Climate Change Project

Table of Contents



Historic Public Health Books

Up Previous Contents


Imitation--compassion--sympathy, these are imperfect designations for a common bond of union among human beings--for an instinct which connects individuals with the general body, which embraces with equal force reason and folly, good and evil, and diminishes the praise of virtue as well as the criminality of vice. In this impulse there are degrees, but no essential differences, from the first intellectual efforts of the infant mind, which are in a great measure based on imitation, to that morbid condition of the soul in which the sensible impression of a nervous malady fetters the mind, and finds its way through the eye directly to the diseased texture, as the electric shock is propagated by contact from body to body. To this instinct of imitation, when it exists in its highest degree, is united a loss of all power over the will, which occurs as soon as the impression on the senses has become firmly established, producing a condition like that of small animals when they are fascinated by the look of a serpent. By this mental bondage morbid sympathy is clearly and definitely distinguished from all subordinate degrees of this instinct, however closely allied the imitation of a disorder may seem to be to that of a mere folly, of an absurd fashion, of an awkward habit in speech and manner, or even of a confusion of ideas. Even these latter imitations, however, directed as they are to foolish and pernicious objects, place the self-independence of the greater portion of mankind in a very doubtful light, and account for their union into a social whole. Still more nearly allied to morbid sympathy than the imitation of enticing folly, although often with a considerable admixture of the latter, is the diffusion of violent excitements, especially those of a religious or political character, which have so powerfully agitated the nations of ancient and modern times, and which may, after an incipient compliance, pass into a total loss of power over the will, and an actual disease of the mind. Far be it from us to attempt to awaken all the various tones of this chord, whose vibrations reveal the profound secrets which lie hid in the inmost recesses of the soul. We might well want powers adequate to so vast an undertaking. Our business here is only with that morbid sympathy by the aid of which the dancing mania of the Middle Ages grew into a real epidemic. In order to make this apparent by comparison, it may not be out of place, at the close of this inquiry, to introduce a few striking examples:-

1. "At a cotton manufactory at Hodden Bridge, in Lancashire, a girl, on the fifteenth of February, 1787, put a mouse into the bosom of another girl, who had a great dread of mice. The girl was immediately thrown into a fit, and continued in it, with the most violent convulsions, for twenty-four hours. On the following day three more girls were seized in the same manner, and on the 17th six more. By this time the alarm was so great that the whole work, in which 200 or 300 were employed, was totally stopped, and an idea prevailed that a particular disease had been introduced by a bag of cotton opened in the house. On Sunday the 18th, Dr. St. Clare was sent for from Preston; before he arrived three more were seized, and during that night and the morning of the 19th, eleven more, making in all twenty-four. Of these, twenty-one were young women, two were girls of about ten years of age, and one man, who had been much fatigued with holding the girls. Three of the number lived about two miles from the place where the disorder first broke out, and three at another factory at Clitheroe, about five miles distant, which last and two more were infected entirely from report, not having seen the other patients, but, like them and the rest of the country, strongly impressed with the idea of the plague being caught from the cotton. The symptoms were anxiety, strangulation, and very strong convulsions; and these were so violent as to last without any intermission from a quarter of an hour to twenty-four hours, and to require four or five persons to prevent the patients from tearing their hair and dashing their heads against the floor or walls. Dr. St. Clare had taken with him a portable electrical machine, and by electric shocks the patients were universally relieved without exception. As soon as the patients and the country were assured that the complaint was merely nervous, easily cured, and not introduced by the cotton, no fresh person was affected. To dissipate their apprehensions still further, the best effects were obtained by causing them to take a cheerful glass and join in a dance. On Tuesday the 20th, they danced, and the next day were all at work, except two or three, who were much weakened by their fits."

The occurrence here described is remarkable on this account, that there was no important predisposing cause for convulsions in these young women, unless we consider as such their miserable and confined life in the work-rooms of a spinning manufactory. It did not arise from enthusiasm, nor is it stated that the patients had been the subject of any other nervous disorders. In another perfectly analogous case, those attacked were all suffering from nervous complaints, which roused a morbid sympathy in them at the sight of a person seized with convulsions. This, together with the supervention of hysterical fits, may aptly enough be compared to tarantism.

