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France’s ‘Great Fear’ of 1789 Was Caused by Hallucinogen, Historian Says

November 21, 1989 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Maryland historian is adding a hallucinogenic note to the longstanding mystery of what triggered three weeks of terror in the French countryside that became a key event in the revolution of 1789.

Mary Kilburne Mattossian, in a new book called ″Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History,″ says the phenomenon historians call the Great Fear was probably caused by hallucinogens contained in a fungus on rye wheat.

R. Emmet Kennedy Jr., a professor of European History at George Washington University and an authority on the French Revolution, said he has not read Ms. Matossian’s book but is familiar with her thesis and does not put much stock in it.

″I am not a biologist and haven’t investigated, but I simply haven’t taken it very seriously,″ Kennedy said in an interview.

″We believe that the Great Fear was caused by the revolution in Paris, the storming of the Bastille and specifically by the fear that the aristocrats were going to wage a counter-revolution against that revolution in Paris and Versailles and that they were setting loose brigands into the countryside to destroy their crops,″ he said.

Ms. Matossian, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, blames the fear on ergot, a fungus that grows on rye in certain conditions and contains the alkaloid lysergic acid, from which the hallucinogenic drug LSD is extracted.

Her view clashes with those of many historians that the phenomenon was an insurrection of peasants who resented paying taxes and tithes.

″In the spring of 1789 there were peasant protests against the food shortage and ‘feudal’ practices, but the Great Fear of July and August was mainly a panic, not a protest,″ she writes in her book, published by Yale University Press.

Previous studies have indicated there was no foundation for these fears because, although there were vagrants roaming the countryside in search of food, they were apparently neither organized nor dangerous.

″There has been documentation that shows that it was based on rumor,″ Kennedy said. ″Somebody would come to the outskirts of a village and announce that a troop of brigands were arriving and then somebody would go to the next village and multiply the number by 10, and it went on and on like that.″

Ms. Matossian’s book was based on research in libraries in the United States, France, England and the Soviet Union. She said her conclusion was based on ″a series of interesting coincidences that make a causal connection plausible.″

She cited a previous study of public health in Brittany that reported toxic ergot had been found on about one-twelfth of all ears of rye in the region in July 1789.

″This was indeed a prodigious amount,″ she wrote. ″Rye flour containing 1 percent ergot is sufficient to cause a full-blown epidemic.″

The Great Fear went on for three weeks. Weeping and shouting peasants took to the woods with pitchforks and muskets while others crisscrossed the countryside looting and burning chateaus.

It led French aristocrats to abandon some of their feudal privileges, and prompted a reaction among landowners who maintained order should be restored in the countryside before further concessions were made.