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The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by J. F. C. Hecker (translated by B. G. Babington)

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diseases, the necessity of which is shown from these notions, were
regarded by the ancients as useful; and by man, whose
circumstances permitted it, were carried into effect in their
houses. Even a total separation of the sick from the healthy,
that indispensable means of protection against infection by
contact, was proposed by physicians of the second century after
Christ, in order to check the spreading of leprosy. But it was
decidedly opposed, because, as it was alleged, the healing art
ought not to be guilty of such harshness. This mildness of the
ancients, in whose manner of thinking inhumanity was so often and
so undisguisedly conspicuous, might excite surprise if it were
anything more than apparent. The true ground of the neglect of
public protection against pestilential diseases lay in the general
notion and constitution of human society--it lay in the disregard
of human life, of which the great nations of antiquity have given
proofs in every page of their history. Let it not be supposed
that they wanted knowledge respecting the propagation of
contagious diseases. On the contrary, they were as well informed
on this subject as the modern; but this was shown where individual
property, not where human life, on the grand scale was to be
protected. Hence the ancients made a general practice of
arresting the progress of murrains among cattle by a separation of
the diseased from the healthy. Their herds alone enjoyed that
protection which they held it impracticable to extend to human
society, because they had no wish to do so. That the governments
in the fourteenth century were not yet so far advanced as to put
into practice general regulations for checking the plague needs no
especial proof. Physicians could, therefore, only advise public
purifications of the air by means of large fires, as had often
been practised in ancient times; and they were obliged to leave it
to individual families either to seek safety in flight, or to shut
themselves up in their dwellings, a method which answers in common
plagues, but which here afforded no complete security, because
such was the fury of the disease when it was at its height, that
the atmosphere of whole cities was penetrated by the infection.

Of the astral influence which was considered to have originated
the "Great Mortality," physicians and learned men were as
completely convinced as of the fact of its reality. A grand
conjunction of the three superior planets, Saturn, Jupiter, and
Mars, in the sign of Aquarius, which took place, according to Guy
de Chauliac, on the 24th of March, 1345, was generally received as
its principal cause. In fixing the day, this physician, who was
deeply versed in astrology, did not agree with others; whereupon
there arose various disputations, of weight in that age, but of
none in ours. People, however, agree in this--that conjunctions
of the planets infallibly prognosticated great events; great
revolutions of kingdoms, new prophets, destructive plagues, and
other occurrences which bring distress and horror on mankind. No
medical author of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries omits an
opportunity of representing them as among the general prognostics
of great plagues; nor can we, for our part, regard the astrology
of the Middle Ages as a mere offspring of superstition. It has
not only, in common with all ideas which inspire and guide
mankind, a high historical importance, entirely independent of its
error or truth--for the influence of both is equally powerful--but
there are also contained in it, as in alchemy, grand thoughts of
antiquity, of which modern natural philosophy is so little ashamed
that she claims them as her property. Foremost among these is the
idea of general life which diffuses itself throughout the whole
universe, expressed by the greatest Greek sages, and transmitted
to the Middle Ages, through the new Platonic natural philosophy.
To this impression of an universal organism, the assumption of a
reciprocal influence of terrestrial bodies could not be foreign,
nor did this cease to correspond with a higher view of nature,
until astrologers overstepped the limits of human knowledge with
frivolous and mystical calculations.

Guy de Chauliac considers the influence of the conjunction, which
was held to be all-potent, as the chief general cause of the Black
Plague; and the diseased state of bodies, the corruption of the
fluids, debility, obstruction, and so forth, as the especial
subordinate causes. By these, according to his opinion, the
quality of the air, and of the other elements, was so altered that
they set poisonous fluids in motion towards the inward parts of
the body, in the same manner as the magnet attracts iron; whence
there arose in the commencement fever and the spitting of blood;
afterwards, however, a deposition in the form on glandular
swellings and inflammatory boils. Herein the notion of an
epidemic constitution was set forth clearly, and conformably to
the spirit of the age. Of contagion, Guy de Chauliac was
completely convinced. He sought to protect himself against it by
the usual means; and it was probably he who advised Pope Clement
VI. to shut himself up while the plague lasted. The preservation
of this Pope's life, however, was most beneficial to the city of
Avignon, for he loaded the poor with judicious acts of kindness,
took care to have proper attendants provided, and paid physicians
himself to afford assistance wherever human aid could avail--an
advantage which, perhaps, no other city enjoyed. Nor was the
treatment of plague-patients in Avignon by any means
objectionable; for, after the usual depletions by bleeding and
aperients, where circumstances required them, they endeavoured to
bring the buboes to suppuration; they made incisions into the
inflammatory boils, or burned them with a red-hot iron, a practice
which at all times proves salutary, and in the Black Plague saved
many lives. In this city, the Jews, who lived in a state of the
greatest filth, were most severely visited, as also the Spaniards,
whom Chalin accuses of great intemperance.

Still more distinct notions on the causes of the plague were
stated to his contemporaries in the fourteenth century by Galeazzo
di Santa Sofia, a learned man, a native of Padua, who likewise
treated plague-patients at Vienna, though in what year is
undetermined. He distinguishes carefully PESTILENCE from EPIDEMY
and ENDEMY. The common notion of the two first accords exactly
with that of an epidemic constitution, for both consist, according
to him, in an unknown change or corruption of the air; with this
difference, that pestilence calls forth diseases of different
kinds; epidemy, on the contrary, always the same disease. As an
example of an epidemy, he adduces a cough (influenza) which was
observed in all climates at the same time without perceptible
cause; but he recognised the approach of a pestilence,
independently of unusual natural phenomena, by the more frequent
occurrence of various kinds of fever, to which the modern
physicians would assign a nervous and putrid character. The
endemy originates, according to him, only in local telluric
changes--in deleterious influences which develop themselves in the
earth and in the water, without a corruption of the air. These
notions were variously jumbled together in his time, like
everything which human understanding separates by too fine a line
of limitation. The estimation of cosmical influences, however, in
the epidemy and pestilence, is well worthy of commendation; and
Santa Sofia, in this respect, not only agrees with the most
intelligent persons of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but
he has also promulgated an opinion which must, even now, serve as
a foundation for our scarcely commenced investigations into
cosmical influences. Pestilence and epidemy consist not in
alterations of the four primary qualities, but in a corruption of
the air, powerful, though quite immaterial, and not cognoscible by
the senses--(corruptio aeris non substantialis, sed qualitativa)
in a disproportion of the imponderables in the atmosphere, as it
would be expressed by the moderns. The causes of the pestilence
and epidemy are, first of all, astral influences, especially on
occasions of planetary conjunctions; then extensive putrefaction
of animal and vegetable bodies, and terrestrial corruptions
(corruptio in terra): to which also bad diet and want may
contribute. Santa Sofia considers the putrefaction of locusts,
that had perished in the sea and were again thrown up, combined
with astral and terrestrial influences, as the cause of the
pestilence in the eventful year of the "Great Mortality."

All the fevers which were called forth by the pestilence are,
according to him, of the putrid kind; for they originate
principally from putridity of the heart's blood, which inevitably
follows the inhalation of infected air. The Oriental Plague is,
sometimes, but by no means always occasioned by pestilence (?),
which imparts to it a character (qualitas occulta) hostile to
human nature. It originates frequently from other causes, among
which this physician was aware that contagion was to be reckoned;
and it deserves to be remarked that he held epidemic small-pox and
measles to be infallible forerunners of the plague, as do the
physicians and people of the East at the present day.

