The Black Death, and The Dancing Mania
by Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker
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The senate ordered all pledges and bonds to be returned to the debtors, and divided the money among the work-people. Many, however, refused to accept the base price of blood, and, indignant at the scenes of bloodthirsty avarice, which made the infuriated multitude forget that the plague was raging around them, presented it to monasteries, in conformity with the advice of their confessors. In all the countries on the Rhine, these cruelties continued to be perpetrated during the succeeding months; and after quiet was in some degree restored, the people thought to render an acceptable service to God, by taking the bricks of the destroyed dwellings, and the tombstones of the Jews, to repair churches and to erect belfries.

In Mayence alone, 12,000 Jews are said to have been put to a cruel death. The Flagellants entered that place in August; the Jews, on this occasion, fell out with the Christians and killed several; but when they saw their inability to withstand the increasing superiority of their enemies, and that nothing could save them from destruction, they consumed themselves and their families by setting fire to their dwellings. Thus also, in other places, the entry of the Flagellants gave rise to scenes of slaughter; and as thirst for blood was everywhere combined with an unbridled spirit of proselytism, a fanatic zeal arose among the Jews to perish as martyrs to their ancient religion. And how was it possible that they could from the heart embrace Christianity, when its precepts were never more outrageously violated? At Eslingen the whole Jewish community burned themselves in their synagogue, and mothers were often seen throwing their children on the pile, to prevent their being baptised, and then precipitating themselves into the flames. In short, whatever deeds fanaticism, revenge, avarice and desperation, in fearful combination, could instigate mankind to perform,—and where in such a case is the limit?—were executed in the year 1349 throughout Germany, Italy, and France, with impunity, and in the eyes of all the world. It seemed as if the plague gave rise to scandalous acts and frantic tumults, not to mourning and grief; and the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, were called upon to raise the voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder. Almost all the Jews who saved their lives by baptism were afterwards burnt at different times; for they continued to be accused of poisoning the water and the air. Christians also, whom philanthropy or gain had induced to offer them protection, were put on the rack and executed with them. Many Jews who had embraced Christianity repented of their apostacy, and, returning to their former faith, sealed it with their death.

The humanity and prudence of Clement VI. must, on this occasion, also be mentioned to his honour; but even the highest ecclesiastical power was insufficient to restrain the unbridled fury of the people. He not only protected the Jews at Avignon, as far as lay in his power, but also issued two bulls, in which he declared them innocent; and admonished all Christians, though without success, to cease from such groundless persecutions. The Emperor Charles IV. was also favourable to them, and sought to avert their destruction wherever he could; but he dared not draw the sword of justice, and even found himself obliged to yield to the selfishness of the Bohemian nobles, who were unwilling to forego so favourable an opportunity of releasing themselves from their Jewish creditors, under favour of an imperial mandate. Duke Albert of Austria burnt and pillaged those of his cities which had persecuted the Jews—a vain and inhuman proceeding, which, moreover, is not exempt from the suspicion of covetousness; yet he was unable, in his own fortress of Kyberg, to protect some hundreds of Jews, who had been received there, from being barbarously burnt by the inhabitants. Several other princes and counts, among whom was Ruprecht von der Pfalz, took the Jews under their protection, on the payment of large sums: in consequence of which they were called "Jew-masters," and were in danger of being attacked by the populace and by their powerful neighbours. These persecuted and ill- used people, except indeed where humane individuals took compassion on them at their own peril, or when they could command riches to purchase protection, had no place of refuge left but the distant country of Lithuania, where Boleslav V., Duke of Poland (1227-1279) had before granted them liberty of conscience; and King Casimir the Great (1333-1370), yielding to the entreaties of Esther, a favourite Jewess, received them, and granted them further protection; on which account, that country is still inhabited by a great number of Jews, who by their secluded habits have, more than any people in Europe, retained the manners of the Middle Ages.

