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.
The bite of venomous spiders, or rather the unreasonable fear of its consequences, excited at such a juncture, though it could not have done so at an earlier period, a violent nervous disorder, which, like St. Vitus's dance in Germany, spread by sympathy, increasing in severity as it took a wider range, and still further extending its ravages from its long continuance. Thus, from the middle of the fourteenth century, the furies of THE DANCE brandished their scourge over afflicted mortals; and music, for which the inhabitants of Italy, now probably for the first time, manifested susceptibility and talent, became capable of exciting ecstatic attacks in those affected, and then furnished the magical means of exorcising their melancholy.
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