The Black Death Part 5

The Black Death -

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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 languis.h.i.+ng 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 compa.s.sionately 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 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 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 s.p.a.ce 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 partic.i.p.ate 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, impa.s.sioned 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 gus.h.i.+ng springs and rus.h.i.+ng 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 appet.i.te, 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 a.s.sume the form of this whenever circ.u.mstances favoured such a transition. This was more especially the case with hysteria, that proteiform and mutable disorder, in which the imaginations, the superst.i.tions, 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 partic.i.p.ate 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 pa.s.sed 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 pa.s.s unnoticed a circ.u.mstance which ill.u.s.trates, 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 cla.s.s 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 s.e.xual 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 gnas.h.i.+ng of their teeth; and when, as was sometimes the case, their unsatisfied pa.s.sion 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 pa.s.sed 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 s.e.xual 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 a.s.sertion 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 a.s.sertions 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 inst.i.tuted some experiments apparently favourable to it, but under circ.u.mstances 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 lat.i.tude at any other epoch, for at no other period were the circ.u.mstances 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 a.s.sistance of a learned Dofter, who reads the Gospel of St. John, and drenches the patient with cold water daily for the s.p.a.ce 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 quant.i.ty of liquor; then all the young men and women of the place a.s.semble 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 discontent.

"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 a.s.sembled, 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 morbid state of the mind and body of the kind described, because, in the present advanced state of civilisation among the nations of Europe, opportunities for its development no longer occur. The credibility of this energetic but by no means ambitious man is not liable to the slightest suspicion, for, owing to his want of education, he had no knowledge of the phenomena in question, and his work evinces throughout his attractive and unpretending impartiality.

Comparison is the mother of observation, and may here elucidate one phenomenon by another--the past by that which still exists. Oppression, insecurity, and the influence of a very rude priestcraft, are the powerful causes which operated on the Germans and Italians of the Middle Ages, as they now continue to operate on the Abyssinians of the present day. However these people may differ from us in their descent, their manners and their customs, the effects of the above mentioned causes are the same in Africa as they were in Europe, for they operate on man himself independently of the particular locality in which he may be planted; and the conditions of the Abyssinians of modern times is, in regard to superst.i.tion, a mirror of the condition of the European nations of the middle ages. Should this appear a bold a.s.sertion it will be strengthened by the fact that in Abyssinia two examples of superst.i.tions occur which are completely in accordance with occurrences of the Middle Ages that took place contemporarily with the dancing mania. _The Abyssinians have their Christian flagellants, and there exists among them a belief in a Zoomorphism, which presents a lively image of the lycanthropy of the Middle Ages_. Their flagellants are called Zackarys.

They are united into a separate Christian fraternity, and make their processions through the towns and villages with great noise and tumult, scourging themselves till they draw blood, and wounding themselves with knives. They boast that they are descendants of St. George. It is precisely in Tigre, the country of the Abyssinian dancing mania, where they are found in the greatest numbers, and where they have, in the neighbourhood of Axum, a church of their own, dedicated to their patron saint, _Oun Arvel_. Here there is an ever-burning lamp, and they contrive to impress a belief that this is kept alight by supernatural means. They also here keep a holy water, which is said to be a cure for those who are affected by the dancing mania.

The Abyssinian Zoomorphism is a no less important phenomenon, and shows itself a manner quite peculiar. The blacksmiths and potters form among the Abyssinians a society or caste called in Tigre _Tebbib_, and in Amhara _Buda_, which is held in some degree of contempt, and excluded from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, because it is believed that they can change themselves into hyaenas and other beasts of prey, on which account they are feared by everybody, and regarded with horror. They artfully contrive to keep up this superst.i.tion, because by this separation they preserve a monopoly of their lucrative trades, and as in other respects they are good Christians (but few Jews or Mahomedans live among them), they seem to attach no great consequence to their excommunication. As a badge of distinction they wear a golden ear-ring, which is frequently found in the ears of Hyaenas that are killed, without its having ever been discovered how they catch these animals, so as to decorate them with this strange ornament, and this removes in the minds of the people all doubt as to the supernatural powers of the smiths and potters. To the Budas is also ascribed the gift of enchantment, especially that of the influence of the evil eye. They nevertheless live unmolested, and are not condemned to the flames by fanatical priests, as the lycanthropes were in the Middle Ages.