But to return to the fearful accusations against the Jews; it was reported in all Europe that they were in connection with secret superiors in Toledo, to whose decrees they were subject, and from whom they had received commands respecting the coining of base money, poisoning, the murder of Christian children, &c; that they received the poison by sea from remote parts, and also prepared it themselves from spiders, owls, and other venomous animals; but, in order that their secret might not be discovered, that it was known only to their Rabbis and rich men. Apparently there were but few who did not consider this extravagant accusation well founded; indeed, in many writings of the fourteenth century, we find great acrimony with regard to the suspected poison-mixers, which plainly demonstrates the prejudice existing against them. Unhappily, after the confessions of the first victims in Switzerland, the rack extorted similar ones in various places. Some even acknowledged having received poisonous powder in bags, and injunctions from Toledo, by secret messengers. Bags of this description were also often found in wells, though it was not unfrequently discovered that the Christians themselves had thrown them in; probably to give occasion to murder and pillage; similar instances of which may be found in the persecutions of the witches.

This picture needs no additions. A lively image of the Black Plague, and of the moral evil which followed in its train, will vividly represent itself to him who is acquainted with nature and the constitution of society. Almost the only credible accounts of the manner of living, and of the ruin which occurred in private life during this pestilence, are from Italy; and these may enable us to form a just estimate of the general state of families in Europe, taking into consideration what is peculiar in the manners of each country.

"When the evil had become universal" (speaking of Florence), "the hearts of all the inhabitants were closed to feelings of humanity. They fled from the sick and all that belonged to them, hoping by these means to save themselves. Others shut themselves up in their houses, with their wives, their children and households, living on the most costly food, but carefully avoiding all excess. None were allowed access to them; no intelligence of death or sickness was permitted to reach their ears; and they spent their time in singing and music, and other pastimes. Others, on the contrary, considered eating and drinking to excess, amusements of all descriptions, the indulgence of every gratification, and an indifference to what was passing around them, as the best medicine, and acted accordingly. They wandered day and night from one tavern to another, and feasted without moderation or bounds. In this way they endeavoured to avoid all contact with the sick, and abandoned their houses and property to chance, like men whose death-knell had already tolled.

"Amid this general lamentation and woe, the influence and authority of every law, human and divine, vanished. Most of those who were in office had been carried off by the plague, or lay sick, or had lost so many members of their family, that they were unable to attend to their duties; so that thenceforth every one acted as he thought proper. Others in their mode of living chose a middle course. They ate and drank what they pleased, and walked abroad, carrying odoriferous flowers, herbs, or spices, which they smelt to from time to time, in order to invigorate the brain, and to avert the baneful influence of the air, infected by the sick and by the innumerable corpses of those who had died of the plague. Others carried their precaution still further, and thought the surest way to escape death was by flight. They therefore left the city; women as well as men abandoning their dwellings and their relations, and retiring into the country. But of these also many were carried off, most of them alone and deserted by all the world, themselves having previously set the example. Thus it was that one citizen fled from another—a neighbour from his neighbours—a relation from his relations; and in the end, so completely had terror extinguished every kindlier feeling, that the brother forsook the brother—the sister the sister—the wife her husband; and at last, even the parent his own offspring, and abandoned them, unvisited and unsoothed, to their fate. Those, therefore, that stood in need of assistance fell a prey to greedy attendants, who, for an exorbitant recompense, merely handed the sick their food and medicine, remained with them in their last moments, and then not unfrequently became themselves victims to their avarice and lived not to enjoy their extorted gain. Propriety and decorum were extinguished among the helpless sick. Females of rank seemed to forget their natural bashfulness, and committed the care of their persons, indiscriminately, to men and women of the lowest order. No longer were women, relatives or friends, found in the house of mourning, to share the grief of the survivors—no longer was the corpse accompanied to the grave by neighbours and a numerous train of priests, carrying wax tapers and singing psalms, nor was it borne along by other citizens of equal rank. Many breathed their last without a friend to soothe their dying pillow; and few indeed were they who departed amid the lamentations and tears of their friends and kindred. Instead of sorrow and mourning, appeared indifference, frivolity and mirth; this being considered, especially by the females, as conducive to health. Seldom was the body followed by even ten or twelve attendants; and instead of the usual bearers and sextons, mercenaries of the lowest of the populace undertook the office for the sake of gain; and accompanied by only a few priests, and often without a single taper, it was borne to the very nearest church, and lowered into the grave that was not already too full to receive it. Among the middling classes, and especially among the poor, the misery was still greater. Poverty or negligence induced most of these to remain in their dwellings, or in the immediate neighbourhood; and thus they fell by thousands; and many ended their lives in the streets by day and by night. The stench of putrefying corpses was often the first indication to their neighbours that more deaths had occurred. The survivors, to preserve themselves from infection, generally had the bodies taken out of the houses and laid before the doors; where the early morning found them in heaps, exposed to the affrighted gaze of the passing stranger. It was no longer possible to have a bier for every corpse—three or four were generally laid together—husband and wife, father and mother, with two or three children, were frequently borne to the grave on the same bier; and it often happened that two priests would accompany a coffin, bearing the cross before it, and be joined on the way by several other funerals; so that instead of one, there were five or six bodies for interment."

