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SECT. 5--HYSTERIA

Different characteristics of the morbidly excited vitality having been rendered prominent by tarantism in different individuals, it could not but happen that other derangements of the nerves would assume the form of this whenever circumstances favoured such a transition. This was more especially the case with hysteria, that proteiform and mutable disorder, in which the imaginations, the superstitions, and the follies of all ages have been evidently reflected. The "Carnevaletto delle Donne" appeared most opportunely for those who were hysterical. Their disease received from it, as it had at other times from other extraordinary customs, a peculiar direction; so that, whether bitten by the tarantula or not, they felt compelled to participate in the dances of those affected, and to make their appearance at this popular festival, where they had an opportunity of triumphantly exhibiting their sufferings. Let us here pause to consider the kind of life which the women in Italy led. Lonely, and deprived by cruel custom of social intercourse, that fairest of all enjoyments, they dragged on a miserable existence. Cheerfulness and an inclination to sensual pleasures passed into compulsory idleness, and, in many, into black despondency. Their imaginations became disordered--a pallid countenance and oppressed respiration bore testimony to their profound sufferings. How could they do otherwise, sunk as they were in such extreme misery, than seize the occasion to burst forth from their prisons and alleviate their miseries by taking part in the delights of music? Nor should we here pass unnoticed a circumstance which illustrates, in a remarkable degree, the psychological nature of hysterical sufferings, namely, that many chlorotic females, by joining the dancers at the Carnevaletto, were freed from their spasms and oppression of breathing for the whole year, although the corporeal cause of their malady was not removed. After such a result, no one could call their self-deception a mere imposture, and unconditionally condemn it as such.

This numerous class of patients certainly contributed not a little to the maintenance of the evil, for their fantastic sufferings, in which dissimulation and reality could scarcely be distinguished even by themselves, much less by their physicians, were imitated in the same way as the distortions of the St. Vitus's dancers by the impostors of that period. It was certainly by these persons also that the number of subordinate symptoms was increased to an endless extent, as may be conceived from the daily observation of hysterical patients who, from a morbid desire to render themselves remarkable, deviate from the laws of moral propriety. Powerful sexual excitement had often the most decided influence over their condition. Many of them exposed themselves in the most indecent manner, tore their hair out by the roots, with howling and gnashing of their teeth; and when, as was sometimes the case, their unsatisfied passion hurried them on to a state of frenzy, they closed their existence by self destruction; it being common at that time for these unfortunate beings to precipitate themselves into the wells.

It might hence seem that, owing to the conduct of patients of this description, so much of fraud and falsehood would be mixed up with the original disorder that, having passed into another complaint, it must have been itself destroyed. This, however, did not happen in the first half of the seventeenth century; for, as a clear proof that tarantism remained substantially the same and quite unaffected by hysteria, there were in many places, and in particular at Messapia, fewer women affected than men, who, in their turn, were in no small proportion led into temptation by sexual excitement. In other places, as, for example, at Brindisi, the case was reversed, which may, as in other complaints, be in some measure attributable to local causes. Upon the whole it appears, from concurrent accounts, that women by no means enjoyed the distinction of being attacked by tarantism more frequently than men.

It is said that the cicatrix of the tarantula bite, on the yearly or half-yearly return of the fit, became discoloured, but on this point the distinct testimony of good observers is wanting to deprive the assertion of its utter improbability.

It is not out of place to remark here that, about the same time that tarantism attained its greatest height in Italy, the bite of venomous spiders was more feared in distant parts of Asia likewise than it had ever been within the memory of man. There was this difference, however--that the symptoms supervening on the occurrence of this accident were not accompanied by the Apulian nervous disorder, which, as has been shown in the foregoing pages, had its origin rather in the melancholic temperament of the inhabitants of the south of Italy than in the nature of the tarantula poison itself. This poison is therefore, doubtless, to be considered only as a remote cause of the complaint, which, but for that temperament, would be inadequate to its production. The Persians employed a very rough means of counteracting the bad consequences of a poison of this sort. They drenched the wounded person with milk, and then, by a violent rotatory motion in a suspended box, compelled him to vomit.


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