The Black Death Part 4

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The Dancing Mania of the year 1374 was, in fact, no new disease, but a phenomenon well known in the Middle Ages, of which many wondrous stories were traditionally current among the people. In the year 1237 upwards of a hundred children were said to have been suddenly seized with this disease at Erfurt, and to have proceeded dancing and jumping along the road to Arnstadt. When they arrived at that place they fell exhausted to the ground, and, according to an account of an old chronicle, many of them, after they were taken home by their parents, died, and the rest remained affected, to the end of their lives, with a permanent tremor.

Another occurrence was related to have taken place on the Moselle Bridge at Utrecht, on the 17th day of June, A.D. 1278, when two hundred fanatics began to dance, and would not desist until a priest pa.s.sed, who was carrying the Host to a person that was sick, upon which, as if in punishment of their crime, the bridge gave way, and they were all drowned. A similar event also occurred so early as the year 1027, near the convent church of Kolbig, not far from Bernburg. According to an oft- repeated tradition, eighteen peasants, some of whose names are still preserved, are said to have disturbed divine service on Christmas Eve by dancing and brawling in the churchyard, whereupon the priest, Ruprecht, inflicted a curse upon them, that they should dance and scream for a whole year without ceasing. This curse is stated to have been completely fulfilled, so that the unfortunate sufferers at length sank knee-deep into the earth, and remained the whole time without nourishment, until they were finally released by the intercession of two pious bishops. It is said that, upon this, they fell into a deep sleep, which lasted three days, and that four of them died; the rest continuing to suffer all their lives from a trembling of their limbs. It is not worth while to separate what may have been true, and what the addition of crafty priests, in this strangely distorted story. It is sufficient that it was believed, and related with astonishment and horror, throughout the Middle Ages; so that when there was any exciting cause for this delirious raving and wild rage for dancing, it failed not to produce its effects upon men whose thoughts were given up to a belief in wonders and apparitions.

This disposition of mind, altogether so peculiar to the Middle Ages, and which, happily for mankind, has yielded to an improved state of civilisation and the diffusion of popular instruction, accounts for the origin and long duration of this extraordinary mental disorder. The good sense of the people recoiled with horror and aversion from this heavy plague, which, whenever malevolent persons wished to curse their bitterest enemies and adversaries, was long after used as a malediction.

The indignation also that was felt by the people at large against the immorality of the age, was proved by their ascribing this frightful affliction to the inefficacy of baptism by unchaste priests, as if innocent children were doomed to atone, in after-years, for this desecration of the sacrament administered by unholy hands. We have already mentioned what perils the priests in the Netherlands incurred from this belief. They now, indeed, endeavoured to hasten their reconciliation with the irritated, and, at that time, very degenerate people, by exorcisms, which, with some, procured them greater respect than ever, because they thus visibly restored thousands of those who were affected. In general, however, there prevailed a want of confidence in their efficacy, and then the sacred rites had as little power in arresting the progress of this deeply-rooted malady as the prayers and holy services subsequently had at the altars of the greatly-revered martyr St. Vitus. We may therefore ascribe it to accident merely, and to a certain aversion to this demoniacal disease, which seemed to lie beyond the reach of human skill, that we meet with but few and imperfect notices of the St. Vitus's dance in the second half of the fifteenth century. The highly-coloured descriptions of the sixteenth century contradict the notion that this mental plague had in any degree diminished in its severity, and not a single fact is to be found which supports the opinion that any one of the essential symptoms of the disease, not even excepting the tympany, had disappeared, or that the disorder itself had become milder in its attacks. The physicians never, as it seems, throughout the whole of the fifteenth century, undertook the treatment of the Dancing Mania, which, according to the prevailing notions, appertained exclusively to the servants of the Church. Against demoniacal disorders they had no remedies, and though some at first did promulgate the opinion that the malady had its origin in natural circ.u.mstances, such as a hot temperament, and other causes named in the phraseology of the schools, yet these opinions were the less examined as it did not appear worth while to divide with a jealous priesthood the care of a host of fanatical vagabonds and beggars.