In the exposition of his therapeutical views of the plague, a
clearness of intellect is again shown by Santa Sofia, which
reflects credit on the age. It seemed to him to depend, 1st, on
an evacuation of putrid matters by purgatives and bleeding; yet he
did not sanction the employment of these means indiscriminately
and without consideration; least of all where the condition of the
blood was healthy. He also declared himself decidedly against
bleeding ad deliquium (venae sectio eradicativa). 2nd,
Strengthening of the heart and prevention of putrescence. 3rd,
Appropriate regimen. 4th, Improvement of the air. 5th,
Appropriate treatment of tumid glands and inflammatory boils, with
emollient, or even stimulating poultices (mustard, lily-bulbs), as
well as with red-hot gold and iron. Lastly, 6th, Attention to
prominent symptoms. The stores of the Arabian pharmacy, which he
brought into action to meet all these indications, were indeed
very considerable; it is to be observed, however, that, for the
most part, gentle means were accumulated, which, in case of abuse,
would do no harm: for the character of the Arabian system of
medicine, whose principles were everywhere followed at this time,
was mildness and caution. On this account, too, we cannot believe
that a very prolix treatise by Marsigli di Santa Sofia, a
contemporary relative of Galeazzo, on the prevention and treatment
of plague, can have caused much harm, although perhaps, even in
the fourteenth century, an agreeable latitude and confident
assertions respecting things which no mortal has investigated, or
which it is quite a matter of indifference to distinguish, were
considered as proofs of a valuable practical talent.

The agreement of contemporary and later writers shows that the
published views of the most celebrated physicians of the
fourteenth century were those generally adopted. Among these,
Chalin de Vinario is the most experienced. Though devoted to
astrology still more than his distinguished contemporary, he
acknowledges the great power of terrestrial influences, and
expresses himself very sensibly on the indisputable doctrine of
contagion, endeavouring thereby to apologise for many surgeons and
physicians of his time who neglected their duty. He asserted
boldly and with truth, "that all epidemic diseases might become
contagious, and all fevers epidemic," which attentive observers of
all subsequent ages have confirmed.

He delivered his sentiments on blood-letting with sagacity, as an
experienced physician; yet he was unable, as may be imagined, to
moderate the desire for bleeding shown by the ignorant monks. He
was averse to draw blood from the veins of patients under fourteen
years of age; but counteracted inflammatory excitement in them by
cupping, and endeavoured to moderate the inflammation of the tumid
glands by leeches. Most of those who were bled, died; he
therefore reserved this remedy for the plethoric; especially for
the papal courtiers and the hypocritical priests, whom he saw
gratifying their sensual desires, and imitating Epicurus, whilst
they pompously pretended to follow Christ. He recommended burning
the boils with a red-hot iron only in the plague without fever,
which occurred in single cases; and was always ready to correct
those over-hasty surgeons who, with fire and violent remedies, did
irremediable injury to their patients. Michael Savonarola,
professor in Ferrara (1462), reasoning on the susceptibility of
the human frame to the influence of pestilential infection, as the
cause of such various modifications of disease, expresses himself
as a modern physician would on this point; and an adoption of the
principle of contagion was the foundation of his definition of the
plague. No less worthy of observation are the views of the
celebrated Valescus of Taranta, who, during the final visitation
of the Black Death, in 1382, practised as a physician at
Montpellier, and handed down to posterity what has been repeated
in innumerable treatises on plague, which were written during the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Of all these notions and views regarding the plague, whose
development we have represented, there are two especially, which
are prominent in historical importance:- 1st, The opinion of
learned physicians, that the pestilence, or epidemic constitution,
is the parent of various kinds of disease; that the plague
sometimes, indeed, but by no means always, originates from it:
that, to speak in the language of the moderns, the pestilence
bears the same relation to contagion that a predisposing cause
does to an occasional cause; and 2ndly, the universal conviction
of the contagious power of that disease.

Contagion gradually attracted more notice: it was thought that in
it the most powerful occasional cause might be avoided; the
possibility of protecting whole cities by separation became
gradually more evident; and so horrifying was the recollection of
the eventful year of the "Great Mortality," that before the close
of the fourteenth century, ere the ill effects of the Black Plague
had ceased, nations endeavoured to guard against the return of
this enemy by an earnest and effectual defence.

The first regulation which was issued for this purpose, originated
with Viscount Bernabo, and is dated the 17th January, 1374.
"Every plague-patient was to be taken out of the city into the
fields, there to die or to recover. Those who attended upon a
plague-patient, were to remain apart for ten days before they
again associated with anybody. The priests were to examine the
diseased, and point out to special commissioners the persons
infected, under punishment of the confiscation of their goods and
of being burned alive. Whoever imported the plague, the state
condemned his goods to confiscation. Finally, none except those
who were appointed for that purpose were to attend plague-
patients, under penalty of death and confiscation.

These orders, in correspondence with the spirit of the fourteenth
century, are sufficiently decided to indicate a recollection of
the good effects of confinement, and of keeping at a distance
those suspected of having plague. It was said that Milan itself,
by a rigorous barricade of three houses in which the plague had
broken out, maintained itself free from the "Great Mortality" for
a considerable time; and examples of the preservation of
individual families, by means of a strict separation, were
certainly very frequent. That these orders must have caused
universal affliction from their uncommon severity, as we know to
have been especially the case in the city of Reggio, may be easily
conceived; but Bernabo did not suffer himself to be deterred from
his purpose by fear--on the contrary, when the plague returned in
the year 1383, he forbade the admission of people from infected
places into his territories on pain of death. We have now, it is
true, no account how far he succeeded; yet it is to be supposed
that he arrested the disease, for it had long lost the property of
the Black Death, to spread abroad in the air the contagious matter
which proceeded from the lungs, charged with putridity, and to
taint the atmosphere of whole cities by the vast numbers of the
sick. Now that it had resumed its milder form, so that it
infected only by contact, it admitted being confined within
individual dwellings, as easily as in modern times.

Bernabo's example was imitated; nor was there any century more
appropriate for recommending to governments strong regulations
against the plague that the fourteenth; for when it broke out in
Italy, in the year 1399, and still demanded new victims, it was
for the sixteenth time, without reckoning frequent visitations of
measles and small-pox. In this same year, Viscount John, in
milder terms than his predecessor, ordered that no stranger should
be admitted from infected places, and that the city gates should
be strictly guarded. Infected houses were to be ventilated for at
least eight or ten days, and purified from noxious vapours by
fires, and by fumigations with balsamic and aromatic substances.
Straw, rags, and the like were to be burned; and the bedsteads
which had been used, set out for four days in the rain or the
sunshine, so that by means of the one or the other, the morbific
vapour might be destroyed. No one was to venture to make use of
clothes or beds out of infected dwellings unless they had been
previously washed and dried either at the fire or in the sun.
People were, likewise, to avoid, as long as possible, occupying
houses which had been frequented by plague-patients.

We cannot precisely perceive in these an advance towards general
regulations; and perhaps people were convinced of the
insurmountable impediments which opposed the separation of open
inland countries, where bodies of people connected together could
not be brought, even by the most obdurate severity, to renounce
the habit of profitable intercourse.

Doubtless it is nature which has done the most to banish the
Oriental plague from western Europe, where the increasing
cultivation of the earth, and the advancing order in civilised
society, have prevented it from remaining domesticated, which it
most probably was in the more ancient times.

