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The Black Death, and The Dancing Mania By J. F. C. Hecker Characters: 45334

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


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 ασκαλ βωτη?, 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 web.

Nowhere, however, do we find any mention made that those affected felt an irresistible propensity to dancing, or that they were accidentally cured by it. Even Constantine of Africa, who lived 500 years after A?tius, 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 senses.

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 dislike

d, 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 sensations.

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 century.

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 excitement.

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 effect.


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 unexceptionable.

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. John.

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.

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