It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that the St.

Vitus's dance was made the subject of medical research, and stripped of its unhallowed character as a work of demons. This was effected by Paracelsus, that mighty but, as yet, scarcely comprehended reformer of medicine, whose aim it was to withdraw diseases from the pale of miraculous interpositions and saintly influences, and explain their causes upon principles deduced from his knowledge of the human frame. "We will not, however, admit that the saints have power to inflict diseases, and that these ought to be named after them, although many there are who, in their theology, lay great stress on this supposition, ascribing them rather to G.o.d than to nature, which is but idle talk. We dislike such nonsensical gossip as is not supported by symptoms, but only by faith--a thing which is not human, whereon the G.o.ds themselves set no value."

Such were the words which Paracelsus addressed to his contemporaries, who were, as yet, incapable of appreciating doctrines of this sort; for the belief in enchantment still remained everywhere unshaken, and faith in the world of spirits still held men's minds in so close a bondage that thousands were, according to their own conviction, given up as a prey to the devil; while at the command of religion, as well as of law, countless piles were lighted, by the flames of which human society was to be purified.

Paracelsus divides the St. Vitus's dance into three kinds. First, that which arises from imagination (_Vitista_, _Ch.o.r.ea imaginativa_, _aestimativa_), by which the original Dancing Plague is to be understood.

Secondly, that which arises from sensual desires, depending on the will (_Ch.o.r.ea lasciva_). Thirdly, that which arises from corporeal causes (Ch.o.r.ea naturalis, coacta), which, according to a strange notion of his own, he explained by maintaining that in certain vessels which are susceptible of an internal pruriency, and thence produce laughter, the blood is set in commotion in consequence of an alteration in the vital spirits, whereby involuntary fits of intoxicating joy and a propensity to dance are occasioned. To this notion he was, no doubt, led from having observed a milder form of St. Vitus's dance, not uncommon in his time, which was accompanied by involuntary laughter; and which bore a resemblance to the hysterical laughter of the moderns, except that it was characterised by more pleasurable sensations and by an extravagant propensity to dance. There was no howling, screaming, and jumping, as in the severer form; neither was the disposition to dance by any means insuperable. Patients thus affected, although they had not a complete control over their understandings, yet were sufficiently self-possessed during the attack to obey the directions which they received. There were even some among them who did not dance at all, but only felt an involuntary impulse to allay the internal sense of disquietude, which is the usual forerunner of an attack of this kind, by laughter and quick walking carried to the extent of producing fatigue. This disorder, so different from the original type, evidently approximates to the modern ch.o.r.ea; or, rather, is in perfect accordance with it, even to the less essential symptom of laughter. A mitigation in the form of the Dancing Mania had thus clearly taken place at the commencement of the sixteenth century.

On the communication of the St. Vitus's dance by sympathy, Paracelsus, in his peculiar language, expresses himself with great spirit, and shows a profound knowledge of the nature of sensual impressions, which find their way to the heart--the seat of joys and emotions--which overpower the opposition of reason; and whilst "all other qualities and natures" are subdued, incessantly impel the patient, in consequence of his original compliance, and his all-conquering imagination, to imitate what he has seen. On his treatment of the disease we cannot bestow any great praise, but must be content with the remark that it was in conformity with the notions of the age in which he lived. For the first kind, which often originated in pa.s.sionate excitement, he had a mental remedy, the efficacy of which is not to be despised, if we estimate its value in connection with the prevalent opinions of those times. The patient was to make an image of himself in wax or resin, and by an effort of thought to concentrate all his blasphemies and sins in it. "Without the intervention of any other persons, to set his whole mind and thoughts concerning these oaths in the image;" and when he had succeeded in this, he was to burn the image, so that not a particle of it should remain. In all this there was no mention made of St. Vitus, or any of the other mediatory saints, which is accounted for by the circ.u.mstance that at this time an open rebellion against the Romish Church had begun, and the worship of saints was by many rejected as idolatrous. For the second kind of St. Vitus's dance, arising from sensual irritation, with which women were far more frequently affected than men, Paracelsus recommended harsh treatment and strict fasting. He directed that the patients should be deprived of their liberty; placed in solitary confinement, and made to sit in an uncomfortable place, until their misery brought them to their senses and to a feeling of penitence. He then permitted them gradually to return to their accustomed habits. Severe corporal chastis.e.m.e.nt was not omitted; but, on the other hand, angry resistance on the part of the patient was to be sedulously avoided, on the ground that it might increase his malady, or even destroy him: moreover, where it seemed proper, Paracelsus allayed the excitement of the nerves by immersion in cold water. On the treatment of the third kind we shall not here enlarge. It was to be effected by all sorts of wonderful remedies, composed of the quintessences; and it would require, to render it intelligible, a more extended exposition of peculiar principles than suits our present purpose.