Thus far Boccacio. On the conduct of the priests, another contemporary observes: "In large and small towns they had withdrawn themselves through fear, leaving the performance of ecclesiastical duties to the few who were found courageous and faithful enough to undertake them." But we ought not on that account to throw more blame on them than on others; for we find proofs of the same timidity and heartlessness in every class. During the prevalence of the Black Plague, the charitable orders conducted themselves admirably, and did as much good as can be done by individual bodies in times of great misery and destruction, when compassion, courage, and the nobler feelings are found but in the few, while cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser passions in their train, assert the supremacy. In place of virtue which had been driven from the earth, wickedness everywhere reared her rebellious standard, and succeeding generations were consigned to the dominion of her baleful tyranny.


If we now turn to the medical talent which encountered the "Great Mortality," the Middle Ages must stand excused, since even the moderns are of opinion that the art of medicine is not able to cope with the Oriental plague, and can afford deliverance from it only under particularly favourable circumstances. We must bear in mind, also, that human science and art appear particularly weak in great pestilences, because they have to contend with the powers of nature, of which they have no knowledge; and which, if they had been, or could be, comprehended in their collective effects, would remain uncontrollable by them, principally on account of the disordered condition of human society. Moreover, every new plague has its peculiarities, which are the less easily discovered on first view because, during its ravages, fear and consternation humble the proud spirit.

The physicians of the fourteenth century, during the Black Death, did what human intellect could do in the actual condition of the healing art; and their knowledge of the disease was by no means despicable. They, like the rest of mankind, have indulged in prejudices, and defended them, perhaps, with too much obstinacy: some of these, however, were founded on the mode of thinking of the age, and passed current in those days as established truths; others continue to exist to the present hour.

Their successors in the nineteenth century ought not therefore to vaunt too highly the pre-eminence of their knowledge, for they too will be subjected to the severe judgment of posterity—they too will, with reason, be accused of human weakness and want of foresight.

The medical faculty of Paris, the most celebrated of the fourteenth century, were commissioned to deliver their opinion on the causes of the Black Plague, and to furnish some appropriate regulations with regard to living during its prevalence. This document is sufficiently remarkable to find a place here.