In the fifteenth century, during which it broke out seventeen
times in different places in Europe, it was of the more
consequence to oppose a barrier to its entrance from Asia, Africa,
and Greece (which had become Turkish); for it would have been
difficult for it to maintain itself indigenously any longer.
Among the southern commercial states, however, which were called
on to make the greatest exertions to this end, it was principally
Venice, formerly so severely attacked by the Black Plague, that
put the necessary restraint upon perilous profits of the merchant.
Until towards the end of the fifteenth century, the very
considerable intercourse with the East was free and unimpeded.
Ships of commercial cities had often brought over the plague:
nay, the former irruption of the "Great Mortality" itself had been
occasioned by navigators. For, as in the latter end of autumn,
1347, four ships full of plague-patients returned from the Levant
to Genoa, the disease spread itself there with astonishing
rapidity. On this account, in the following year, the Genoese
forbade the entrance of suspected ships into their port. These
sailed to Pisa and other cities on the coast, where already nature
had made such mighty preparations for the reception of the Black
Plague, and what we have already described took place in

In the year 1485, when, among the cities of northern Italy, Milan
especially felt the scourge of the plague, a special Council of
Health, consisting of three nobles, was established at Venice, who
probably tried everything in their power to prevent the entrance
of this disease, and gradually called into activity all those
regulations which have served in later times as a pattern for the
other southern states of Europe. Their endeavours were, however,
not crowned with complete success; on which account their powers
were increased, in the year 1504, by granting them the right of
life and death over those who violated the regulations. Bills of
health were probably first introduced in the year 1527, during a
fatal plague which visited Italy for five years (1525-30), and
called forth redoubled caution.

The first lazarettos were established upon islands at some
distance from the city, seemingly as early as the year 1485. Here
all strangers coming from places where the existence of plague was
suspected were detained. If it appeared in the city itself, the
sick were despatched with their families to what was called the
Old Lazaretto, were there furnished with provisions and medicines,
and when they were cured, were detained, together with all those
who had had intercourse with them, still forty days longer in the
New Lazaretto, situated on another island. All these regulations
were every year improved, and their needful rigour was increased,
so that from the year 1585 onwards, no appeal was allowed from the
sentence of the Council of Health; and the other commercial
nations gradually came to the support of the Venetians, by
adopting corresponding regulations. Bills of health, however,
were not general until the year 1665.

The appointment of a forty days' detention, whence quarantines
derive their name, was not dictated by caprice, but probably had a
medical origin, which is derivable in part from the doctrine of
critical days; for the fortieth day, according to the most ancient
notions, has been always regarded as the last of ardent diseases,
and the limit of separation between these and those which are
chronic. It was the custom to subject lying-in women for forty
days to a more exact superintendence. There was a good deal also
said in medical works of forty-day epochs in the formation of the
foetus, not to mention that the alchemists expected more durable
revolutions in forty days, which period they called the
philosophical month.

This period being generally held to prevail in natural processes,
it appeared reasonable to assume, and legally to establish it, as
that required for the development of latent principles of
contagion, since public regulations cannot dispense with decisions
of this kind, even though they should not be wholly justified by
the nature of the case. Great stress has likewise been laid on
theological and legal grounds, which were certainly of greater
weight in the fifteenth century than in the modern times.

On this matter, however, we cannot decide, since our only object
here is to point out the origin of a political means of protection
against a disease which has been the greatest impediment to
civilisation within the memory of man; a means that, like Jenner's
vaccine, after the small-pox had ravaged Europe for twelve hundred
years, has diminished the check which mortality puts on the
progress of civilisation, and thus given to the life and manners
of the nations of this part of the world a new direction, the
result of which we cannot foretell.




The effects of the Black Death had not yet subsided, and the
graves of millions of its victims were scarcely closed, when a
strange delusion arose in Germany, which took possession of the
minds of men, and, in spite of the divinity of our nature, hurried
away body and soul into the magic circle of hellish superstition.
It was a convulsion which in the most extraordinary manner
infuriated the human frame, and excited the astonishment of
contemporaries for more than two centuries, since which time it
has never reappeared. It was called the dance of St. John or of
St. Vitus, on account of the Bacchantic leaps by which it was
characterised, and which gave to those affected, whilst performing
their wild dance, and screaming and foaming with fury, all the
appearance of persons possessed. It did not remain confined to
particular localities, but was propagated by the sight of the
sufferers, like a demoniacal epidemic, over the whole of Germany
and the neighbouring countries to the north-west, which were
already prepared for its reception by the prevailing opinions of
the time.

So early as the year 1374, assemblages of men and women were seen
at Aix-la-Chapelle, who had come out of Germany, and who, united
by one common delusion, exhibited to the public both in the
streets and in the churches the following strange spectacle. They
formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all
control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the
bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length
they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then
complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies
of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round
their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free
from complaint until the next attack. This practice of swathing
was resorted to on account of the tympany which followed these
spasmodic ravings, but the bystanders frequently relieved patients
in a less artificial manner, by thumping and trampling upon the
parts affected. While dancing they neither saw nor heard, being
insensible to external impressions through the senses, but were
haunted by visions, their fancies conjuring up spirits whose names
they shrieked out; and some of them afterwards asserted that they
felt as if they had been immersed in a stream of blood, which
obliged them to leap so high. Others, during the paroxysm, saw
the heavens open and the Saviour enthroned with the Virgin Mary,
according as the religious notions of the age were strangely and
variously reflected in their imaginations.

Where the disease was completely developed, the attack commenced
with epileptic convulsions. Those affected fell to the ground
senseless, panting and labouring for breath. They foamed at the
mouth, and suddenly springing up began their dance amidst strange
contortions. Yet the malady doubtless made its appearance very
variously, and was modified by temporary or local circumstances,
whereof non-medical contemporaries but imperfectly noted the
essential particulars, accustomed as they were to confound their
observation of natural events with their notions of the world of

It was but a few months ere this demoniacal disease had spread
from Aix-la-Chapelle, where it appeared in July, over the
neighbouring Netherlands. In Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and many
other towns of Belgium, the dancers appeared with garlands in
their hair, and their waists girt with cloths, that they might, as
soon as the paroxysm was over, receive immediate relief on the
attack of the tympany. This bandage was, by the insertion of a
stick, easily twisted tight: many, however, obtained more relief
from kicks and blows, which they found numbers of persons ready to
administer: for, wherever the dancers appeared, the people
assembled in crowds to gratify their curiosity with the frightful
spectacle. At length the increasing number of the affected
excited no less anxiety than the attention that was paid to them.
In towns and villages they took possession of the religious
houses, processions were everywhere instituted on their account,
and masses were said and hymns were sung, while the disease
itself, of the demoniacal origin of which no one entertained the
least doubt, excited everywhere astonishment and horror. In Liege
the priests had recourse to exorcisms, and endeavoured by every
means in their power to allay an evil which threatened so much
danger to themselves; for the possessed assembling in multitudes,
frequently poured forth imprecations against them, and menaced
their destruction. They intimidated the people also to such a
degree that there was an express ordinance issued that no one
should make any but square-toed shoes, because these fanatics had
manifested a morbid dislike to the pointed shoes which had come
into fashion immediately after the "Great Mortality" in 1350.
They were still more irritated at the sight of red colours, the
influence of which on the disordered nerves might lead us to
imagine an extraordinary accordance between this spasmodic malady
and the condition of infuriated animals; but in the St. John's
dancers this excitement was probably connected with apparitions
consequent upon their convulsions. There were likewise some of
them who were unable to endure the sight of persons weeping. The
clergy seemed to become daily more and more confirmed in their
belief that those who were affected were a kind of sectarians, and
on this account they hastened their exorcisms as much as possible,
in order that the evil might not spread amongst the higher
classes, for hitherto scarcely any but the poor had been attacked,
and the few people of respectability among the laity and clergy
who were to be found among them, were persons whose natural
frivolity was unable to withstand the excitement of novelty, even
though it proceeded from a demoniacal influence. Some of the
affected had indeed themselves declared, when under the influence
of priestly forms of exorcism, that if the demons had been allowed
only a few weeks' more time, they would have entered the bodies of
the nobility and princes, and through these have destroyed the
clergy. Assertions of this sort, which those possessed uttered
whilst in a state which may be compared with that of magnetic
sleep, obtained general belief, and passed from mouth to mouth
with wonderful additions. The priesthood were, on this account,
so much the more zealous in their endeavours to anticipate every
dangerous excitement of the people, as if the existing order of
things could have been seriously threatened by such incoherent
ravings. Their exertions were effectual, for exorcism was a
powerful remedy in the fourteenth century; or it might perhaps be
that this wild infatuation terminated in consequence of the
exhaustion which naturally ensued from it; at all events, in the
course of ten or eleven months the St. John's dancers were no
longer to be found in any of the cities of Belgium. The evil,
however, was too deeply rooted to give way altogether to such
feeble attacks.