About this time the St. Vitus's dance began to decline, so that milder forms of it appeared more frequently, while the severer cases became more rare; and even in these, some of the important symptoms gradually disappeared. Paracelsus makes no mention of the tympanites as taking place after the attacks, although it may occasionally have occurred; and Schenck von Graffenberg, a celebrated physician of the latter half of the sixteenth century, speaks of this disease as having been frequent only in the time of his forefathers; his descriptions, however, are applicable to the whole of that century, and to the close of the fifteenth. The St.

Vitus's dance attacked people of all stations, especially those who led a sedentary life, such as shoemakers and tailors; but even the most robust peasants abandoned their labours in the fields, as if they were possessed by evil spirits; and thus those affected were seen a.s.sembling indiscriminately, from time to time, at certain appointed places, and, unless prevented by the lookers-on, continuing to dance without intermission, until their very last breath was expended. Their fury and extravagance of demeanour so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against the walls and corners of buildings, or rushed headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave. Roaring and foaming as they were, the bystanders could only succeed in restraining them by placing benches and chairs in their way, so that, by the high leaps they were thus tempted to take, their strength might be exhausted. As soon as this was the case, they fell as it were lifeless to the ground, and, by very slow degrees, again recovered their strength. Many there were who, even with all this exertion, had not expended the violence of the tempest which raged within them, but awoke with newly-revived powers, and again and again mixed with the crowd of dancers, until at length the violent excitement of their disordered nerves was allayed by the great involuntary exertion of their limbs; and the mental disorder was calmed by the extreme exhaustion of the body. Thus the attacks themselves were in these cases, as in their nature they are in all nervous complaints, necessary crises of an inward morbid condition which was transferred from the sensorium to the nerves of motion, and, at an earlier period, to the abdominal plexus, where a deep-seated derangement of the system was perceptible from the secretion of flatus in the intestines.

The cure effected by these stormy attacks was in many cases so perfect, that some patients returned to the factory or the plough as if nothing had happened. Others, on the contrary, paid the penalty of their folly by so total a loss of power, that they could not regain their former health, even by the employment of the most strengthening remedies.

Medical men were astonished to observe that women in an advanced state of pregnancy were capable of going through an attack of the disease without the slightest injury to their offspring, which they protected merely by a bandage pa.s.sed round the waist. Cases of this kind were not infrequent so late as Schenck's time. That patients should be violently affected by music, and their paroxysms brought on and increased by it, is natural with such nervous disorders, where deeper impressions are made through the ear, which is the most intellectual of all the organs, than through any of the other senses. On this account the magistrates hired musicians for the purpose of carrying the St. Vitus's dancers so much the quicker through the attacks, and directed that athletic men should be sent among them in order to complete the exhaustion, which had been often observed to produce a good effect. At the same time there was a prohibition against wearing red garments, because, at the sight of this colour, those affected became so furious that they flew at the persons who wore it, and were so bent upon doing them an injury that they could with difficulty be restrained. They frequently tore their own clothes whilst in the paroxysm, and were guilty of other improprieties, so that the more opulent employed confidential attendants to accompany them, and to take care that they did no harm either to themselves or others. This extraordinary disease was, however, so greatly mitigated in Schenck's time, that the St. Vitus's dancers had long since ceased to stroll from town to town; and that physician, like Paracelsus, makes no mention of the tympanitic inflation of the bowels. Moreover, most of those affected were only annually visited by attacks; and the occasion of them was so manifestly referable to the prevailing notions of that period, that if the unqualified belief in the supernatural agency of saints could have been abolished, they would not have had any return of the complaint.

