Was 1789 All Due To Wheat Ergot?

One of the key triggers of the French Revolution, celebrated in history, was bread, or a lack of it; but asks Mike Alexander, might a common fungus have had something to do with it?

Women played a major role in the revolution as this image shows: Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 October 1789 (Credit Wikipedia)

Women played a major role in the revolution as this image shows: Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 October 1789 (Credit Wikipedia)

In the run up to that seminal uprising, celebrated in French and world history and preceded by la Grande Peur (great panic) of 17 July – 3 August 1789, the peasant class became exasperated over the quality and quantity of bread available.

For the people’s bread was poor and highly adulterated with cheaper rye as well as sawdust, hay and even occasionally dung to make it go further. The royalty and lesser nobility meanwhile, were contentedly munching on only the finest quality white bread made with wheat.

The great panic began in the Franche-Comté, spread south along the Rhône valley to Provence, eastward to the Alps and westward to central France. Another panic began in Ruffec, south of Poitiers, and moved toward the Pyrenees, Berry and the Auvergne eventually leaving only Alsace, Lorraine and Brittany largely untouched.

Extract from The Great Fear by historian Mary Matossian  (Image: Screencapture)

Extract from The Great Fear by historian Mary Matossian (Image: Screencapture)

The 1789 revolution followed close on the heels of both the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War and these conflicts had significant impact on what was already a badly mismanaged system of governance. To exacerbate matters further there had been several years of extremely poor harvests.

In a bid to try and regain some semblance of balance to the French treasury, the nobility imposed a wide ranging series of taxes on property, land and the family. These ever increasing fiscal measures fell mainly on the shoulders of the middle and lower classes as the nobility were largely able to exempt themselves by one means or another. (If that sounds vaguely familiar, it is!)

Bread may not seem a contentious enough issue over which to have started a revolution that saw more than 50 000 people dragged off to the guillotine, until one realizes that the peasant population of France at that time consumed more than 50% of daily calories via bread. Lower quality flour meant lower quality bread and that could mean starvation. In 1789 alone the bread price rose by 67%.

In her book Poisons of the Past, Mary Matossian contends that there may have been another element at play in the storming of the Bastille which soon evolved into full fledged revolution.


Read all Mike Alexander’s gardening advice here and here


Claviceps purpurea is a hallucinogenic fungus that often affects grain crops and is commonly known as ergot. Its most common vector is rye and if inadvertently consumed by humans, as it almost definitely would have been given a largely half starved population of the time, it can lead to a medical condition known as ergotism.

Among other symptoms of this illness are mania, psychosis and hallucinations. Matossian suggests that it may have been ergot poisoning that lead a weak and undernourished peasant population to attack the Bastille, the most highly fortified structure in the City of Paris.

It is an interesting theory that may be contested by some and probably never empirically proven but there are several articles on the internet that suggest other strange phenomena of the period could well be attributed to the same cause. See for example Ergot Poisoning – the cause of the Salem Witch Trials

What is certain, however, is that egotism can lead to abnormal behavior and that was plenty of that in evidence at the time, as the French nobility would no doubt attest.

Ergotisim is still around today in many poorer countries of the world. Perhaps their governments should be taking a closer look at eradicating the problem … while they still have their heads!

Story: Mike Alexander

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