At the close of the fifteenth century we find that tarantism had spread beyond the boundaries of Apulia, and that the fear of being bitten by venomous spiders had increased. Nothing short of death itself was expected from the wound which these insects inflicted, and if those who were bitten escaped with their lives, they were said to be seen pining away in a desponding state of lassitude. Many became weak-sighted or hard of hearing, some lost the power of speech, and all were insensible to ordinary causes of excitement. Nothing but the flute or the cithern afforded them relief. At the sound of these instruments they awoke as it were by enchantment, opened their eyes, and moving slowly at first, according to the measure of the music, were, as the time quickened, gradually hurried on to the most passionate dance. It was generally observable that country people, who were rude, and ignorant of music, evinced on these occasions an unusual degree of grace, as if they had been well practised in elegant movements of the body; for it is a peculiarity in nervous disorders of this kind, that the organs of motion are in an altered condition, and are completely under the control of the over-strained spirits. Cities and villages alike resounded throughout the summer season with the notes of fifes, clarinets, and Turkish drums; and patients were everywhere to be met with who looked to dancing as their only remedy. Alexander ab Alexandro, who gives this account, saw a young man in a remote village who was seized with a violent attack of tarantism. He listened with eagerness and a fixed stare to the sound of a drum, and his graceful movements gradually became more and more violent, until his dancing was converted into a succession of frantic leaps, which required the utmost exertion of his whole strength. In the midst of this over- strained exertion of mind and body the music suddenly ceased, and he immediately fell powerless to the ground, where he lay senseless and motionless until its magical effect again aroused him to a renewal of his impassioned performances.
At the period of which we are treating there was a general conviction, that by music and dancing the poison of the tarantula was distributed over the whole body, and expelled through the skin, but that if there remained the slightest vestige of it in the vessels, this became a permanent germ of the disorder, so that the dancing fits might again and again be excited ad infinitum by music. This belief, which resembled the delusion of those insane persons who, being by artful management freed from the imagined causes of their sufferings, are but for a short time released from their false notions, was attended with the most injurious effects: for in consequence of it those affected necessarily became by degrees convinced of the incurable nature of their disorder. They expected relief, indeed, but not a cure, from music; and when the heat of summer awakened a recollection of the dances of the preceding year, they, like the St. Vitus's dancers of the same period before St. Vitus's day, again grew dejected and misanthropic, until, by music and dancing, they dispelled the melancholy which had become with them a kind of sensual enjoyment.
Under such favourable circumstances, it is clear that tarantism must every year have made further progress. The number of those affected by it increased beyond all belief, for whoever had either actually been, or even fancied that he had been, once bitten by a poisonous spider or scorpion, made his appearance annually wherever the merry notes of the tarantella resounded. Inquisitive females joined the throng and caught the disease, not indeed from the poison of the spider, but from the mental poison which they eagerly received through the eye; and thus the cure of the tarantati gradually became established as a regular festival of the populace, which was anticipated with impatient delight.
Without attributing more to deception and fraud than to the peculiar nature of a progressive mental malady, it may readily be conceived that the cases of this strange disorder now grew more frequent. The celebrated Matthioli, who is worthy of entire confidence, gives his account as an eye-witness. He saw the same extraordinary effects produced by music as Alexandro, for, however tortured with pain, however hopeless of relief the patients appeared, as they lay stretched on the couch of sickness, at the very first sounds of those melodies which made an impression on them--but this was the case only with the tarantellas composed expressly for the purpose--they sprang up as if inspired with new life and spirit, and, unmindful of their disorder, began to move in measured gestures, dancing for hour together without fatigue, until, covered with a kindly perspiration, they felt a salutary degree of lassitude, which relieved them for a time at least, perhaps even for a whole year, from their defection and oppressive feeling of general indisposition. Alexandro's experience of the injurious effects resulting from a sudden cessation of the music was generally confirmed by Matthioli. If the clarinets and drums ceased for a single moment, which, as the most skilful payers were tired out by the patients, could not but happen occasionally, they suffered their limbs to fall listless, again sank exhausted to the ground, and could find no solace but in a renewal of the dance. On this account care was taken to continue the music until exhaustion was produced; for it was better to pay a few extra musicians, who might relieve each other, than to permit the patient, in the midst of this curative exercise, to relapse into so deplorable a state of suffering. The attack consequent upon the bite of the tarantula, Matthioli describes as varying much in its manner. Some became morbidly exhilarated, so that they remained for a long while without sleep, laughing, dancing, and singing in a state of the greatest excitement. Others, on the contrary, were drowsy. The generality felt nausea and suffered from vomiting, and some had constant tremors. Complete mania was no uncommon occurrence, not to mention the usual dejection of spirits and other subordinate symptoms.
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