic itself and also extremely active...

Quote:
Ergot of Rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The so-called ergot that replaces the grain of the rye is a dark, purplish sclerotium (Figs. 1a-b), from which the sexual stage (Fig. 2a-b), of the lifecycle will form after over wintering. The sexual stage consists of stroma in which the asci and ascospores are produced. 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. It is the ergot stage of the fungus that contains a storehouse of various compounds that have been useful as pharmaceutical drugs as well as mycotoxins that can be fatal when consumed. The proportion of the compounds produced will vary within the species. Thus, the victim that has lived through ergot poisoning once may experience different symptoms if they were unfortunate enough to consume ergot for a second time. This species was also the original source from which LSD was first isolated. It is believed that symptoms of ergotism have been recorded since the middle ages and possibly even as far back as ancient Greece.
from hawaii.edu

interesting thread, and it does sound pretty plausible... but personally i'd put the French revolution down to the masses being treated like shit just a little too much
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