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The Black Death Part 6

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The course and symptoms of the attacks were in general as follows:--There came on at first a feeling of faintness, with rigour and a sense of weight at the pit of the stomach, soon after which the patient cried out, as if in the agonies of death or the pains of labour. The convulsions then began, first showing themselves in the muscles of the eyelids, though the eyes themselves were fixed and staring. The most frightful contortions of the countenance followed, and the convulsions now took their course downwards, so that the muscles of the neck and trunk were affected, causing a sobbing respiration, which was performed with great effort. Tremors and agitation ensued, and the patients screamed out violently, and tossed their heads about from side to side. As the complaint increased it seized the arms, and its victims beat their b.r.e.a.s.t.s, clasped their hands, and made all sorts of strange gestures. The observer who gives this account remarked that the lower extremities were in no instance affected. In some cases exhaustion came on in a very few minutes, but the attack usually lasted much longer, and there were even cases in which it was known to continue for sixty or seventy hours. Many of those who happened to be seated when the attack commenced bent their bodies rapidly backwards and forwards during its continuance, making a corresponding motion with their arms, like persons sawing wood. Others shouted aloud, leaped about, and threw their bodies into every possible posture, until they had exhausted their strength. Yawning took place at the commencement in all cases, but as the violence of the disorder increased the circulation and respiration became accelerated, so that the countenance a.s.sumed a swollen and puffed appearance. When exhaustion came on patients usually fainted, and remained in a stiff and motionless state until their recovery. The disorder completely resembled the St.

Vitus's dance, but the fits sometimes went on to an extraordinarily violent extent, so that the author of the account once saw a woman who was seized with these convulsions resist the endeavours of four or five strong men to restrain her. Those patients who did not lose their consciousness were in general made more furious by every attempt to quiet them by force, on which account they were in general suffered to continue unmolested until nature herself brought on exhaustion. Those affected complained more or less of debility after the attacks, and cases sometimes occurred in which they pa.s.sed into other disorders; thus some fell into a state of melancholy, which, however, in consequence of their religious ecstasy, was distinguished by the absence of fear and despair; and in one patient inflammation of the brain is said to have taken place.

No s.e.x or age was exempt from this epidemic malady. Children five years old and octogenarians were alike affected by it, and even men of the most powerful frame were subject to its influence. Girls and young women, however, were its most frequent victims.

4. For the last hundred years a nervous affection of a perfectly similar kind has existed in the Shetland Islands, which furnishes a striking example, perhaps the only one now existing, of the very lasting propagation by sympathy of this species of disorders. The origin of the malady was very insignificant. An epileptic woman had a fit in church, and whether it was that the minds of the congregation were excited by devotion, or that, being overcome at the sight of the strong convulsions, their sympathy was called forth, certain it is that many adult women, and even children, some of whom were of the male s.e.x, and not more than six years old, began to complain forthwith of palpitation, followed by faintness, which pa.s.sed into a motionless and apparently cataleptic condition. These symptoms lasted more than an hour, and probably recurred frequently. In the course of time, however, this malady is said to have undergone a modification, such as it exhibits at the present day.

Women whom it has attacked will suddenly fall down, toss their arms about, writhe their bodies into various shapes, move their heads suddenly from side to side, and with eyes fixed and staring, utter the most dismal cries. If the fit happen on any occasion of pubic diversion, they will, as soon as it has ceased, mix with their companions and continue their amus.e.m.e.nt as if nothing had happened. Paroxysms of this kind used to prevail most during the warm months of summer, and about fifty years ago there was scarcely a Sabbath in which they did not occur. Strong pa.s.sions of the mind, induced by religious enthusiasm, are also exciting causes of these fits, but like all such false tokens of divine workings, they are easily encountered by producing in the patient a different frame of mind, and especially by exciting a sense of shame: thus those affected are under the control of any sensible preacher, who knows how to "administer to a mind diseased," and to expose the folly of voluntarily yielding to a sympathy so easily resisted, or of inviting such attacks by affectation. An intelligent and pious minister of Shetland informed the physician, who gives an account of this disorder as an eye-witness, that being considerably annoyed on his first introduction into the country by these paroxysms, whereby the devotions of the church were much impeded, he obviated their repet.i.tion by a.s.suring his parishioners that no treatment was more effectual than immersion in cold water; and as his kirk was fortunately contiguous to a freshwater lake, he gave notice that attendants should be at hand during divine service to ensure the proper means of cure. The sequel need scarcely be told. The fear of being carried out of the church, and into the water, acted like a charm; not a single Naiad was made, and the worthy minister for many years had reason to boast of one of the best regulated congregations in Scotland. As the physician above alluded to was attending divine service in the kirk of Baliasta, on the Isle of Unst, a female shriek, the indication of a convulsion fit, was heard; the minister, Mr. Ingram, of Fetlar, very properly stopped his discourse until the disturber was removed; and after advising all those who thought they might be similarly affected to leave the church, he gave out in the meantime a psalm. The congregation was thus preserved from further interruption; yet the effect of sympathy was not prevented, for as the narrator of the account was leaving the church he saw several females writhing and tossing about their arms on the green gra.s.s, who durst not, for fear of a censure from the pulpit, exhibit themselves after this manner within the sacred walls of the kirk.