Throughout the whole of June, prior to the festival of St. John, patients felt a disquietude and restlessness which they were unable to overcome.

They were dejected, timid, and anxious; wandered about in an unsettled state, being tormented with twitching pains, which seized them suddenly in different parts, and eagerly expected the eve of St. John's day, in the confident hope that by dancing at the altars of this saint, or of St.

Vitus (for in the Breisgau aid was equally sought from both), they would be freed from all their sufferings. This hope was not disappointed; and they remained, for the rest of the year, exempt from any further attack, after having thus, by dancing and raving for three hours, satisfied an irresistible demand of nature. There were at that period two chapels in the Breisgau visited by the St. Vitus's dancers; namely, the Chapel of St. Vitus at Biessen, near Breisach, and that of St. John, near Wasenweiler; and it is probable that in the south-west of Germany the disease was still in existence in the seventeenth century.

However, it grew every year more rare, so that at the beginning of the seventeenth century it was observed only occasionally in its ancient form. Thus in the spring of the year 1623, G. Horst saw some women who annually performed a pilgrimage to St. Vitus's chapel at Drefelhausen, near Weissenstein, in the territory of Ulm, that they might wait for their dancing fit there, in the same manner as those in the Breisgau did, according to Schenck's account. They were not satisfied, however, with a dance of three hours' duration, but continued day and night in a state of mental aberration, like persons in an ecstasy, until they fell exhausted to the ground; and when they came to themselves again they felt relieved from a distressing uneasiness and painful sensation of weight in their bodies, of which they had complained for several weeks prior to St.

Vitus's Day.

After this commotion they remained well for the whole year; and such was their faith in the protecting power of the saint, that one of them had visited this shrine at Drefelhausen more than twenty times, and another had already kept the saint's day for the thirty-second time at this sacred station.

The dancing fit itself was excited here, as it probably was in other places, by music, from the effects of which the patients were thrown into a state of convulsion. Many concurrent testimonies serve to show that music generally contributed much to the continuance of the St. Vitus's dance, originated and increased its paroxysms, and was sometimes the cause of their mitigation. So early as the fourteenth century the swarms of St. John's dancers were accompanied by minstrels playing upon noisy instruments, who roused their morbid feelings; and it may readily be supposed that by the performance of lively melodies, and the stimulating effects which the shrill tones of fifes and trumpets would produce, a paroxysm that was perhaps but slight in itself, might, in many cases, be increased to the most outrageous fury, such as in later times was purposely induced in order that the force of the disease might be exhausted by the violence of its attack. Moreover, by means of intoxicating music a kind of demoniacal festival for the rude mult.i.tude was established, which had the effect of spreading this unhappy malady wider and wider. Soft harmony was, however, employed to calm the excitement of those affected, and it is mentioned as a character of the tunes played with this view to the St. Vitus's dancers, that they contained transitions from a quick to a slow measure, and pa.s.sed gradually from a high to a low key. It is to be regretted that no trace of this music has reached out times, which is owing partly to the disastrous events of the seventeenth century, and partly to the circ.u.mstance that the disorder was looked upon as entirely national, and only incidentally considered worthy of notice by foreign men of learning.

If the St. Vitus's dance was already on the decline at the commencement of the seventeenth century, the subsequent events were altogether adverse to its continuance. Wars carried on with animosity, and with various success, for thirty years, shook the west of Europe; and although the unspeakable calamities which they brought upon Germany, both during their continuance and in their immediate consequences, were by no means favourable to the advance of knowledge, yet, with the vehemence of a purifying fire, they gradually effected the intellectual regeneration of the Germans; superst.i.tion, in her ancient form, never again appeared, and the belief in the dominion of spirits, which prevailed in the middle ages, lost for ever its once formidable power.



