St. Anthony's Fire -- Ergotism (cont.)
The early monks who followed Anthony into the desert considered themselves the vanguard of God's army, and, by fasting and performing other ascetic practices, they attempted to attain the same state of spiritual purity and freedom from temptation that they saw realized in Anthony. Anthony's spiritual combats with what he envisioned as the forces of evil made his life one long struggle against the devil.
The devil's assault on Anthony took the form of visions, either seductive or horrible, experienced by the saint. (This is according to St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria.) For example, at times, the devil appeared to Anthony in the guise of a monk bringing bread during his fasts, or in the form of wild beasts, women, or soldiers, sometimes beating the saint and leaving him in a deathly state. Anthony endured many such attacks, and those who witnessed them were convinced they were real. Every vision conjured up by Satan was repelled by Anthony's fervid prayer and penitential acts. So exotic were the visions and so steadfast was Anthony's endurance that the subject of his temptations has often been used in literature and art, notably in the paintings not only Matthias Grunewald, as mentionned, but also of many other artists ranging from Hiëronymus Bosch and Max Ernst.
From these psychic struggles Anthony emerged as the sane and sensible father of Christian monasticism. The rule that bears his name was compiled from writings and discourses attributed to him in the Life of St. Anthony and the Apophthegmata patrum and was still observed in the 20th century by a number of Coptic and Armenian monks.
Anthony's popularity as a saint reached its height in the Middle Ages. The Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony was founded near Grenoble, France (c. 1100). This institution became a pilgrimage center for persons suffering from the disease known as St. Anthony's fire (ergotism).
ErgotismErgot contains ergotamine. In moderate doses, ergotamine causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in small arteries. Ergotamine has been used to control hemorrhage (bleeding) and to promote contraction of the uterus during childbirth. It is also used to treat migraine headaches (its major use today).
In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony's fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).
Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.
A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.
Last Editorial Review: 4/8/2002