Imitation--compa.s.sion--sympathy, these are imperfect designations for a common bond of union among human beings--for an instinct which connects individuals with the general body, which embraces with equal force reason and folly, good and evil, and diminishes the praise of virtue as well as the criminality of vice. In this impulse there are degrees, but no essential differences, from the first intellectual efforts of the infant mind, which are in a great measure based on imitation, to that morbid condition of the soul in which the sensible impression of a nervous malady fetters the mind, and finds its way through the eye directly to the diseased texture, as the electric shock is propagated by contact from body to body. To this instinct of imitation, when it exists in its highest degree, is united a loss of all power over the will, which occurs as soon as the impression on the senses has become firmly established, producing a condition like that of small animals when they are fascinated by the look of a serpent. By this mental bondage morbid sympathy is clearly and definitely distinguished from all subordinate degrees of this instinct, however closely allied the imitation of a disorder may seem to be to that of a mere folly, of an absurd fas.h.i.+on, of an awkward habit in speech and manner, or even of a confusion of ideas. Even these latter imitations, however, directed as they are to foolish and pernicious objects, place the self-independence of the greater portion of mankind in a very doubtful light, and account for their union into a social whole.

Still more nearly allied to morbid sympathy than the imitation of enticing folly, although often with a considerable admixture of the latter, is the diffusion of violent excitements, especially those of a religious or political character, which have so powerfully agitated the nations of ancient and modern times, and which may, after an incipient compliance, pa.s.s into a total loss of power over the will, and an actual disease of the mind. Far be it from us to attempt to awaken all the various tones of this chord, whose vibrations reveal the profound secrets which lie hid in the inmost recesses of the soul. We might well want powers adequate to so vast an undertaking. Our business here is only with that morbid sympathy by the aid of which the dancing mania of the Middle Ages grew into a real epidemic. In order to make this apparent by comparison, it may not be out of place, at the close of this inquiry, to introduce a few striking examples:--

1. "At a cotton manufactory at Hodden Bridge, in Lancas.h.i.+re, a girl, on the fifteenth of February, 1787, put a mouse into the bosom of another girl, who had a great dread of mice. The girl was immediately thrown into a fit, and continued in it, with the most violent convulsions, for twenty-four hours. On the following day three more girls were seized in the same manner, and on the 17th six more. By this time the alarm was so great that the whole work, in which 200 or 300 were employed, was totally stopped, and an idea prevailed that a particular disease had been introduced by a bag of cotton opened in the house. On Sunday the 18th, Dr. St. Clare was sent for from Preston; before he arrived three more were seized, and during that night and the morning of the 19th, eleven more, making in all twenty-four. Of these, twenty-one were young women, two were girls of about ten years of age, and one man, who had been much fatigued with holding the girls. Three of the number lived about two miles from the place where the disorder first broke out, and three at another factory at c.l.i.theroe, about five miles distant, which last and two more were infected entirely from report, not having seen the other patients, but, like them and the rest of the country, strongly impressed with the idea of the plague being caught from the cotton. The symptoms were anxiety, strangulation, and very strong convulsions; and these were so violent as to last without any intermission from a quarter of an hour to twenty-four hours, and to require four or five persons to prevent the patients from tearing their hair and das.h.i.+ng their heads against the floor or walls. Dr. St. Clare had taken with him a portable electrical machine, and by electric shocks the patients were universally relieved without exception. As soon as the patients and the country were a.s.sured that the complaint was merely nervous, easily cured, and not introduced by the cotton, no fresh person was affected. To dissipate their apprehensions still further, the best effects were obtained by causing them to take a cheerful gla.s.s and join in a dance. On Tuesday the 20th, they danced, and the next day were all at work, except two or three, who were much weakened by their fits."

The occurrence here described is remarkable on this account, that there was no important predisposing cause for convulsions in these young women, unless we consider as such their miserable and confined life in the work- rooms of a spinning manufactory. It did not arise from enthusiasm, nor is it stated that the patients had been the subject of any other nervous disorders. In another perfectly a.n.a.logous case, those attacked were all suffering from nervous complaints, which roused a morbid sympathy in them at the sight of a person seized with convulsions. This, together with the supervention of hysterical fits, may aptly enough be compared to tarantism.