A few months after this dancing malady had made its appearance at
Aix-la-Chapelle, it broke out at Cologne, where the number of
those possessed amounted to more than five hundred, and about the
same time at Metz, the streets of which place are said to have
been filled with eleven hundred dancers. Peasants left their
ploughs, mechanics their workshops, housewives their domestic
duties, to join the wild revels, and this rich commercial city
became the scene of the most ruinous disorder. Secret desires
were excited, and but too often found opportunities for wild
enjoyment; and numerous beggars, stimulated by vice and misery,
availed themselves of this new complaint to gain a temporary
livelihood. Girls and boys quitted their parents, and servants
their masters, to amuse themselves at the dances of those
possessed, and greedily imbibed the poison of mental infection.
Above a hundred unmarried women were seen raving about in
consecrated and unconsecrated places, and the consequences were
soon perceived. Gangs of idle vagabonds, who understood how to
imitate to the life the gestures and convulsions of those really
affected, roved from place to place seeking maintenance and
adventures, and thus, wherever they went, spreading this
disgusting spasmodic disease like a plague; for in maladies of
this kind the susceptible are infected as easily by the appearance
as by the reality. At last it was found necessary to drive away
these mischievous guests, who were equally inaccessible to the
exorcisms of the priests and the remedies of the physicians. It
was not, however, until after four months that the Rhenish cities
were able to suppress these impostures, which had so alarmingly
increased the original evil. In the meantime, when once called
into existence, the plague crept on, and found abundant food in
the tone of thought which prevailed in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries, and even, though in a minor degree,
throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth, causing a permanent
disorder of the mind, and exhibiting in those cities to whose
inhabitants it was a novelty, scenes as strange as they were


Strasburg was visited by the "Dancing Plague" in the year 1418,
and the same infatuation existed among the people there, as in the
towns of Belgium and the Lower Rhine. Many who were seized at the
sight of those affected, excited attention at first by their
confused and absurd behaviour, and then by their constantly
following swarms of dancers. These were seen day and night
passing through the streets, accompanied by musicians playing on
bagpipes, and by innumerable spectators attracted by curiosity, to
which were added anxious parents and relations, who came to look
after those among the misguided multitude who belonged to their
respective families. Imposture and profligacy played their part
in this city also, but the morbid delusion itself seems to have
predominated. On this account religion could only bring
provisional aid, and therefore the town council benevolently took
an interest in the afflicted. They divided them into separate
parties, to each of which they appointed responsible
superintendents to protect them from harm, and perhaps also to
restrain their turbulence. They were thus conducted on foot and
in carriages to the chapels of St. Vitus, near Zabern and
Rotestein, where priests were in attendance to work upon their
misguided minds by masses and other religious ceremonies. After
divine worship was completed, they were led in solemn procession
to the altar, where they made some small offering of alms, and
where it is probable that many were, through the influence of
devotion and the sanctity of the place, cured of this lamentable
aberration. It is worthy of observation, at all events, that the
Dancing Mania did not recommence at the altars of the saint, and
that from him alone assistance was implored, and through his
miraculous interposition a cure was expected, which was beyond the
reach of human skill. The personal history of St. Vitus is by no
means important in this matter. He was a Sicilian youth, who,
together with Modestus and Crescentia, suffered martyrdom at the
time of the persecution of the Christians, under Diocletian, in
the year 303. The legends respecting him are obscure, and he
would certainly have been passed over without notice among the
innumerable apocryphal martyrs of the first centuries, had not the
transfer of his body to St. Denys, and thence, in the year 836, to
Corvey, raised him to a higher rank. From this time forth it may
be supposed that many miracles were manifested at his new
sepulchre, which were of essential service in confirming the Roman
faith among the Germans, and St. Vitus was soon ranked among the
fourteen saintly helpers (Nothhelfer or Apotheker). His altars
were multiplied, and the people had recourse to them in all kinds
of distresses, and revered him as a powerful intercessor. As the
worship of these saints was, however, at that time stripped of all
historical connections, which were purposely obliterated by the
priesthood, a legend was invented at the beginning of the
fifteenth century, or perhaps even so early as the fourteenth,
that St. Vitus had, just before he bent his neck to the sword,
prayed to God that he might protect from the Dancing Mania all
those who should solemnise the day of his commemoration, and fast
upon its eve, and that thereupon a voice from heaven was heard,
saying, "Vitus, thy prayer is accepted." Thus St. Vitus became
the patron saint of those afflicted with the Dancing Plague, as
St. Martin of Tours was at one time the succourer of persons in
small-pox, St. Antonius of those suffering under the "hellish
fire," and as St. Margaret was the Juno Lucina of puerperal women.


The connection which John the Baptist had with the Dancing Mania
of the fourteenth century was of a totally different character.
He was originally far from being a protecting saint to those who
were attacked, or one who would be likely to give them relief from
a malady considered as the work of the devil. On the contrary,
the manner in which he was worshipped afforded an important and
very evident cause for its development. From the remotest period,
perhaps even so far back as the fourth century, St. John's day was
solemnised with all sorts of strange and rude customs, of which
the originally mystical meaning was variously disfigured among
different nations by superadded relics of heathenism. Thus the
Germans transferred to the festival of St. John's day an ancient
heathen usage, the kindling of the "Nodfyr," which was forbidden
them by St. Boniface, and the belief subsists even to the present
day that people and animals that have leaped through these flames,
or their smoke, are protected for a whole year from fevers and
other diseases, as if by a kind of baptism by fire. Bacchanalian
dances, which have originated in similar causes among all the rude
nations of the earth, and the wild extravagancies of a heated
imagination, were the constant accompaniments of this half-
heathen, half-Christian festival. At the period of which we are
treating, however, the Germans were not the only people who gave
way to the ebullitions of fanaticism in keeping the festival of
St. John the Baptist. Similar customs were also to be found among
the nations of Southern Europe and of Asia, and it is more than
probable that the Greeks transferred to the festival of John the
Baptist, who is also held in high esteem among the Mahomedans, a
part of their Bacchanalian mysteries, an absurdity of a kind which
is but too frequently met with in human affairs. How far a
remembrance of the history of St. John's death may have had an
influence on this occasion, we would leave learned theologians to
decide. It is only of importance here to add that in Abyssinia, a
country entirely separated from Europe, where Christianity has
maintained itself in its primeval simplicity against Mahomedanism,
John is to this day worshipped, as protecting saint of those who
are attacked with the dancing malady. In these fragments of the
dominion of mysticism and superstition, historical connection is
not to be found.

