The Visions of Saints Anthony and Guthlac

  • M. L. Cameron


I wish to present evidence for the thesis that the visions of St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Guthlac of Crowland were convulsive and hallucinatory episodes induced by the eating of bread made from grain infected with the fungus Claviceps (ergot), and that these are the earliest identifiable accounts of this affliction. Their symptoms are described in detail in the biographies of the two men written by contemporaries or near contemporaries.1 The possible interrelatedness of these biographies should not deter us from the belief that Guthlac actually had the experiences recorded by his biographer.2


Ergot Alkaloid Lysergic Acid Diethyl Amide Single Meal Lysergic Acid Diethyl Amide 
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  1. 2.
    Felix followed the usual pattern of medieval hagiographers in drawing heavily on earlier saints’ lives for much of his material. This is discussed fully by C.W. Jones, Saints’ Lives and Chronicles in Early England (Ithaca, NY 1947); see esp. pp. 54–55, 85–87. Colgrave (Life, pp. 181–82, 184, 185–87) notes the most important parallels between the visions of Anthony and Guthlac. For evidence that Guthlac’s visions were real, see Roberts, Guthlac Poems; Roberts concludes that the poem Guthlac A does not derive from Felix’s Life, so that its testimony of Guthlac’s visions may be independent of the Antonian tradition. The same conclusion is reached byGoogle Scholar
  2. B.P. Kurtz, “From St. Anthony to St. Guthlac: A Study in Biography”, University of California Publications in Modern Philology 12 (1926) 103–46.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    G. Barger, Ergot and Ergotism (London 1931), passim.Google Scholar
  4. E.P. Claus and V.E. Tyler, Pharmacognosy (Philadelphia 1968), pp. 321–27.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    A. Hoffer and H. Osmond, The Hallucinogens (New York 1967), pp. 110–38.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    L.R. Caporael, “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?”, Science 192 (1976) 21–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. P. Spanos and J. Gottlieb, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials”, Science 194 (1976) 1390–94, argue strongly that the evidence presented by Caporael is not sufficient to demonstrate ergotism as a cause of the Salem witch trials, and that her thesis cannot be accepted.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. M.K. Matossian, “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair”, American Scientist 70 (1982) 355–57, supports Caporael against the arguments of Spanos and Gottlieb, and concludes (p. 357): “The balance of the available evidence suggests that the witchcraft accusations of 1692 were prompted by an epidemic of ergotism. The witchcraft affair, therefore, may have been part of a largely unrecognized American health problem”. For other instances of what appear to have been ergotinduced episodes, interpreted as religious manifestations, see alsoGoogle Scholar
  9. M.K. Matossian, “Religious Revivals and Ergotism in America”, Clio medica 16 (1982) 185–92.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1992

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  • M. L. Cameron

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