"We, the Members of the College of Physicians of Paris, have, after mature consideration and consultation on the present mortality, collected the advice of our old masters in the art, and intend to make known the causes of this pestilence more clearly than could be done according to the rules and principles of astrology and natural science; we, therefore, declare as follows:—

"It is known that in India and the vicinity of the Great Sea, the constellations which combated the rays of the sun, and the warmth of the heavenly fire, exerted their power especially against that sea, and struggled violently with its waters. (Hence vapours often originate which envelop the sun, and convert his light into darkness.) These vapours alternately rose and fell for twenty-eight days; but, at last, sun and fire acted so powerfully upon the sea that they attracted a great portion of it to themselves, and the waters of the ocean arose in the form of vapour; thereby the waters were in some parts so corrupted that the fish which they contained died. These corrupted waters, however, the heat of the sun could not consume, neither could other wholesome water, hail or snow and dew, originate therefrom. On the contrary, this vapour spread itself through the air in many places on the earth, and enveloped them in fog.

"Such was the case all over Arabia, in a part of India, in Crete, in the plains and valleys of Macedonia, in Hungary, Albania, and Sicily. Should the same thing occur in Sardinia, not a man will be left alive, and the like will continue so long as the sun remains in the sign of Leo, on all the islands and adjoining countries to which this corrupted sea-wind extends, or has already extended, from India. If the inhabitants of those parts do not employ and adhere to the following or similar means and precepts, we announce to them inevitable death, except the grace of Christ preserve their lives.

"We are of opinion that the constellations, with the aid of nature, strive by virtue of their Divine might, to protect and heal the human race; and to this end, in union with the rays of the sun, acting through the power of fire, endeavour to break through the mist. Accordingly, within the next ten days, and until the 17th of the ensuing month of July, this mist will be converted into a stinking deleterious rain, whereby the air will be much purified. Now, as soon as this rain shall announce itself by thunder or hail, every one of you should protect himself from the air; and, as well before as after the rain, kindle a large fire of vine-wood, green laurel, or other green wood; wormwood and camomile should also be burnt in great quantity in the market-places, in other densely inhabited localities, and in the houses. Until the earth is again completely dry, and for three days afterwards, no one ought to go abroad in the fields. During this time the diet should be simple, and people should be cautious in avoiding exposure in the cool of the evening, at night, and in the morning. Poultry and water-fowl, young pork, old beef, and fat meat in general, should not be eaten; but, on the contrary, meat of a proper age, of a warm and dry, but on no account of a heating and exciting nature. Broth should be taken, seasoned with ground pepper, ginger, and cloves, especially by those who are accustomed to live temperately, and are yet choice in their diet. Sleep in the day- time is detrimental; it should be taken at night until sunrise, or somewhat longer. At breakfast one should drink little; supper should be taken an hour before sunset, when more may be drunk than in the morning. Clear light wine, mixed with a fifth or six part of water, should be used as a beverage. Dried or fresh fruits, with wine, are not injurious, but highly so without it. Beet-root and other vegetables, whether eaten pickled or fresh, are hurtful; on the contrary, spicy pot-herbs, as sage or rosemary, are wholesome. Cold, moist, watery food in is general prejudicial. Going out at night, and even until three o'clock in the morning, is dangerous, on account of dew. Only small river fish should be used. Too much exercise is hurtful. The body should be kept warmer than usual, and thus protected from moisture and cold. Rain-water must not be employed in cooking, and every one should guard against exposure to wet weather. If it rain, a little fine treacle should be taken after dinner. Fat people should not sit in the sunshine. Good clear wine should be selected and drunk often, but in small quantities, by day. Olive oil as an article of food is fatal. Equally injurious are fasting and excessive abstemiousness, anxiety of mind, anger, and immoderate drinking. Young people, in autumn especially, must abstain from all these things if they do not wish to run a risk of dying of dysentery. In order to keep the body properly open, an enema, or some other simple means, should be employed when necessary. Bathing is injurious. Men must preserve chastity as they value their lives. Every one should impress this on his recollection, but especially those who reside on the coast, or upon an island into which the noxious wind has penetrated."