In the production of this disorder, which no doubt still exists, fanaticism certainly had a smaller share than the irritable state of women out of health, who only needed excitement, no matter of what kind, to throw them into prevailing nervous paroxysms. When, however, that powerful cause of nervous disorders takes the lead, we find far more remarkable symptoms developed, and it then depends on the mental condition of the people among whom they appear whether in their spread they shall take a narrow or an extended range--whether confined to some small knot of zealots they are to vanish without a trace, or whether they are to attain even historical importance.

5. The appearance of the _Convulsionnaires_ in France, whose inhabitants, from the greater mobility of their blood, have in general been the less liable to fanaticism, is in this respect instructive and worthy of attention. In the year 1727 there died in the capital of that country the Deacon Paris, a zealous opposer of the Ultramontanists, division having arisen in the French Church on account of the bull "Unigenitus." People made frequent visits to his tomb in the cemetery of St. Medard, and four years afterwards (in September, 1731) a rumour was spread that miracles took place there. Patients were seized with convulsions and tetanic spasms, rolled upon the ground like persons possessed, were thrown into violent contortions of their heads and limbs, and suffered the greatest oppression, accompanied by quickness and irregularity of pulse. This novel occurrence excited the greatest sensation all over Paris, and an immense concourse of people resorted daily to the above-named cemetery in order to see so wonderful a spectacle, which the Ultramontanists immediately interpreted as a work of Satan, while their opponents ascribed it to a divine influence. The disorder soon increased, until it produced, in nervous women, _clairvoyance_ (_Schlafwachen_), a phenomenon till then unknown; for one female especially attracted attention, who, blindfold, and, as it was believed, by means of the sense of smell, read every writing that was placed before her, and distinguished the characters of unknown persons.

The very earth taken from the grave of the Deacon was soon thought to possess miraculous power. It was sent to numerous sick persons at a distance, whereby they were said to have been cured, and thus this nervous disorder spread far beyond the limits of the capital, so that at one time it was computed that there were more than eight hundred decided Convulsionnaires, who would hardly have increased so much in numbers had not Louis XV directed that the cemetery should be closed. The disorder itself a.s.sumed various forms, and augmented by its attacks the general excitement. Many persons, besides suffering from the convulsions, became the subjects of violent pain, which required the a.s.sistance of their brethren of the faith. On this account they, as well as those who afforded them aid, were called by the common t.i.tle of _Secourists_. The modes of relief adopted were remarkably in accordance with those which were administered to the St. John's dancers and the Tarantati, and they were in general very rough; for the sufferers were beaten and goaded in various parts of the body with stones, hammers, swords, clubs, &c., of which treatment the defenders of this extraordinary sect relate the most astonishing examples in proof that severe pain is imperatively demanded by nature in this disorder as an effectual counter-irritant. The Secourists used wooden clubs in the same manner as paviors use their mallets, and it is stated that some _Convulsionnaires_ have borne daily from six to eight thousand blows thus inflicted without danger. One Secourist administered to a young woman who was suffering under spasm of the stomach the most violent blows on that part, not to mention other similar cases which occurred everywhere in great numbers. Sometimes the patients bounded from the ground, impelled by the convulsions, like fish when out of water; and this was so frequently imitated at a later period that the women and girls, when they expected such violent contortions, not wishing to appear indecent, put on gowns make like sacks, closed at the feet. If they received any bruises by falling down they were healed with earth from the grave of the uncanonised saint. They usually, however, showed great agility in this respect, and it is scarcely necessary to remark that the female s.e.x especially was distinguished by all kinds of leaping and almost inconceivable contortions of body. Some spun round on their feet with incredible rapidity, as is related of the dervishes; others ran their heads against walls, or curved their bodies like rope-dancers, so that their heels touched their shoulders.

All this degenerated at length into decided insanity. A certain Convulsionnaire, at Vernon, who had formerly led rather a loose course of life, employed herself in confessing the other s.e.x; in other places women of this sect were seen imposing exercises of penance on priests, during which these were compelled to kneel before them. Others played with children's rattles, or drew about small carts, and gave to these childish acts symbolical significations. One Convulsionnaire even made believe to shave her chin, and gave religious instruction at the same time, in order to imitate Paris, the worker of miracles, who, during this operation, and whilst at table, was in the habit of preaching. Some had a board placed across their bodies, upon which a whole row of men stood; and as, in this unnatural state of mind, a kind of pleasure is derived from excruciating pain, some too were seen who caused their bosoms to be pinched with tongs, while others, with gowns closed at the feet, stood upon their heads, and remained in that position longer than would have been possible had they been in health. Pinault, the advocate, who belonged to this sect, barked like a dog some hours every day, and even this found imitation among the believers.

