The devil in the sheaves: Ergotism in Southern Italy

Alessandro Tarsia


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.

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The official journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, founded in 1969 as one of the first scholarly journals in the field, Semiotica features articles reporting results of research in all branches of semiotic studies, in-depth reviews of selected current literature in the field, and occasional guest editorials and reports. The journal also publishes occasional Special Issues devoted to topics of particular interest.