On what occasion these strange precepts were delivered can no longer be ascertained, even if it were an object to know it. It must be acknowledged, however, that they do not redound to the credit either of the faculty of Paris, or of the fourteenth century in general. This famous faculty found themselves under the painful necessity of being wise at command, and of firing a point-blank shot of erudition at an enemy who enveloped himself in a dark mist, of the nature of which they had no conception. In concealing their ignorance by authoritative assertions, they suffered themselves, therefore, to be misled; and while endeavouring to appear to the world with eclat, only betrayed to the intelligent their lamentable weakness. Now some might suppose that, in the condition of the sciences of the fourteenth century, no intelligent physicians existed; but this is altogether at variance with the laws of human advancement, and is contradicted by history. The real knowledge of an age is shown only in the archives of its literature. Here alone the genius of truth speaks audibly—here alone men of talent deposit the results of their experience and reflection without vanity or a selfish object. There is no ground for believing that in the fourteenth century men of this kind were publicly questioned regarding their views; and it is, therefore, the more necessary that impartial history should take up their cause, and do justice to their merits.

The first notice on this subject is due to a very celebrated teacher in Perugia, Gentilis of Foligno, who, on the 18th of June, 1348, fell a sacrifice to the plague, in the faithful discharge of his duty. Attached to Arabian doctrines, and to the universally respected Galen, he, in common with all his contemporaries, believed in a putrid corruption of the blood in the lungs and in the heart, which was occasioned by the pestilential atmosphere, and was forthwith communicated to the whole body. He thought, therefore, that everything depended upon a sufficient purification of the air, by means of large blazing fires of odoriferous wood, in the vicinity of the healthy as well as of the sick, and also upon an appropriate manner of living, so that the putridity might not overpower the diseased. In conformity with notions derived from the ancients, he depended upon bleeding and purging, at the commencement of the attack, for the purpose of purification; ordered the healthy to wash themselves frequently with vinegar or wine, to sprinkle their dwellings with vinegar, and to smell often to camphor, or other volatile substances. Hereupon he gave, after the Arabian fashion, detailed rules, with an abundance of different medicines, of whose healing powers wonderful things were believed. He had little stress upon super-lunar influences, so far as respected the malady itself; on which account, he did not enter into the great controversies of the astrologers, but always kept in view, as an object of medical attention, the corruption of the blood in the lungs and heart. He believed in a progressive infection from country to country, according to the notions of the present day; and the contagious power of the disease, even in the vicinity of those affected by plague, was, in his opinion, beyond all doubt. On this point intelligent contemporaries were all agreed; and, in truth, it required no great genius to be convinced of so palpable a fact. Besides, correct notions of contagion have descended from remote antiquity, and were maintained unchanged in the fourteenth century. So far back as the age of Plato a knowledge of the contagious power of malignant inflammations of the eye, of which also no physician of the Middle Ages entertained a doubt, was general among the people; yet in modern times surgeons have filled volumes with partial controversies on this subject. The whole language of antiquity has adapted itself to the notions of the people respecting the contagion of pestilential diseases; and their terms were, beyond comparison, more expressive than those in use among the moderns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


