Image via Wikimedia Commons

Poisoned porridge played a role in Sweden's witch trials

Heather Arndt Anderson
April 11, 2018

In 1669, hundreds of people accused of witchcraft stood trial in the Swedish villages of Mora and Elfdale. Dozens faced execution. Joseph Glanvill’s written account of the trial, Saducismus Triumphatus: Or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1683), revealed all of the details of the confessions of the damned: the satanic rituals, venereal fervor, and violent revelry of witches’ nocturnal visits to a meeting place they called Blockula. Most upsetting of all, however, was the Satanic feasts consumed during their wicked ceremonies.

They ate breakfast.

It wasn’t bats’ wings or goat’s blood that sated the Dark Lord and his guests; it was oatmeal, broth with colworts (cabbage) and bacon, buttered bread with cheese, and frosty flagons of milk. On trial, the accused confessed that Satan gave them a magical grocery-fetching beast to bring them butter, cheese, milk, bacon, and seeds. Witches’ confessions elsewhere substantiated this; in Lancashire, England, witches feasted on “cooked meat, porringers [mugs] of milk, butter, bread, pudding, and all that a rustic fancy might produce for a feast.”

In England, cursed porridge was a problem. In 1678, a Lincolnshire girl reported sitting down to a breakfast of frumenty (a simple Cream of Wheat-type porridge) made with fresh milk. After taking a few bites, she was momentarily interrupted from her meal. When she returned to her porridge, she saw that it had mysteriously seized into a hard curd. Her bowl began rattling and dancing on the table before hurling itself to the floor, shattering into pieces. Later that day she was paralyzed and remained so for months.

In northern climes where witchcraft hysteria ran rampant, the weather dictates the staple crops. Rather than wheat, cereals like oats, rye and barley are grown, and all of these plants are susceptible to infection by Claviceps purpurea, better known as ergot fungus. Porridges and breads made with cold-climate cereals were mainstays of not only 17th-century Swedes, but of northern English farmers and the early Massachusetts settlers as well, where dishes like frumenty (made with barley instead of wheat in poorer households) were eaten daily. Throughout these regions, ergotism (poisoning from ergot fungus) was a common malady.

In 1982, historian Mary Matossian discovered that a large proportion of European witch trials were concentrated in the alpine regions where these grains were staples, and deduced that bad breakfast was behind the Salem witch trials that occurred two decades after those in Mora. In the 1660s, a fungal disease called wheat rust swept New England wheat crops, leading people there to replace their preferred wheat with rye. In particularly cold and wet years, ergot went gangbusters and so did ergotism, the symptoms of which were observed in each person who stood trial for witchcraft in the 17th century.

There are two forms of ergotism: gangrenous and convulsive, and both are so metal that it’s no wonder the afflictions were attributed to Lucifer. Convulsions and severe cramping were the more common symptoms in Sweden and Salem, but in France, the disease was so nefarious that its victims had their own patron saint (the disease is nicknamed St. Anthony’s fire). There, the gangrenous form prevailed, which resulted in one’s body being disburdened of its extremities. The blackened stumps left behind were said to have been consumed by ignis sacer or “holy fire.”

But besides causing grotesque bodily contortions or the unfortunate sensation of being consumed alive by hellfire, ergotamine (the sinister alkaloid found in the fungus) also causes terrifying hallucinations. Not only were the afflicted experiencing the horror of being possessed by maleficence, but they were having visions of their neighbors as demons while in the midst of walking nightmares. Compounding the problem, people in the throes of ergotism are highly suggestible. The confessions made by the accused were, for all intents and purposes, true.

In 1938, German chemist Albert Hoffman discovered ergotamine to be a chemical precursor to LSD, and during his first experience using his creation, he hallucinated that his friendly neighbor lady was a “malevolent, insidious witch with a multicolored mask.” Witchy-hippie types were cautioned about eating the brown acid in 1969, but three centuries earlier, it was brown bread causing bad trips.

Whether they were really dancing with the Devil or freaking out on psychedelic cereal, the nightmare was eventually over for 17th century witches. Though the connection to witchcraft still eluded common sense, it was around this time when people made the link between ergot in infected grains and St. Anthony’s fire. Fortunately, by the turn of the 17th century, clerics and healers already knew that the secret of ergotism came down to breakfast foods, not just in contracting the disease, but in preventing it; butter, eggs, and bacon were recommended throughout afflicted areas to keep the devil at bay. Breakfast once again proved itself the most important meal of the day.

You May Like