The insanity of the Convulsionnaires lasted without interruption until the year 1790, and during these fifty-nine years called forth more lamentable phenomena that the enlightened spirits of the eighteenth century would be willing to allow. The grossest immorality found in the secret meetings of the believers a sure sanctuary, and in their bewildering devotional exercises a convenient cloak. It was of no avail that, in the year 1762, the Grand Secours was forbidden by act of parliament; for thenceforth this work was carried on in secrecy, and with greater zeal than ever; it was in vain, too, that some physicians, and among the rest the austere, pious Hecquet, and after him Lorry, attributed the conduct of the Convulsionnaires to natural causes. Men of distinction among the upper cla.s.ses, as, for instance, Montgeron the deputy, and Lambert an ecclesiastic (obt. 1813), stood forth as the defenders of this sect; and the numerous writings which were exchanged on the subject served, by the importance which they thus attached to it, to give it stability. The revolution finally shook the structure of this pernicious mysticism. It was not, however, destroyed; for even during the period of the greatest excitement the secret meetings were still kept up; prophetic books, by Convulsionnaires of various denominations, have appeared even in the most recent times, and only a few years ago (in 1828) this once celebrated sect still existed, although without the convulsions and the extraordinarily rude aid of the brethren of the faith, which, amidst the boasted pre-eminence of French intellectual advancement, remind us most forcibly of the dark ages of the St. John's dancers.

6. Similar fanatical sects exhibit among all nations of ancient and modern times the same phenomena. An overstrained bigotry is in itself, and considered in a medical point of view, a destructive irritation of the senses, which draws men away from the efficiency of mental freedom, and peculiarly favours the most injurious emotions. Sensual ebullitions, with strong convulsions of the nerves, appear sooner or later, and insanity, suicidal disgust of life, and incurable nervous disorders, are but too frequently the consequences of a perverse, and, indeed, hypocritical zeal, which has ever prevailed, as well in the a.s.semblies of the Maenades and Corybantes of antiquity as under the semblance of religion among the Christians and Mahomedans.

There are some denominations of English Methodists which surpa.s.s, if possible, the French Convulsionnaires; and we may here mention in particular the Jumpers, among whom it is still more difficult than in the example given above to draw the line between religious ecstasy and a perfect disorder of the nerves; sympathy, however, operates perhaps more perniciously on them than on other fanatical a.s.semblies. The sect of Jumpers was founded in the year 1760, in the county of Cornwall, by two fanatics, who were, even at that time, able to collect together a considerable party. Their general doctrine is that of the Methodists, and claims our consideration here only in so far as it enjoins them during their devotional exercises to fall into convulsions, which they are able to effect in the strangest manner imaginable. By the use of certain unmeaning words they work themselves up into a state of religious frenzy, in which they seem to have scarcely any control over their senses. They then begin to jump with strange gestures, repeating this exercise with all their might until they are exhausted, so that it not unfrequently happens that women who, like the Maenades, practise these religious exercises, are carried away from the midst of them in a state of syncope, whilst the remaining members of the congregations, for miles together, on their way home, terrify those whom they meet by the sight of such demoniacal ravings. There are never more than a few ecstatics, who, by their example, excite the rest to jump, and these are followed by the greatest part of the meeting, so that these a.s.semblages of the Jumpers resemble for hours together the wildest orgies, rather than congregations met for Christian edification.

In the United States of North America communities of Methodists have existed for the last sixty years. The reports of credible witnesses of their a.s.semblages for divine service in the open air (camp meetings), to which many thousands flock from great distances, surpa.s.s, indeed, all belief; for not only do they there repeat all the insane acts of the French Convulsionnaires and of the English Jumpers, but the disorder of their minds and of their nerves attains at these meetings a still greater height. Women have been seen to miscarry whilst suffering under the state of ecstasy and violent spasms into which they are thrown, and others have publicly stripped themselves and jumped into the rivers. They have swooned away by hundreds, worn out with ravings and fits; and of the Barkers, who appeared among the Convulsionnaires only here and there, in single cases of complete aberration of intellect, whole bands are seen running on all fours, and growling as if they wished to indicate, even by their outward form, the shocking degradation of their human nature. At these camp-meetings the children are witnesses of this mad infatuation, and as their weak nerves are with the greatest facility affected by sympathy, they, together with their parents, fall into violent fits, though they know nothing of their import, and many of them retain for life some severe nervous disorder which, having arisen from fright and excessive excitement, will not afterwards yield to any medical treatment.

But enough of these extravagances, which even in our now days embitter the lives of so many thousands, and exhibit to the world in the nineteenth century the same terrific form of mental disturbance as the St. Vitus's dance once did to the benighted nations of the Middle Ages.

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The Black Death Part 6 summary

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