When we observe, however, that the first dancers in Aix-la-
Chapelle appeared in July with St. John's name in their mouths,
the conjecture is probable that the wild revels of St. John's day,
A.D. 1374, gave rise to this mental plague, which thenceforth has
visited so many thousands with incurable aberration of mind, and
disgusting distortions of body.

This is rendered so much the more probable because some months
previously the districts in the neighbourhood of the Rhine and the
Main had met with great disasters. So early as February, both
these rivers had overflowed their banks to a great extent; the
walls of the town of Cologne, on the side next the Rhine, had
fallen down, and a great many villages had been reduced to the
utmost distress. To this was added the miserable condition of
western and southern Germany. Neither law nor edict could
suppress the incessant feuds of the Barons, and in Franconia
especially, the ancient times of club law appeared to be revived.
Security of property there was none; arbitrary will everywhere
prevailed; corruption of morals and rude power rarely met with
even a feeble opposition; whence it arose that the cruel, but
lucrative, persecutions of the Jews were in many places still
practised through the whole of this century with their wonted
ferocity. Thus, throughout the western parts of Germany, and
especially in the districts bordering on the Rhine, there was a
wretched and oppressed populace; and if we take into consideration
that among their numerous bands many wandered about, whose
consciences were tormented with the recollection of the crimes
which they had committed during the prevalence of the Black
Plague, we shall comprehend how their despair sought relief in the
intoxication of an artificial delirium. There is hence good
ground for supposing that the frantic celebration of the festival
of St. John, A.D. 1374, only served to bring to a crisis a malady
which had been long impending; and if we would further inquire how
a hitherto harmless usage, which like many others had but served
to keep up superstition, could degenerate into so serious a
disease, we must take into account the unusual excitement of men's
minds, and the consequences of wretchedness and want. The bowels,
which in many were debilitated by hunger and bad food, were
precisely the parts which in most cases were attacked with
excruciating pain, and the tympanitic state of the intestines
points out to the intelligent physician an origin of the disorder
which is well worth consideration.


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
passed, 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 circumstances, 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 God 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 gods
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, Chorea imaginativa,
aestimativa), by which the original Dancing Plague is to be
understood. Secondly, that which arises from sensual desires,
depending on the will (Chorea lasciva). Thirdly, that which
arises from corporeal causes (Chorea 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 chorea; 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

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 passionate 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 circumstance 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 chastisement 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 assembling 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 passed 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 multitude 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 passed
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 circumstance 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; superstition, 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, passing 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. Nobody 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 assures 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 class 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 assertion, which is not borne out by any analogous
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, sexual 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

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 passed 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 circumstances 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 superstition 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,
snatched 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 lassitude.
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 passionate 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 impassioned 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 circumstances, 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 anticipated 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 lassitude, 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 impassioned
demeanour, did the same; and this phenomenon, as well as the
excitement which the tarantula dancers felt at the sight of
anything with metallic lustre, was quite common up to the period
when, in modern times, the disease disappeared.

The abhorrence of certain colours, and the agreeable sensations
produced by others, were much more marked among the excitable
Italians than was the case in the St. Vitus's dance with the more
phlegmatic Germans. Red colours, which the St. Vitus's dancers
detested, they generally liked, so that a patient was seldom seen
who did not carry a red handkerchief for his gratification, or
greedily feast his eyes on any articles of red clothing worn by
the bystanders. Some preferred yellow, others black colours, of
which an explanation was sought, according to the prevailing
notions of the times, in the difference of temperaments. Others,
again, were enraptured with green; and eye-witnesses describe this
rage for colours as so extraordinary, that they can scarcely find
words with which to express their astonishment. No sooner did the
patients obtain a sight of the favourite colour than, new as the
impression was, they rushed like infuriated animals towards the
object, devoured it with their eager looks, kissed and caressed it
in every possible way, and gradually resigning themselves to
softer sensations, adopted the languishing expression of enamoured
lovers, and embraced the handkerchief, or whatever other article
it might be, which was presented to them, with the most intense
ardour, while the tears streamed from their eyes as if they were
completely overwhelmed by the inebriating impression on their

The dancing fits of a certain Capuchin friar in Tarentum excited
so much curiosity, that Cardinal Cajetano proceeded to the
monastery, that he might see with his own eyes what was going on.
As soon as the monk, who was in the midst of his dance, perceived
the spiritual prince clothed in his red garments, he no longer
listened to the tarantella of the musicians, but with strange
gestures endeavoured to approach the Cardinal, as if he wished to
count the very threads of his scarlet robe, and to allay his
intense longing by its odour. The interference of the spectators,
and his own respect, prevented his touching it, and thus the
irritation of his senses not being appeased, he fell into a state
of such anguish and disquietude, that he presently sank down in a
swoon, from which he did not recover until the Cardinal
compassionately gave him his cape. This he immediately seized in
the greatest ecstasy, and pressed now to his breast, now to his
forehead and cheeks, and then again commenced his dance as if in
the frenzy of a love fit.

At the sight of colours which they disliked, patients flew into
the most violent rage, and, like the St. Vitus's dancers when they
saw red objects, could scarcely be restrained from tearing the
clothes of those spectators who raised in them such disagreeable

Another no less extraordinary symptom was the ardent longing for
the sea which the patients evinced. As the St. John's dancers of
the fourteenth century saw, in the spirit, the heavens open and
display all the splendour of the saints, so did those who were
suffering under the bite of the tarantula feel themselves
attracted to the boundless expanse of the blue ocean, and lost
themselves in its contemplation. Some songs, which are still
preserved, marked this peculiar longing, which was moreover
expressed by significant music, and was excited even by the bare
mention of the sea. Some, in whom this susceptibility was carried
to the greatest pitch, cast themselves with blind fury into the
blue waves, as the St. Vitus's dancers occasionally did into rapid
rivers. This condition, so opposite to the frightful state of
hydrophobia, betrayed itself in others only in the pleasure
afforded them by the sight of clear water in glasses. These they
bore in their hands while dancing, exhibiting at the same time
strange movements, and giving way to the most extravagant
expressions of their feeling. They were delighted also when, in
the midst of the space allotted for this exercise, more ample
vessels, filled with water, and surrounded by rushes and water
plants, were placed, in which they bathed their heads and arms
with evident pleasure. Others there were who rolled about on the
ground, and were, by their own desire, buried up to the neck in
the earth, in order to alleviate the misery of their condition;
not to mention an endless variety of other symptoms which showed
the perverted action of the nerves.