The Dancing Mania of the year 1374 was, in fact, no new disease, but a phenomenon well known in the Middle Ages, of which many wondrous stories were traditionally current among the people. In the year 1237 upwards of a hundred children were said to have been suddenly seized with this disease at Erfurt, and to have proceeded dancing and jumping along the road to Arnstadt. When they arrived at that place they fell exhausted to the ground, and, according to an account of an old chronicle, many of them, after they were taken home by their parents, died, and the rest remained affected, to the end of their lives, with a permanent tremor. Another occurrence was related to have taken place on the Moselle Bridge at Utrecht, on the 17th day of June, A.D. 1278, when two hundred fanatics began to dance, and would not desist until a priest passed, who was carrying the Host to a person that was sick, upon which, as if in punishment of their crime, the bridge gave way, and they were all drowned. A similar event also occurred so early as the year 1027, near the convent church of Kolbig, not far from Bernburg. According to an oft- repeated tradition, eighteen peasants, some of whose names are still preserved, are said to have disturbed divine service on Christmas Eve by dancing and brawling in the churchyard, whereupon the priest, Ruprecht, inflicted a curse upon them, that they should dance and scream for a whole year without ceasing. This curse is stated to have been completely fulfilled, so that the unfortunate sufferers at length sank knee-deep into the earth, and remained the whole time without nourishment, until they were finally released by the intercession of two pious bishops. It is said that, upon this, they fell into a deep sleep, which lasted three days, and that four of them died; the rest continuing to suffer all their lives from a trembling of their limbs. It is not worth while to separate what may have been true, and what the addition of crafty priests, in this strangely distorted story. It is sufficient that it was believed, and related with astonishment and horror, throughout the Middle Ages; so that when there was any exciting cause for this delirious raving and wild rage for dancing, it failed not to produce its effects upon men whose thoughts were given up to a belief in wonders and apparitions.

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


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

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

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

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


About this time the St. Vitus's dance began to decline, so that milder forms of it appeared more frequently, while the severer cases became more rare; and even in these, some of the important symptoms gradually disappeared. Paracelsus makes no mention of the tympanites as taking place after the attacks, although it may occasionally have occurred; and Schenck von Graffenberg, a celebrated physician of the latter half of the sixteenth century, speaks of this disease as having been frequent only in the time of his forefathers; his descriptions, however, are applicable to the whole of that century, and to the close of the fifteenth. The St. Vitus's dance attacked people of all stations, especially those who led a sedentary life, such as shoemakers and tailors; but even the most robust peasants abandoned their labours in the fields, as if they were possessed by evil spirits; and thus those affected were seen assembling indiscriminately, from time to time, at certain appointed places, and, unless prevented by the lookers-on, continuing to dance without intermission, until their very last breath was expended. Their fury and extravagance of demeanour so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against the walls and corners of buildings, or rushed headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave. Roaring and foaming as they were, the bystanders could only succeed in restraining them by placing benches and chairs in their way, so that, by the high leaps they were thus tempted to take, their strength might be exhausted. As soon as this was the case, they fell as it were lifeless to the ground, and, by very slow degrees, again recovered their strength. Many there were who, even with all this exertion, had not expended the violence of the tempest which raged within them, but awoke with newly-revived powers, and again and again mixed with the crowd of dancers, until at length the violent excitement of their disordered nerves was allayed by the great involuntary exertion of their limbs; and the mental disorder was calmed by the extreme exhaustion of the body. Thus the attacks themselves were in these cases, as in their nature they are in all nervous complaints, necessary crises of an inward morbid condition which was transferred from the sensorium to the nerves of motion, and, at an earlier period, to the abdominal plexus, where a deep-seated derangement of the system was perceptible from the secretion of flatus in the intestines.

