Now I know there are certain types of readers out there — mostly musicians — who rather enjoy the thought of a dose of LSD with their morning toast. But let’s be clear here: ergot-derived lysergic acid is a far cry from the synthesized, purified LSD that Jimi Hendrix sprinkled on his corn flakes. What we’re talking about is an unrefined chemical, one that is mixed with a variety of other toxins, the cumulative effect of which is a disease known as ergotism.
Ergotism comes in two types. There’s convulsive ergotism, a nervous disorder in which sufferers can be subjected to anything from muscle spasms and hallucinations to violent contortions, trembling, shaking, vomiting, mania and psychosis. However ergot can also cause constriction of the blood vessels which leads to a second condition known as gangrenous ergotism. In this, blood flow is cut off to the extremities, causing infections, hideous burning sensations and gangrene (with all its associated losses of fingers, toes and limbs). Not the way even the most committed stoner would want to spend his weekend.
Did these kinds of symptoms occur every time pre-industrial peoples consumed ergot? Certainly not. Had they, someone somewhere would have made the connection, and well before 1850. The insidious thing about ergotism, you see, is that it only occasionally strikes with any real ferocity: during a particularly wet spring, for instance, when rye flowers stay open longer. Or after an especially bad wheat year, when people put a higher proportion of rye in their flour mix. In a worst-case scenario it would be a combination of both. Just such a year killed an estimated 40,000 people in southern France in 944 A.D.. Though even that is small potatoes when you consider that some historians blame mild ergotism for softening up the European immune system in advance of the Bubonic Plague, which as you may recall did a number on Europe to the tune of two-thirds of its population. That is what you call one seriously bad trip.