All these modes of relief, however, were as nothing in comparison
with the irresistible charms of musical sound. Attempts had
indeed been made in ancient times to mitigate the pain of
sciatica, or the paroxysms of mania, by the soft melody of the
flute, and, what is still more applicable to the present purpose,
to remove the danger arising from the bite of vipers by the same
means. This, however, was tried only to a very small extent. But
after being bitten by the tarantula, there was, according to
popular opinion, no way of saving life except by music; and it was
hardly considered as an exception to the general rule, that every
now and then the bad effects of a wound were prevented by placing
a ligature on the bitten limb, or by internal medicine, or that
strong persons occasionally withstood the effects of the poison,
without the employment of any remedies at all. It was much more
common, and is quite in accordance with the nature of so exquisite
a nervous disease, to hear accounts of many who, when bitten by
the tarantula, perished miserably because the tarantella, which
would have afforded them deliverance, was not played to them. It
was customary, therefore, so early as the commencement of the
seventeenth century, for whole bands of musicians to traverse
Italy during the summer months, and, what is quite unexampled
either in ancient or modern times, the cure of the Tarantati in
the different towns and villages was undertaken on a grand scale.
This season of dancing and music was called "the women's little
carnival," for it was women more especially who conducted the
arrangements; so that throughout the whole country they saved up
their spare money, for the purpose of rewarding the welcome
musicians, and many of them neglected their household employments
to participate in this festival of the sick. Mention is even made
of one benevolent lady (Mita Lupa) who had expended her whole
fortune on this object.

The music itself was of a kind perfectly adapted to the nature of
the malady, and it made so deep an impression on the Italians,
that even to the present time, long since the extinction of the
disorder, they have retained the tarantella, as a particular
species of music employed for quick, lively dancing. The
different kinds of tarantella were distinguished, very
significantly, by particular names, which had reference to the
moods observed in the patients. Whence it appears that they aimed
at representing by these tunes even the idiosyncrasies of the mind
as expressed in the countenance. Thus there was one kind of
tarantella which was called "Panno rosso," a very lively,
impassioned style of music, to which wild dithyrambic songs were
adapted; another, called "Panno verde," which was suited to the
milder excitement of the senses caused by green colours, and set
to Idyllian songs of verdant fields and shady groves. A third was
named "Cinque tempi:" a fourth "Moresca," which was played to a
Moorish dance; a fifth, "Catena;" and a sixth, with a very
appropriate designation, "Spallata," as if it were only fit to be
played to dancers who were lame in the shoulder. This was the
slowest and least in vogue of all. For those who loved water they
took care to select love songs, which were sung to corresponding
music, and such persons delighted in hearing of gushing springs
and rushing cascades and streams. It is to be regretted that on
this subject we are unable to give any further information, for
only small fragments of songs, and a very few tarantellas, have
been preserved which belong to a period so remote as the beginning
of the seventeenth, or at furthest the end of the sixteenth

The music was almost wholly in the Turkish style (aria Turchesca),
and the ancient songs of the peasantry of Apulia, which increased
in number annually, were well suited to the abrupt and lively
notes of the Turkish drum and the shepherd's pipe. These two
instruments were the favourites in the country, but others of all
kinds were played in towns and villages, as an accompaniment to
the dances of the patients and the songs of the spectators. If
any particular melody was disliked by those affected, they
indicated their displeasure by violent gestures expressive of
aversion. They could not endure false notes, and it is remarkable
that uneducated boors, who had never in their lives manifested any
perception of the enchanting power of harmony, acquired, in this
respect, an extremely refined sense of hearing, as if they had
been initiated into the profoundest secrets of the musical art.
It was a matter of every day's experience, that patients showed a
predilection for certain tarantellas, in preference to others,
which gave rise to the composition of a great variety of these
dances. They were likewise very capricious in their partialities
for particular instruments; so that some longed for the shrill
notes of the trumpet, others for the softest music produced by the
vibration of strings.

Tarantism was at its greatest height in Italy in the seventeenth
century, long after the St. Vitus's Dance of Germany had
disappeared. It was not the natives of the country only who were
attacked by this complaint. Foreigners of every colour and of
every race, negroes, gipsies, Spaniards, Albanians, were in like
manner affected by it. Against the effects produced by the
tarantula's bite, or by the sight of the sufferers, neither youth
nor age afforded any protection; so that even old men of ninety
threw aside their crutches at the sound of the tarantella, and, as
if some magic potion, restorative of youth and vigour, were
flowing through their veins, joined the most extravagant dancers.
Ferdinando saw a boy five years old seized with the dancing mania,
in consequence of the bite of a tarantula, and, what is almost
past belief, were it not supported by the testimony of so credible
an eye-witness, even deaf people were not exempt from this
disorder, so potent in its effect was the very sight of those
affected, even without the exhilarating emotions caused by music.

Subordinate nervous attacks were much more frequent during this
century than at any former period, and an extraordinary icy
coldness was observed in those who were the subject of them; so
that they did not recover their natural heat until they had
engaged in violent dancing. Their anguish and sense of oppression
forced from them a cold perspiration; the secretion from the
kidneys was pale, and they had so great a dislike to everything
cold, that when water was offered them they pushed it away with
abhorrence. Wine, on the contrary, they all drank willingly,
without being heated by it, or in the slightest degree
intoxicated. During the whole period of the attack they suffered
from spasms in the stomach, and felt a disinclination to take food
of any kind. They used to abstain some time before the expected
seizures from meat and from snails, which they thought rendered
them more severe, and their great thirst for wine may therefore in
some measure be attributable to the want of a more nutritious
diet; yet the disorder of the nerves was evidently its chief
cause, and the loss of appetite, as well as the necessity for
support by wine, were its effects. Loss of voice, occasional
blindness, vertigo, complete insanity, with sleeplessness,
frequent weeping without any ostensible cause, were all usual
symptoms. Many patients found relief from being placed in swings
or rocked in cradles; others required to be roused from their
state of suffering by severe blows on the soles of their feet;
others beat themselves, without any intention of making a display,
but solely for the purpose of allaying the intense nervous
irritation which they felt; and a considerable number were seen
with their bellies swollen, like those of the St. John's dancers,
while the violence of the intestinal disorder was indicated in
others by obstinate constipation or diarrhoea and vomiting. These
pitiable objects gradually lost their strength and their colour,
and creeping about with injected eyes, jaundiced complexions, and
inflated bowels, soon fell into a state of profound melancholy,
which found food and solace in the solemn tolling of the funeral
bell, and in an abode among the tombs of cemeteries, as is related
of the Lycanthropes of former times.

The persuasion of the inevitable consequences of being bitten by
the tarantula, exercised a dominion over men's minds which even
the healthiest and strongest could not shake off. So late as the
middle of the sixteenth century, the celebrated Fracastoro found
the robust bailiff of his landed estate groaning, and, with the
aspect of a person in the extremity of despair, suffering the very
agonies of death from a sting in the neck, inflicted by an insect
which was believed to be a tarantula. He kindly administered
without delay a potion of vinegar and Armenian bole, the great
remedy of those days for the plague of all kinds of animal
poisons, and the dying man was, as if by a miracle, restored to
life and the power of speech. Now, since it is quite out of the
question that the bole could have anything to do with the result
in this case, notwithstanding Fracastoro's belief in its virtues,
we can only account for the cure by supposing, that a confidence
in so great a physician prevailed over this fatal disease of the
imagination, which would otherwise have yielded to scarcely any
other remedy except the tarantella. Ferdinando was acquainted
with women who, for thirty years in succession, had overcome the
attacks of this disorder by a renewal of their annual dance--so
long did they maintain their belief in the yet undestroyed poison
of the tarantula's bite, and so long did that mental affection
continue to exist, after it had ceased to depend on any corporeal