It was of the utmost advantage to the St. Vitus's dancers that they made choice of a favourite patron saint; for, not to mention that people were inclined to compare them to the possessed with evil spirits described in the Bible, and thence to consider them as innocent victims to the power of Satan, the name of their great intercessor recommended them to general commiseration, and a magic boundary was thus set to every harsh feeling, which might otherwise have proved hostile to their safety. Other fanatics were not so fortunate, being often treated with the most relentless cruelty, whenever the notions of the middle ages either excused or commanded it as a religious duty. Thus, pa.s.sing over the innumerable instances of the burning of witches, who were, after all, only labouring under a delusion, the Teutonic knights in Prussia not unfrequently condemned those maniacs to the stake who imagined themselves to be metamorphosed into wolves--an extraordinary species of insanity, which, having existed in Greece before our era, spread, in process of time over Europe, so that it was communicated not only to the Romaic, but also to the German and Sarmatian nations, and descended from the ancients as a legacy of affliction to posterity. In modern times Lycanthropy--such was the name given to this infatuation--has vanished from the earth, but it is nevertheless well worthy the consideration of the observer of human aberrations, and a history of it by some writer who is equally well acquainted with the middle ages as with antiquity is still a desideratum.

We leave it for the present without further notice, and turn to a malady most extraordinary in all its phenomena, having a close connection with the St. Vitus's dance, and, by a comparison of facts which are altogether similar, affording us an instructive subject for contemplation. We allude to the disease called Tarantism, which made its first appearance in Apulia, and thence spread over the other provinces of Italy, where, during some centuries, it prevailed as a great epidemic. In the present times, it has vanished, or at least has lost altogether its original importance, like the St. Vitus's dance, lycanthropy, and witchcraft.


The learned Nicholas Perotti gives the earliest account of this strange disorder. n.o.body had the least doubt that it was caused by the bite of the tarantula, a ground-spider common in Apulia: and the fear of this insect was so general that its bite was in all probability much oftener imagined, or the sting of some other kind of insect mistaken for it, than actually received. The word tarantula is apparently the same as terrantola, a name given by the Italians to the stellio of the old Romans, which was a kind of lizard, said to be poisonous, and invested by credulity with such extraordinary qualities, that, like the serpent of the Mosaic account of the Creation, it personified, in the imaginations of the vulgar, the notion of cunning, so that even the jurists designated a cunning fraud by the appellation of a "stellionatus." Perotti expressly a.s.sures us that this reptile was called by the Romans tarantula; and since he himself, who was one of the most distinguished authors of his time, strangely confounds spiders and lizards together, so that he considers the Apulian tarantula, which he ranks among the cla.s.s of spiders, to have the same meaning as the kind of lizard called [Greek text], it is the less extraordinary that the unlearned country people of Apulia should confound the much-dreaded ground-spider with the fabulous star-lizard, and appropriate to the one the name of the other. The derivation of the word tarantula, from the city of Tarentum, or the river Thara, in Apulia, on the banks of which this insect is said to have been most frequently found, or, at least, its bite to have had the most venomous effect, seems not to be supported by authority. So much for the name of this famous spider, which, unless we are greatly mistaken, throws no light whatever upon the nature of the disease in question. Naturalists who, possessing a knowledge of the past, should not misapply their talents by employing them in establishing the dry distinction of forms, would find here much that calls for research, and their efforts would clear up many a perplexing obscurity.

Perotti states that the tarantula--that is, the spider so called--was not met with in Italy in former times, but that in his day it had become common, especially in Apulia, as well as in some other districts. He deserves, however, no great confidence as a naturalist, notwithstanding his having delivered lectures in Bologna on medicine and other sciences.

