Climate Change Project

Table of Contents



Historic Public Health Books

Up Previous Next Contents


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.

Up Previous Next Contents

The Law, Science & Public Health Law Site
The Best on the WWW Since 1995!
Copyright as to non-public domain materials
See DR-KATE.COM for home hurricane and disaster preparation

See WWW.EPR-ART.COM for photography of southern Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina
Professor Edward P. Richards, III, JD, MPH - Webmaster