Wherever we turn, we find that this morbid state of mind
prevailed, and was so supported by the opinions of the age, that
it needed only a stimulus in the bite of the tarantula, and the
supposed certainty of its very disastrous consequences, to
originate this violent nervous disorder. Even in Ferdinando's
time there were many who altogether denied the poisonous effects
of the tarantula's bite, whilst they considered the disorder,
which annually set Italy in commotion, to be a melancholy
depending on the imagination. They dearly expiated this
scepticism, however, when they were led, with an inconsiderate
hardihood, to test their opinions by experiment; for many of them
became the subjects of severe tarantism, and even a distinguished
prelate, Jo. Baptist Quinzato, Bishop of Foligno, having allowed
himself, by way of a joke, to be bitten by a tarantula, could
obtain a cure in no other way than by being, through the influence
of the tarantella, compelled to dance. Others among the clergy,
who wished to shut their ears against music, because they
considered dancing derogatory to their station, fell into a
dangerous state of illness by thus delaying the crisis of the
malady, and were obliged at last to save themselves from a
miserable death by submitting to the unwelcome but sole means of
cure. Thus it appears that the age was so little favourable to
freedom of thought, that even the most decided sceptics, incapable
of guarding themselves against the recollection of what had been
presented to the eye, were subdued by a poison, the powers of
which they had ridiculed, and which was in itself inert in its


Different characteristics of the morbidly excited vitality having
been rendered prominent by tarantism in different individuals, it
could not but happen that other derangements of the nerves would
assume the form of this whenever circumstances favoured such a
transition. This was more especially the case with hysteria, that
proteiform and mutable disorder, in which the imaginations, the
superstitions, and the follies of all ages have been evidently
reflected. The "Carnevaletto delle Donne" appeared most
opportunely for those who were hysterical. Their disease received
from it, as it had at other times from other extraordinary
customs, a peculiar direction; so that, whether bitten by the
tarantula or not, they felt compelled to participate in the dances
of those affected, and to make their appearance at this popular
festival, where they had an opportunity of triumphantly exhibiting
their sufferings. Let us here pause to consider the kind of life
which the women in Italy led. Lonely, and deprived by cruel
custom of social intercourse, that fairest of all enjoyments, they
dragged on a miserable existence. Cheerfulness and an inclination
to sensual pleasures passed into compulsory idleness, and, in
many, into black despondency. Their imaginations became
disordered--a pallid countenance and oppressed respiration bore
testimony to their profound sufferings. How could they do
otherwise, sunk as they were in such extreme misery, than seize
the occasion to burst forth from their prisons and alleviate their
miseries by taking part in the delights of music? Nor should we
here pass unnoticed a circumstance which illustrates, in a
remarkable degree, the psychological nature of hysterical
sufferings, namely, that many chlorotic females, by joining the
dancers at the Carnevaletto, were freed from their spasms and
oppression of breathing for the whole year, although the corporeal
cause of their malady was not removed. After such a result, no
one could call their self-deception a mere imposture, and
unconditionally condemn it as such.

This numerous class of patients certainly contributed not a little
to the maintenance of the evil, for their fantastic sufferings, in
which dissimulation and reality could scarcely be distinguished
even by themselves, much less by their physicians, were imitated
in the same way as the distortions of the St. Vitus's dancers by
the impostors of that period. It was certainly by these persons
also that the number of subordinate symptoms was increased to an
endless extent, as may be conceived from the daily observation of
hysterical patients who, from a morbid desire to render themselves
remarkable, deviate from the laws of moral propriety. Powerful
sexual excitement had often the most decided influence over their
condition. Many of them exposed themselves in the most indecent
manner, tore their hair out by the roots, with howling and
gnashing of their teeth; and when, as was sometimes the case,
their unsatisfied passion hurried them on to a state of frenzy,
they closed their existence by self destruction; it being common
at that time for these unfortunate beings to precipitate
themselves into the wells.

It might hence seem that, owing to the conduct of patients of this
description, so much of fraud and falsehood would be mixed up with
the original disorder that, having passed into another complaint,
it must have been itself destroyed. This, however, did not happen
in the first half of the seventeenth century; for, as a clear
proof that tarantism remained substantially the same and quite
unaffected by hysteria, there were in many places, and in
particular at Messapia, fewer women affected than men, who, in
their turn, were in no small proportion led into temptation by
sexual excitement. In other places, as, for example, at Brindisi,
the case was reversed, which may, as in other complaints, be in
some measure attributable to local causes. Upon the whole it
appears, from concurrent accounts, that women by no means enjoyed
the distinction of being attacked by tarantism more frequently
than men.

It is said that the cicatrix of the tarantula bite, on the yearly
or half-yearly return of the fit, became discoloured, but on this
point the distinct testimony of good observers is wanting to
deprive the assertion of its utter improbability.

It is not out of place to remark here that, about the same time
that tarantism attained its greatest height in Italy, the bite of
venomous spiders was more feared in distant parts of Asia likewise
than it had ever been within the memory of man. There was this
difference, however--that the symptoms supervening on the
occurrence of this accident were not accompanied by the Apulian
nervous disorder, which, as has been shown in the foregoing pages,
had its origin rather in the melancholic temperament of the
inhabitants of the south of Italy than in the nature of the
tarantula poison itself. This poison is therefore, doubtless, to
be considered only as a remote cause of the complaint, which, but
for that temperament, would be inadequate to its production. The
Persians employed a very rough means of counteracting the bad
consequences of a poison of this sort. They drenched the wounded
person with milk, and then, by a violent rotatory motion in a
suspended box, compelled him to vomit.


The Dancing Mania, arising from the tarantula bite, continued with
all those additions of self-deception and of the dissimulation
which is such a constant attendant on nervous disorders of this
kind, through the whole course of the seventeenth century. It was
indeed, gradually on the decline, but up to the termination of
this period showed such extraordinary symptoms that Baglivi, one
of the best physicians of that time, thought he did a service to
science by making them the subject of a dissertation. He repeats
all the observations of Ferdinando, and supports his own
assertions by the experience of his father, a physician at Lecce,
whose testimony, as an eye-witness, may be admitted as

The immediate consequences of the tarantula bite, the supervening
nervous disorder, and the aberrations and fits of those who
suffered from hysteria, he describes in a masterly style, not does
he ever suffer his credulity to diminish the authenticity of his
account, of which he has been unjustly accused by later writers.

Finally, tarantism has declined more and more in modern times, and
is now limited to single cases. How could it possibly have
maintained itself unchanged in the eighteenth century, when all
the links which connected it with the Middle Ages had long since
been snapped asunder? Imposture grew more frequent, and wherever
the disease still appeared in its genuine form, its chief cause,
namely, a peculiar cast of melancholy, which formerly had been the
temperament of thousands, was now possessed only occasionally by
unfortunate individuals. It might, therefore, not unreasonably be
maintained that the tarantism of modern times bears nearly the
same relation to the original malady as the St. Vitus's dance
which still exists, and certainly has all along existed, bears, in
certain cases, to the original dancing mania of the dancers of St.