The cure effected by these stormy attacks was in many cases so perfect, that some patients returned to the factory or the plough as if nothing had happened. Others, on the contrary, paid the penalty of their folly by so total a loss of power, that they could not regain their former health, even by the employment of the most strengthening remedies. Medical men were astonished to observe that women in an advanced state of pregnancy were capable of going through an attack of the disease without the slightest injury to their offspring, which they protected merely by a bandage passed round the waist. Cases of this kind were not infrequent so late as Schenck's time. That patients should be violently affected by music, and their paroxysms brought on and increased by it, is natural with such nervous disorders, where deeper impressions are made through the ear, which is the most intellectual of all the organs, than through any of the other senses. On this account the magistrates hired musicians for the purpose of carrying the St. Vitus's dancers so much the quicker through the attacks, and directed that athletic men should be sent among them in order to complete the exhaustion, which had been often observed to produce a good effect. At the same time there was a prohibition against wearing red garments, because, at the sight of this colour, those affected became so furious that they flew at the persons who wore it, and were so bent upon doing them an injury that they could with difficulty be restrained. They frequently tore their own clothes whilst in the paroxysm, and were guilty of other improprieties, so that the more opulent employed confidential attendants to accompany them, and to take care that they did no harm either to themselves or others. This extraordinary disease was, however, so greatly mitigated in Schenck's time, that the St. Vitus's dancers had long since ceased to stroll from town to town; and that physician, like Paracelsus, makes no mention of the tympanitic inflation of the bowels. Moreover, most of those affected were only annually visited by attacks; and the occasion of them was so manifestly referable to the prevailing notions of that period, that if the unqualified belief in the supernatural agency of saints could have been abolished, they would not have had any return of the complaint. Throughout the whole of June, prior to the festival of St. John, patients felt a disquietude and restlessness which they were unable to overcome. They were dejected, timid, and anxious; wandered about in an unsettled state, being tormented with twitching pains, which seized them suddenly in different parts, and eagerly expected the eve of St. John's day, in the confident hope that by dancing at the altars of this saint, or of St. Vitus (for in the Breisgau aid was equally sought from both), they would be freed from all their sufferings. This hope was not disappointed; and they remained, for the rest of the year, exempt from any further attack, after having thus, by dancing and raving for three hours, satisfied an irresistible demand of nature. There were at that period two chapels in the Breisgau visited by the St. Vitus's dancers; namely, the Chapel of St. Vitus at Biessen, near Breisach, and that of St. John, near Wasenweiler; and it is probable that in the south-west of Germany the disease was still in existence in the seventeenth century.

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

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

The dancing fit itself was excited here, as it probably was in other places, by music, from the effects of which the patients were thrown into a state of convulsion. Many concurrent testimonies serve to show that music generally contributed much to the continuance of the St. Vitus's dance, originated and increased its paroxysms, and was sometimes the cause of their mitigation. So early as the fourteenth century the swarms of St. John's dancers were accompanied by minstrels playing upon noisy instruments, who roused their morbid feelings; and it may readily be supposed that by the performance of lively melodies, and the stimulating effects which the shrill tones of fifes and trumpets would produce, a paroxysm that was perhaps but slight in itself, might, in many cases, be increased to the most outrageous fury, such as in later times was purposely induced in order that the force of the disease might be exhausted by the violence of its attack. Moreover, by means of intoxicating music a kind of demoniacal festival for the rude multitude was established, which had the effect of spreading this unhappy malady wider and wider. Soft harmony was, however, employed to calm the excitement of those affected, and it is mentioned as a character of the tunes played with this view to the St. Vitus's dancers, that they contained transitions from a quick to a slow measure, and passed gradually from a high to a low key. It is to be regretted that no trace of this music has reached out times, which is owing partly to the disastrous events of the seventeenth century, and partly to the circumstance that the disorder was looked upon as entirely national, and only incidentally considered worthy of notice by foreign men of learning. If the St. Vitus's dance was already on the decline at the commencement of the seventeenth century, the subsequent events were altogether adverse to its continuance. Wars carried on with animosity, and with various success, for thirty years, shook the west of Europe; and although the unspeakable calamities which they brought upon Germany, both during their continuance and in their immediate consequences, were by no means favourable to the advance of knowledge, yet, with the vehemence of a purifying fire, they gradually effected the intellectual regeneration of the Germans; superstition, in her ancient form, never again appeared, and the belief in the dominion of spirits, which prevailed in the middle ages, lost for ever its once formidable power.



