The king was Charles VI of France, who ruled from 1380 to 1422. Charles suffered from what was most likely schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. During his recurrent episodes of madness, he had severe hallucinations and delusions. At one point, he even believed he was made out of glass. He forbade anyone to touch him, lest he break, and had his tailors sew rods into his clothing for additional protection.
Alchemist, forger, quack, pimp – in the 18th century, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was all of these and more. He might have been forgotten were it not for his alleged involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785. The event – involving the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by means of Marie Antoinette’s forged signature — cast suspicion on the unpopular queen and may have contributed to the French Revolution. Although Cagliostro was found innocent of any involvement in the crime, he nevertheless was held in the Bastille for nine months and eventually asked to leave France.
Cagliostro was most likely born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily. Although his family was poor, Balsamo had a tutor and eventually became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God. Before he was expelled, he learned chemistry as well as religious rites.
But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains. It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.