He at least has neglected to prove his a.s.sertion, which is not borne out by any a.n.a.logous phenomenon observed in modern times with regard to the history of the spider species. It is by no means to be admitted that the tarantula did not make its appearance in Italy before the disease ascribed to its bite became remarkable, even though tempests more violent than those unexampled storms which arose at the time of the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century had set the insect world in motion; for the spider is little if at all susceptible of those cosmical influences which at times multiply locusts and other winged insects to a wonderful extent, and compel them to migrate.

The symptoms which Perotti enumerates as consequent on the bite of the tarantula agree very exactly with those described by later writers. Those who were bitten, generally fell into a state of melancholy, and appeared to be stupefied, and scarcely in possession of their senses. This condition was, in many cases, united with so great a sensibility to music, that at the very first tones of their favourite melodies they sprang up, shouting for joy, and danced on without intermission, until they sank to the ground exhausted and almost lifeless. In others, the disease did not take this cheerful turn. They wept constantly, and as if pining away with some unsatisfied desire, spent their days in the greatest misery and anxiety. Others, again, in morbid fits of love, cast their longing looks on women, and instances of death are recorded, which are said to have occurred under a paroxysm of either laughing or weeping.

From this description, incomplete as it is, we may easily gather that tarantism, the essential symptoms of which are mentioned in it, could not have originated in the fifteenth century, to which Perotti's account refers; for that author speaks of it as a well-known malady, and states that the omission to notice it by older writers was to be ascribed solely to the want of education in Apulia, the only province probably where the disease at that time prevailed. A nervous disorder that had arrived at so high a degree of development must have been long in existence, and doubtless had required an elaborate preparation by the concurrence of general causes.

The symptoms which followed the bite of venomous spiders were well known to the ancients, and had excited the attention of their best observers, who agree in their descriptions of them. It is probable that among the numerous species of their phalangium, the Apulian tarantula is included, but it is difficult to determine this point with certainty, more especially because in Italy the tarantula was not the only insect which caused this nervous affection, similar results being likewise attributed to the bite of the scorpion. Lividity of the whole body, as well as of the countenance, difficulty of speech, tremor of the limbs, icy coldness, pale urine, depression of spirits, headache, a flow of tears, nausea, vomiting, s.e.xual excitement, flatulence, syncope, dysuria, watchfulness, lethargy, even death itself, were cited by them as the consequences of being bitten by venomous spiders, and they made little distinction as to their kinds. To these symptoms we may add the strange rumour, repeated throughout the middle ages, that persons who were bitten, ejected by the bowels and kidneys, and even by vomiting, substances resembling a spider's web.

Nowhere, however, do we find any mention made that those affected felt an irresistible propensity to dancing, or that they were accidentally cured by it. Even Constantine of Africa, who lived 500 years after Aetius, and, as the most learned physician of the school of Salerno, would certainly not have pa.s.sed over so acceptable a subject of remark, knows nothing of such a memorable course of this disease arising from poison, and merely repeats the observations of his Greek predecessors.

Gariopontus, a Salernian physician of the eleventh century, was the first to describe a kind of insanity, the remote affinity of which to the tarantula disease is rendered apparent by a very striking symptom. The patients in their sudden attacks behaved like maniacs, sprang up, throwing their arms about with wild movements, and, if perchance a sword was at hand, they wounded themselves and others, so that it became necessary carefully to secure them. They imagined that they heard voices and various kinds of sounds, and if, during this state of illusion, the tones of a favourite instrument happened to catch their ear, they commenced a spasmodic dance, or ran with the utmost energy which they could muster until they were totally exhausted. These dangerous maniacs, who, it would seem, appeared in considerable numbers, were looked upon as a legion of devils, but on the causes of their malady this obscure writer adds nothing further than that he believes (oddly enough) that it may sometimes be excited by the bite of a mad dog. He calls the disease Anteneasmus, by which is meant no doubt the Enthusiasmus of the Greek physicians. We cite this phenomenon as an important forerunner of tarantism, under the conviction that we have thus added to the evidence that the development of this latter must have been founded on circ.u.mstances which existed from the twelfth to the end of the fourteenth century; for the origin of tarantism itself is referable, with the utmost probability, to a period between the middle and the end of this century, and is consequently contemporaneous with that of the St. Vitus's dance (1374). The influence of the Roman Catholic religion, connected as this was, in the middle ages, with the pomp of processions, with public exercises of penance, and with innumerable practices which strongly excited the imaginations of its votaries, certainly brought the mind to a very favourable state for the reception of a nervous disorder.

