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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

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Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca: Classe A

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Volume 2013, Issue 195


The devil in the sheaves: Ergotism in Southern Italy

Alessandro Tarsia
Published Online: 2013-06-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2013-0002


Ergotism was a terrible plague in southern Italy in the second millenium, especially in the regions of Basilicata and Calabria, and yet, there is a serious lack of scholarship on the subject. In the absence of multidisciplinary studies, some scholars deny that ergotism even existed historically in these regions. The scarcity of original sources and the abundance of indirect evidence and clues call for an adductive, multidisciplinary method of investigation. This article is divided into three sections. The first part provides a medical-pharmacological explanation of the causes and effects of the disease; the second analyzes the agriculture and diet in southern Italy, highlighting the extremely favorable conditions for the pathology as well as describing local traditions. The last section explores the magical-religious implications of the cult of Saint Anthony Abbot, thaumaturge of plants, animals, and men, divinity par excellence of ergotism, whose votive offerings outnumbered those of all other saints in southern Italy for centuries. With the demise of the Order of Saint Anthony, other autochthonous saints began fulfilling the same functions, demonstrating that ergotism continued to be a serious problem into the eighteenth century.

Keywords: ergotism; Saint Anthony's fire; Antonines; cereals; Claviceps purpurea; bread

About the article

Alessandro Tarsia

Alessandro Tarsia (b. 1978) is an independent scholar 〈 〉. His research interests include historical anthropology, philosophy, and classical archeology.

Published Online: 2013-06-07

Published in Print: 2013-06-06

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2013, Issue 195, Pages 357–371, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2013-0002.

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©[2013] by Walter de Gruyter Berlin Boston.Get Permission

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