Sarah Albee: Panic Attacks

From: Sarah Albee
September 14, 2012 at 04:51AM

If you’ve been checking in with my blog with any sort of regularity, you’ll know that I am currently semi-obsessed with the French Revolution. (See entries here and here and here.) And also with the book I’ve just finished, called Poisons of the Past, by Mary Kilbourne Matossian, which I mentioned in Wednesday’s blog about witchcraft and ergotism.

Today’s topic: the so-called Great Fear of 1789 (or La Grande Peur, if my high-school French teacher happens to be reading this).

During a very brief period in July-August of 1789, mobs of French peasants collectively freaked out, more or less simultaneously, around the country. Waves of panic and rioting swept the French countryside. People seemed to think that an “aristocratic conspiracy” was afoot, and that the king and his nobles had sent brigands out to roam the countryside, seize the newly-harvested rye crops, burn houses, and massacre people. Entire villages fled into the woods to hide or shouldered pitchforks and scythes to await the onslaught.

Six days after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, the rabble in the countryside began attacking chateaus and destroying feudal documents in a massive, paranoid panic.

If you’ve studied even a little bit about the French Revolution, you’re probably yawning and saying, “No duh. Of course they distrusted the nobility. Of course there would have been peasant uprisings. They were starving and overtaxed and disgruntled and France was in the midst of a financial crisis because it had supported the American Revolution yadda yadda yadda,” and you’d be correct. But here’s where my poison book comes in. According to Matossian, the nature of the uprising was a panic, rather than a political protest. And she believes it may have been induced by ergotism. (For more about what that is, see my last blog.) She looked through medical records and crop reports and found a significant deterioration in public health during the second half of July, with lots of reports of miscarriages, nervous attacks, “imbecilism,” stomach pains, “visceral upset,” apoplexies, and hallucinations. We know that ergot poisoning caused hallucinations and paranoia. She also found evidence that the rye crop was prodigiously affected by ergot fungus. And peasants averaged two to three pounds of rye bread. Per person, per day.

So did this nefarious fungus bring on, or at least hasten, the Revolution? Peut-être. Fearing further peasant uprisings, the nobles abolished the feudal system, gave up some of their rights to collect tithes, and introduced the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” one of the basic charters of human liberties. But as we know, that was all too little, too late.



Gustave Courbet, The Grain Sifters, via Wikimedia commons
Rye, by Bene16 (Own work (eigenes Bild)) via Wikimedia Commons



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