Accordingly, so long as the doctrines of Christianity were blended with so much mysticism, these unhallowed disorders prevailed to an important extent, and even in our own days we find them propagated with the greatest facility where the existence of superst.i.tion produces the same effect, in more limited districts, as it once did among whole nations.

But this is not all. Every country in Europe, and Italy perhaps more than any other, was visited during the middle ages by frightful plagues, which followed each other in such quick succession that they gave the exhausted people scarcely any time for recovery. The Oriental bubo-plague ravaged Italy sixteen times between the years 1119 and 1340.

Small-pox and measles were still more destructive than in modern times, and recurred as frequently. St. Anthony's fire was the dread of town and country; and that disgusting disease, the leprosy, which, in consequence of the Crusades, spread its insinuating poison in all directions, s.n.a.t.c.hed from the paternal hearth innumerable victims who, banished from human society, pined away in lonely huts, whither they were accompanied only by the pity of the benevolent and their own despair. All these calamities, of which the moderns have scarcely retained any recollection, were heightened to an incredible degree by the Black Death, which spread boundless devastation and misery over Italy. Men's minds were everywhere morbidly sensitive; and as it happened with individuals whose senses, when they are suffering under anxiety, become more irritable, so that trifles are magnified into objects of great alarm, and slight shocks, which would scarcely affect the spirits when in health, gave rise in them to severe diseases, so was it with this whole nation, at all times so alive to emotions, and at that period so sorely oppressed with the horrors of death.

The bite of venomous spiders, or rather the unreasonable fear of its consequences, excited at such a juncture, though it could not have done so at an earlier period, a violent nervous disorder, which, like St.

Vitus's dance in Germany, spread by sympathy, increasing in severity as it took a wider range, and still further extending its ravages from its long continuance. Thus, from the middle of the fourteenth century, the furies of _the Dance_ brandished their scourge over afflicted mortals; and music, for which the inhabitants of Italy, now probably for the first time, manifested susceptibility and talent, became capable of exciting ecstatic attacks in those affected, and then furnished the magical means of exorcising their melancholy.


At the close of the fifteenth century we find that tarantism had spread beyond the boundaries of Apulia, and that the fear of being bitten by venomous spiders had increased. Nothing short of death itself was expected from the wound which these insects inflicted, and if those who were bitten escaped with their lives, they were said to be seen pining away in a desponding state of la.s.situde. Many became weak-sighted or hard of hearing, some lost the power of speech, and all were insensible to ordinary causes of excitement. Nothing but the flute or the cithern afforded them relief. At the sound of these instruments they awoke as it were by enchantment, opened their eyes, and moving slowly at first, according to the measure of the music, were, as the time quickened, gradually hurried on to the most pa.s.sionate dance. It was generally observable that country people, who were rude, and ignorant of music, evinced on these occasions an unusual degree of grace, as if they had been well practised in elegant movements of the body; for it is a peculiarity in nervous disorders of this kind, that the organs of motion are in an altered condition, and are completely under the control of the over-strained spirits. Cities and villages alike resounded throughout the summer season with the notes of fifes, clarinets, and Turkish drums; and patients were everywhere to be met with who looked to dancing as their only remedy. Alexander ab Alexandro, who gives this account, saw a young man in a remote village who was seized with a violent attack of tarantism. He listened with eagerness and a fixed stare to the sound of a drum, and his graceful movements gradually became more and more violent, until his dancing was converted into a succession of frantic leaps, which required the utmost exertion of his whole strength. In the midst of this over-strained exertion of mind and body the music suddenly ceased, and he immediately fell powerless to the ground, where he lay senseless and motionless until its magical effect again aroused him to a renewal of his impa.s.sioned performances.