It was of the utmost advantage to the St. Vitus's dancers that they made choice of a favourite patron saint; for, not to mention that people were inclined to compare them to the possessed with evil spirits described in the Bible, and thence to consider them as innocent victims to the power of Satan, the name of their great intercessor recommended them to general commiseration, and a magic boundary was thus set to every harsh feeling, which might otherwise have proved hostile to their safety. Other fanatics were not so fortunate, being often treated with the most relentless cruelty, whenever the notions of the middle ages either excused or commanded it as a religious duty. Thus, passing over the innumerable instances of the burning of witches, who were, after all, only labouring under a delusion, the Teutonic knights in Prussia not unfrequently condemned those maniacs to the stake who imagined themselves to be metamorphosed into wolves—an extraordinary species of insanity, which, having existed in Greece before our era, spread, in process of time over Europe, so that it was communicated not only to the Romaic, but also to the German and Sarmatian nations, and descended from the ancients as a legacy of affliction to posterity. In modern times Lycanthropy—such was the name given to this infatuation—has vanished from the earth, but it is nevertheless well worthy the consideration of the observer of human aberrations, and a history of it by some writer who is equally well acquainted with the middle ages as with antiquity is still a desideratum. We leave it for the present without further notice, and turn to a malady most extraordinary in all its phenomena, having a close connection with the St. Vitus's dance, and, by a comparison of facts which are altogether similar, affording us an instructive subject for contemplation. We allude to the disease called Tarantism, which made its first appearance in Apulia, and thence spread over the other provinces of Italy, where, during some centuries, it prevailed as a great epidemic. In the present times, it has vanished, or at least has lost altogether its original importance, like the St. Vitus's dance, lycanthropy, and witchcraft.


The learned Nicholas Perotti gives the earliest account of this strange disorder. Nobody had the least doubt that it was caused by the bite of the tarantula, a ground-spider common in Apulia: and the fear of this insect was so general that its bite was in all probability much oftener imagined, or the sting of some other kind of insect mistaken for it, than actually received. The word tarantula is apparently the same as terrantola, a name given by the Italians to the stellio of the old Romans, which was a kind of lizard, said to be poisonous, and invested by credulity with such extraordinary qualities, that, like the serpent of the Mosaic account of the Creation, it personified, in the imaginations of the vulgar, the notion of cunning, so that even the jurists designated a cunning fraud by the appellation of a "stellionatus." Perotti expressly assures us that this reptile was called by the Romans tarantula; and since he himself, who was one of the most distinguished authors of his time, strangely confounds spiders and lizards together, so that he considers the Apulian tarantula, which he ranks among the class of spiders, to have the same meaning as the kind of lizard called [Greek text], it is the less extraordinary that the unlearned country people of Apulia should confound the much-dreaded ground-spider with the fabulous star-lizard, and appropriate to the one the name of the other. The derivation of the word tarantula, from the city of Tarentum, or the river Thara, in Apulia, on the banks of which this insect is said to have been most frequently found, or, at least, its bite to have had the most venomous effect, seems not to be supported by authority. So much for the name of this famous spider, which, unless we are greatly mistaken, throws no light whatever upon the nature of the disease in question. Naturalists who, possessing a knowledge of the past, should not misapply their talents by employing them in establishing the dry distinction of forms, would find here much that calls for research, and their efforts would clear up many a perplexing obscurity.

Perotti states that the tarantula—that is, the spider so called—was not met with in Italy in former times, but that in his day it had become common, especially in Apulia, as well as in some other districts. He deserves, however, no great confidence as a naturalist, notwithstanding his having delivered lectures in Bologna on medicine and other sciences. He at least has neglected to prove his assertion, which is not borne out by any analogous phenomenon observed in modern times with regard to the history of the spider species. It is by no means to be admitted that the tarantula did not make its appearance in Italy before the disease ascribed to its bite became remarkable, even though tempests more violent than those unexampled storms which arose at the time of the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century had set the insect world in motion; for the spider is little if at all susceptible of those cosmical influences which at times multiply locusts and other winged insects to a wonderful extent, and compel them to migrate.

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

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

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

Nowhere, however, do we find any mention made that those affected felt an irresistible propensity to dancing, or that they were accidentally cured by it. Even Constantine of Africa, who lived 500 years after Aetius, and, as the most learned physician of the school of Salerno, would certainly not have 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.

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