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St Anthony’s Fire

I’ll tell you a story about ergot. In my spare time at university I read a book (The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire by John Grant Fuller Jr) about the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit ergot poisoning.

Ergot contains a mass of compounds, some of which act like LSD and some of which have other effects on the body.

There have been reports throughout history of mass poisoning with ergot.

A 2016 article in the Smithsonian refers to an incidence of St John’s dance (another name for St. Anthony’s Fire) that affected a village in Aachen in 1374 where the villagers danced endlessly and uncontrollably.

Breugel painted the annual procession of people affected by St John’s Dance on their pilgrimage to be cured at the church at Molenbeek.

St John’s Dance, or St. Anthony’s Fire, are thought to be incidences of ergotism. 

Hundreds of people were affected in the 1951 outbreak at Pont-Saint-Esprit in France. Some died, some had gangrenous limbs, some went crazy, and some survived intact.

I remember a sentence near the end of the book where one of the outsiders who came to the village after the outbreak described the villagers as moving together like a flock of geese.

That’s got a science fiction sound to it – that the villagers were somehow telepathically tied to one another.  Or perhaps they were simply shocked and came together as survivors of a mutual tragedy.

You may wonder how an incident like this could go on for days and weeks in the 20th century without the outside world quickly arriving to intervene and help people.

This was an isolated village in rural France in 1951, not long after the Second World War. It happened. 


A friend and I used to cycle from the university to a nature reserve.

One summer’s day we stopped on a small country road and sat back on the grass by a field. I started to tell her about The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire, the book I was reading, and while I was telling her I saw that there was rye growing around the edges of the field.

It may have been the previous year’s crop that had hung on and sprouted again. Or it may have been there for years, stubbornly refusing to disappear.

I reached back behind my head to take an ear of rye to explain how ergot – Claviceps purpurea fungus – grew inside and over the ear of rye.

I looked at what I had picked and one of the ears was a large, dark purple, curved mass of ergot.

We looked for other ears similarly infected with the fungus. Nothing. Never found another one.

I kept the ear in a small quill box. I had bought in a junk shop because it was similar to the one my parents had at home which I liked.

My dad brought that box back from Japan after he was invalided out during the Korean War.

The box was hand made, black wood with porcupine quill inlays.

I don’t know what happened to the ear of ergot or the box I bought. After my parents died, I kept their quill box, which I still have.

Russia’s Foreign Policy?

On 22 Dec, Michael Carpenter @mikercarpenterSenior Director @PennBiden. Former DASD for Russia/Balkans/Eurasia @DeptofDefense, Foreign Policy Advisor @JoeBiden, and Director for Russia @NSC44 published a long thread on Twitter.

I have no way of knowing what axe he may have to grind in this world where everything is hostage to misinformation, but I want to record what he tweeted – and we shall see how things play out. Here is what he tweeted:

1 A military incursion into Ukraine. The most likely target is the canal that feeds fresh water from the Dnieper river to Crimea. Without this water, Crimea’s agricultural sector goes under. Also look for Russia to seek complete dominance over the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait.

2 A military flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh if Prime Minister Pashinyan does not cater to corrupt Russian interests in Armenia.

3 Pressure on President Lukashenka to allow Russia to build a military base in Belarus, especially if the US green-lights the construction of “Fort Trump” in Poland. If Minsk resists, the Kremlin will be prepared to execute an Anschluss operation.

4 Russia and Iran take control of eastern Syria as the US withdraws and Turkey engages in cross-border attacks on Kurdish fighters. Over time this guarantees that disenfranchised Sunni Arabs radicalize into ISIS 2.0.

5 A growing Russian military presence in Libya helps General Haftar consolidate control of the country, which becomes a Russian protectorate.

6 Moscow arms the Taliban with more sophisticated weapons as the US draws down its forces and the NATO ISAF mission is stretched to the breaking point. Moscow displaces the US as the chief power-broker in Afghanistan and the Taliban comes back to power.

7 Moscow supports Bosnian President Milorad Dodik’s efforts to separate Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, risking a renewed ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

8 The Russian-Saudi relationship blossoms as Moscow sends more weapons to Saudi Arabia and coordinates further oil supply cuts.

9 EU sanctions on Russia fall apart as one of the EU member states breaks consensus in return for an undisclosed energy deal with Russia. The most likely candidates: Hungary, Italy, Austria.

10 The Kremlin’s active measures campaign in the US goes into overdrive as Russia seeks to shape the 2020 presidential field. Dark money becomes the main tool of Kremlin influence as Russia concludes that financing organic disinformation is more effective than offshore ops.