At the period of which we are treating there was a general conviction, that by music and dancing the poison of the tarantula was distributed over the whole body, and expelled through the skin, but that if there remained the slightest vestige of it in the vessels, this became a permanent germ of the disorder, so that the dancing fits might again and again be excited ad infinitum by music. This belief, which resembled the delusion of those insane persons who, being by artful management freed from the imagined causes of their sufferings, are but for a short time released from their false notions, was attended with the most injurious effects: for in consequence of it those affected necessarily became by degrees convinced of the incurable nature of their disorder. They expected relief, indeed, but not a cure, from music; and when the heat of summer awakened a recollection of the dances of the preceding year, they, like the St. Vitus's dancers of the same period before St. Vitus's day, again grew dejected and misanthropic, until, by music and dancing, they dispelled the melancholy which had become with them a kind of sensual enjoyment.

Under such favourable circ.u.mstances, it is clear that tarantism must every year have made further progress. The number of those affected by it increased beyond all belief, for whoever had either actually been, or even fancied that he had been, once bitten by a poisonous spider or scorpion, made his appearance annually wherever the merry notes of the tarantella resounded. Inquisitive females joined the throng and caught the disease, not indeed from the poison of the spider, but from the mental poison which they eagerly received through the eye; and thus the cure of the tarantati gradually became established as a regular festival of the populace, which was antic.i.p.ated with impatient delight.

Without attributing more to deception and fraud than to the peculiar nature of a progressive mental malady, it may readily be conceived that the cases of this strange disorder now grew more frequent. The celebrated Matthioli, who is worthy of entire confidence, gives his account as an eye-witness. He saw the same extraordinary effects produced by music as Alexandro, for, however tortured with pain, however hopeless of relief the patients appeared, as they lay stretched on the couch of sickness, at the very first sounds of those melodies which made an impression on them--but this was the case only with the tarantellas composed expressly for the purpose--they sprang up as if inspired with new life and spirit, and, unmindful of their disorder, began to move in measured gestures, dancing for hour together without fatigue, until, covered with a kindly perspiration, they felt a salutary degree of la.s.situde, which relieved them for a time at least, perhaps even for a whole year, from their defection and oppressive feeling of general indisposition. Alexandro's experience of the injurious effects resulting from a sudden cessation of the music was generally confirmed by Matthioli. If the clarinets and drums ceased for a single moment, which, as the most skilful payers were tired out by the patients, could not but happen occasionally, they suffered their limbs to fall listless, again sank exhausted to the ground, and could find no solace but in a renewal of the dance. On this account care was taken to continue the music until exhaustion was produced; for it was better to pay a few extra musicians, who might relieve each other, than to permit the patient, in the midst of this curative exercise, to relapse into so deplorable a state of suffering. The attack consequent upon the bite of the tarantula, Matthioli describes as varying much in its manner. Some became morbidly exhilarated, so that they remained for a long while without sleep, laughing, dancing, and singing in a state of the greatest excitement.

Others, on the contrary, were drowsy. The generality felt nausea and suffered from vomiting, and some had constant tremors. Complete mania was no uncommon occurrence, not to mention the usual dejection of spirits and other subordinate symptoms.


Unaccountable emotions, strange desires, and morbid sensual irritations of all kinds, were as prevalent as in the St. Vitus's dance and similar great nervous maladies. So late as the sixteenth century patients were seen armed with glittering swords which, during the attack, they brandished with wild gestures, as if they were going to engage in a fencing match. Even women scorned all female delicacy, and, adopting this impa.s.sioned demeanour, did the same; and this phenomenon, as well as the excitement which the tarantula dancers felt at the sight of anything with metallic l.u.s.tre, was quite common up to the period when, in modern times, the disease disappeared.

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The Black Death Part 4 summary

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