To conclude. Tarantism, as a real disease, has been denied in
toto, and stigmatised as an imposition by most physicians and
naturalists, who in this controversy have shown the narrowness of
their views and their utter ignorance of history. In order to
support their opinion they have instituted some experiments
apparently favourable to it, but under circumstances altogether
inapplicable, since, for the most part, they selected as the
subjects of them none but healthy men, who were totally
uninfluenced by a belief in this once so dreaded disease. From
individual instances of fraud and dissimulation, such as are found
in connection with most nervous affections without rendering their
reality a matter of any doubt, they drew a too hasty conclusion
respecting the general phenomenon, of which they appeared not to
know that it had continued for nearly four hundred years, having
originated in the remotest periods of the Middle Ages. The most
learned and the most acute among these sceptics is Serao the
Neapolitan. His reasonings amount to this, that he considers the
disease to be a very marked form of melancholia, and compares the
effect of the tarantula bite upon it to stimulating with spurs a
horse which is already running. The reality of that effect he
thus admits, and, therefore, directly confirms what in appearance
only he denies. By shaking the already vacillating belief in this
disorder he is said to have actually succeeded in rendering it
less frequent, and in setting bounds to imposture; but this no
more disproves the reality of its existence than the oft repeated
detection of imposition has been able in modern times to banish
magnetic sleep from the circle of natural phenomena, though such
detection has, on its side, rendered more rare the incontestable
effects of animal magnetism. Other physicians and naturalists
have delivered their sentiments on tarantism, but as they have not
possessed an enlarged knowledge of its history their views do not
merit particular exposition. It is sufficient for the
comprehension of everyone that we have presented the facts from
all extraneous speculation.



Both the St. Vitus's dance and tarantism belonged to the ages in
which they appeared. They could not have existed under the same
latitude at any other epoch, for at no other period were the
circumstances which prepared the way for them combined in a
similar relation to each other, and the mental as well as
corporeal temperaments of nations, which depend on causes such as
have been stated, are as little capable of renewal as the
different stages of life in individuals. This gives so much the
more importance to a disease but cursorily alluded to in the
foregoing pages, which exists in Abyssinia, and which nearly
resembles the original mania of the St. John's dancers, inasmuch
as it exhibits a perfectly similar ecstasy, with the same violent
effect on the nerves of motion. It occurs most frequently in the
Tigre country, being thence call Tigretier, and is probably the
same malady which is called in Ethiopian language Astaragaza. On
this subject we will introduce the testimony of Nathaniel Pearce,
an eye-witness, who resided nine years in Abyssinia. "The
Tigretier," he says he, "is more common among the women than among
the men. It seizes the body as if with a violent fever, and from
that turns to a lingering sickness, which reduces the patients to
skeletons, and often kills them if the relations cannot procure
the proper remedy. During this sickness their speech is changed
to a kind of stuttering, which no one can understand but those
afflicted with the same disorder. When the relations find the
malady to be the real tigretier, they join together to defray the
expense of curing it; the first remedy they in general attempt is
to procure the assistance of a learned Dofter, who reads the
Gospel of St. John, and drenches the patient with cold water daily
for the space of seven days, an application that very often proves
fatal. The most effectual cure, though far more expensive than
the former, is as follows:- The relations hire for a certain sum
of money a band of trumpeters, drummers, and fifers, and buy a
quantity of liquor; then all the young men and women of the place
assemble at the patient's house to perform the following most
extraordinary ceremony.

"I was once called in by a neighbour to see his wife, a very young
woman, who had the misfortune to be afflicted with this disorder;
and the man being an old acquaintance of mine, and always a close
comrade in the camp, I went every day, when at home, to see her,
but I could not be of any service to her, though she never refused
my medicines. At this time I could not understand a word she
said, although she talked very freely, nor could any of her
relations understand her. She could not bear the sight of a book
or a priest, for at the sight of either she struggled, and was
apparently seized with acute agony, and a flood of tears, like
blood mingled with water, would pour down her face from her eyes.
She had lain three months in this lingering state, living upon so
little that it seemed not enough to keep a human body alive; at
last her husband agreed to employ the usual remedy, and, after
preparing for the maintenance of the band during the time it would
take to effect the cure, he borrowed from all his neighbours their
silver ornaments, and loaded her legs, arms and neck with them.

"The evening that the band began to play I seated myself close by
her side as she lay upon the couch, and about two minutes after
the trumpets had begun to sound I observed her shoulders begin to
move, and soon afterwards her head and breast, and in less than a
quarter of an hour she sat upon her couch. The wild look she had,
though sometimes she smiled, made me draw off to a greater
distance, being almost alarmed to see one nearly a skeleton move
with such strength; her head, neck, shoulders, hands and feet all
made a strong motion to the sound of the music, and in this manner
she went on by degrees, until she stood up on her legs upon the
floor. Afterwards she began to dance, and at times to jump about,
and at last, as the music and noise of the singers increased, she
often sprang three feet from the ground. When the music slackened
she would appear quite out of temper, but when it became louder
she would smile and be delighted. During this exercise she never
showed the least symptom of being tired, though the musicians were
thoroughly exhausted; and when they stopped to refresh themselves
by drinking and resting a little she would discover signs of

"Next day, according to the custom in the cure of this disorder,
she was taken into the market-place, where several jars of maize
or tsug were set in order by the relations, to give drink to the
musicians and dancers. When the crowd had assembled, and the
music was ready, she was brought forth and began to dance and
throw herself into the maddest postures imaginable, and in this
manner she kept on the whole day. Towards evening she began to
let fall her silver ornaments from her neck, arms, and legs, one
at a time, so that in the course of three hours she was stripped
of every article. A relation continually kept going after her as
she danced, to pick up the ornaments, and afterwards delivered
them to the owners from whom they were borrowed. As the sun went
down she made a start with such swiftness that the fastest runner
could not come up with her, and when at the distance of about two
hundred yards she dropped on a sudden as if shot. Soon afterwards
a young man, on coming up with her, fired a matchlock over her
body, and struck her upon the back with the broad side of his
large knife, and asked her name, to which she answered as when in
her common senses--a sure proof of her being cured; for during the
time of this malady those afflicted with it never answer to their
Christian names. She was now taken up in a very weak condition
and carried home, and a priest came and baptised her again in the
name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which ceremony concluded
her cure. Some are taken in this manner to the market-place for
many days before they can be cured, and it sometimes happens that
they cannot be cured at all. I have seen them in these fits dance
with a BRULY, or bottle of maize, upon their heads without
spilling the liquor, or letting the bottle fall, although they
have put themselves into the most extravagant postures.

"I could not have ventured to write this from hearsay, nor could I
conceive it possible, until I was obliged to put this remedy in
practice upon my own wife, who was seized with the same disorder,
and then I was compelled to have a still nearer view of this
strange disorder. I at first thought that a whip would be of some
service, and one day attempted a few strokes when unnoticed by any
person, we being by ourselves, and I having a strong suspicion
that this ailment sprang from the weak minds of women, who were
encouraged in it for the sake of the grandeur, rich dress, and
music which accompany the cure. But how much was I surprised, the
moment I struck a light blow, thinking to do good, to find that
she became like a corpse, and even the joints of her fingers
became so stiff that I could not straighten them; indeed, I really
thought that she was dead, and immediately made it known to the
people in the house that she had fainted, but did not tell them
the cause, upon which they immediately brought music, which I had
for many days denied them, and which soon revived her; and I then
left the house to her relations to cure her at my expense, in the
manner I have before mentioned, though it took a much longer time
to cure my wife than the woman I have just given an account of.
One day I went privately, with a companion, to see my wife dance,
and kept at a short distance, as I was ashamed to go near the
crowd. On looking steadfastly upon her, while dancing or jumping,
more like a deer than a human being, I said that it certainly was
not my wife; at which my companion burst into a fit of laughter,
from which he could scarcely refrain all the way home. Men are
sometimes afflicted with this dreadful disorder, but not
frequently. Among the Amhara and Galla it is not so common."

Such is the account of Pearce, who is every way worthy of credit,
and whose lively description renders the traditions of former
times respecting the St. Vitus's dance and tarantism intelligible,
even to those who are sceptical respecting the existence of a

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