2. "A young woman of the lowest order, twenty-one years of age, and of a strong frame, came on the 13th of January, 1801, to visit a patient in the Charite Hospital at Berlin, where she had herself been previously under treatment for an inflammation of the chest with tetanic spasms, and immediately on entering the ward, fell down in strong convulsions. At the sight of her violent contortions six other female patients immediately became affected in the same way, and by degrees eight more were in like manner attacked with strong convulsions. All these patients were from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, and suffered without exception, one from spasms in the stomach, another from palsy, a third from lethargy, a fourth from fits with consciousness, a fifth from catalepsy, a sixth from syncope, &c. The convulsions, which alternated in various ways with tonic spasms, were accompanied by loss of sensibility, and were invariably preceded by languor with heavy sleep, which was followed by the fits in the course of a minute or two; and it is remarkable that in all these patients their former nervous disorders, not excepting paralysis, disappeared, returning, however, after the subsequent removal of their new complaint. The treatment, during the course of which two of the nurses, who were young women, suffered similar attacks, was continued for four months. It was finally successful, and consisted in the administration of opium, at that time the favourite remedy."

Now every species of enthusiasm, every strong affection, every violent pa.s.sion, may lead to convulsions--to mental disorders--to a concussion of the nerves, from the sensorium to the very finest extremities of the spinal chord. The whole world is full of examples of this afflicting state of turmoil, which, when the mind is carried away by the force of a sensual impression that destroys its freedom, is irresistibly propagated by imitation. Those who are thus infected do not spare even their own lives, but as a hunted flock of sheep will follow their leader and rush over a precipice, so will whole hosts of enthusiasts, deluded by their infatuation, hurry on to a self-inflicted death. Such has ever been the case, from the days of the Milesian virgins to the modern a.s.sociations for self-destruction. Of all enthusiastic infatuations, however, that of religion is the most fertile in disorders of the mind as well as of the body, and both spread with the greatest facility by sympathy. The history of the Church furnishes innumerable proofs of this, but we need go no further than the most recent times.

3. In a methodist chapel at Redruth, a man during divine service cried out with a loud voice, "What shall I do to be saved?" at the same time manifesting the greatest uneasiness and solicitude respecting the condition of his soul. Some other members of the congregation, following his example, cried out in the same form of words, and seemed shortly after to suffer the most excruciating bodily pain. This strange occurrence was soon publicly known, and hundreds of people who had come thither, either attracted by curiosity or a desire from other motives to see the sufferers, fell into the same state. The chapel remained open for some days and nights, and from that point the new disorder spread itself, with the rapidity of lightning, over the neighbouring towns of Camborne, Helston, Truro, Penryn and Falmouth, as well as over the villages in the vicinity. Whilst thus advancing, it decreased in some measure at the place where it had first appeared, and it confined itself throughout to the Methodist chapels. It was only by the words which have been mentioned that it was excited, and it seized none but people of the lowest education. Those who were attacked betrayed the greatest anguish, and fell into convulsions; others cried out, like persons possessed, that the Almighty would straightway pour out His wrath upon them, that the wailings of tormented spirits rang in their ears, and that they saw h.e.l.l open to receive them. The clergy, when in the course of their sermons they perceived that persons were thus seized, earnestly exhorted them to confess their sins, and zealously endeavoured to convince them that they were by nature enemies to Christ; that the anger of G.o.d had therefore fallen upon them; and that if death should surprise them in the midst of their sins the eternal torments of h.e.l.l would be their portion. The over- excited congregation upon this repeated their words, which naturally must have increased the fury of their convulsive attacks. When the discourse had produced its full effect the preacher changed his subject; reminded those who were suffering of the power of the Saviour, as well as of the grace of G.o.d, and represented to them in glowing colours the joys of heaven. Upon this a remarkable reaction sooner or later took place.

Those who were in convulsions felt themselves raised from the lowest depths of misery and despair to the most exalted bliss, and triumphantly shouted out that their bonds were loosed, their sins were forgiven, and that they were translated to the wonderful freedom of the children of G.o.d. In the meantime their convulsions continued, and they remained during this condition so abstracted from every earthly thought that they stayed two and sometimes three days and nights together in the chapels, agitated all the time by spasmodic movements, and taking neither repose nor nourishment. According to a moderate computation, 4,000 people were, within a very short time, affected with this convulsive malady.

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The Black Death Part 5 summary

You're reading The Black Death. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker. Already has 624 views.

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