Were They Bitten? Or is it Ergot Poisoning?
One of the most fun things about looking into the world of all things wolf is finding out all the different theories of why people are turned into werewolves. The most generally believed thought is that a human is bitten by a werewolf and voila! They become one themselves. But, back in France during the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, the courts had a theory for what turned some people into werewolves. This theory was ergot poisoning.
Ergot poisoning, or ergotism as it’s also called, is also known as St. Anthony’s Fire or Wolfszahn, which means “wolf’s tooth.” The poison grew on rye bread, which was one of the mainstays of the homes in early France. Rye bread, because it was so cheap and lasted for a long time was especially prevalent in the lower lands, where the poor people of France lived. Over the cold winter months the rye bread would become stale and grow the poison. Then after being ingested by a person, they would then become afflicted with the disease and become a werewolf. The poisoning came in the form of a fungus, full of parasites. Eeeww!
The symptoms of the poisoning are quite similar to the physical traits of werewolves. These were things such as writhing and shaking, tremors, not having any control of their own fine motor function, rolling eyes, inability to speak, ferocious appetite, hallucinations, panic attacks, swelling of the skin, feeling of extreme hot or cold. After seeing this happen, the townspeople would begin to talk about how there was a werewolf about. And after ingesting the poison and seeing themselves, the victims would also believe that they had turned into a werewolf.
Because poisoning is not usually done intentionally to the victim, you would think that becoming a werewolf during this time would be considered more of a disease than a crime. That might make sense but, you would be wrong. The people found guilty of the wolf sin during this time were still put to trial and then usually, to death. During this era in France, it’s said that as many as 30,000 people were put on trial for being a werewolf.