2. "A young woman of the lowest order, twenty-one years of age, and of a strong frame, came on the 13th of January, 1801, to visit a patient in the Charite Hospital at Berlin, where she had herself been previously under treatment for an inflammation of the chest with tetanic spasms, and immediately on entering the ward, fell down in strong convulsions. At the sight of her violent contortions six other female patients immediately became affected in the same way, and by degrees eight more were in like manner attacked with strong convulsions. All these patients were from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, and suffered without exception, one from spasms in the stomach, another from palsy, a third from lethargy, a fourth from fits with consciousness, a fifth from catalepsy, a sixth from syncope, &c. The convulsions, which alternated in various ways with tonic spasms, were accompanied by loss of sensibility, and were invariably preceded by languor with heavy sleep, which was followed by the fits in the course of a minute or two; and it is remarkable that in all these patients their former nervous disorders, not excepting paralysis, disappeared, returning, however, after the subsequent removal of their new complaint. The treatment, during the course of which two of the nurses, who were young women, suffered similar attacks, was continued for four months. It was finally successful, and consisted principally in the administration of opium, at that time the favourite remedy.

Now every species of enthusiasm, every strong affection, every violent passion, may lead to convulsions--to mental disorders--to a concussion of the nerves, from the sensorium to the very finest extremities of the spinal chord. The whole world is full of examples of this afflicting state of turmoil, which, when the mind is carried away by the force of a sensual impression that destroys its freedom, is irresistibly propagated by imitation. Those who are thus infected do not spare even their own lives, but as a hunted flock of sheep will follow their leader and rush over a precipice, so will whole hosts of enthusiasts, deluded by their infatuation, hurry on to a self-inflicted death. Such has ever been the case, from the days of the Milesian virgins to the modern associations for self-destruction. Of all enthusiastic infatuations, however, that of religion is the most fertile in disorders of the mind as well as of the body, and both spread with the greatest facility by sympathy. The history of the Church furnishes innumerable proofs of this, but we need go no further than the most recent times.

3. In a methodist chapel at Redruth, a man during divine service cried out with a loud voice, "What shall I do to be saved?" at the same time manifesting the greatest uneasiness and solicitude respecting the condition of his soul. Some other members of the congregation, following his example, cried out in the same form of words, and seemed shortly after to suffer the most excruciating bodily pain. This strange occurrence was soon publicly known, and hundreds of people who had come thither, either attracted by curiosity or a desire from other motives to see the sufferers, fell into the same state. The chapel remained open for some days and nights, and from that point the new disorder spread itself, with the rapidity of lightning, over the neighbouring towns of Camborne, Helston, Truro, Penryn and Falmouth, as well as over the villages in the vicinity. Whilst thus advancing, it decreased in some measure at the place where it had first appeared, and it confined itself throughout to the Methodist chapels. It was only by the words which have been mentioned that it was excited, and it seized none but people of the lowest education. Those who were attacked betrayed the greatest anguish, and fell into convulsions; others cried out, like persons possessed, that the Almighty would straightway pour out His wrath upon them, that the wailings of tormented spirits rang in their ears, and that they saw hell open to receive them. The clergy, when in the course of their sermons they perceived that persons were thus seized, earnestly exhorted them to confess their sins, and zealously endeavoured to convince them that they were by nature enemies to Christ; that the anger of God had therefore fallen upon them; and that if death should surprise them in the midst of their sins the eternal torments of hell would be their portion. The over-excited congregation upon this repeated their words, which naturally must have increased the fury of their convulsive attacks. When the discourse had produced its full effect the preacher changed his subject; reminded those who were suffering of the power of the Saviour, as well as of the grace of God, and represented to them in glowing colours the joys of heaven. Upon this a remarkable reaction sooner or later took place. Those who were in convulsions felt themselves raised from the lowest depths of misery and despair to the most exalted bliss, and triumphantly shouted out that their bonds were loosed, their sins were forgiven, and that they were translated to the wonderful freedom of the children of God. In the meantime their convulsions continued, and they remained during this condition so abstracted from every earthly thought that they stayed two and sometimes three days and nights together in the chapels, agitated all the time by spasmodic movements, and taking neither repose nor nourishment. According to a moderate computation, 4,000 people were, within a very short time, affected with this convulsive malady.

The course and symptoms of the attacks were in general as follows:- There came on at first a feeling of faintness, with rigour and a sense of weight at the pit of the stomach, soon after which the patient cried out, as if in the agonies of death or the pains of labour. The convulsions then began, first showing themselves in the muscles of the eyelids, though the eyes themselves were fixed and staring. The most frightful contortions of the countenance followed, and the convulsions now took their course downwards, so that the muscles of the neck and trunk were affected, causing a sobbing respiration, which was performed with great effort. Tremors and agitation ensued, and the patients screamed out violently, and tossed their heads about from side to side. As the complaint increased it seized the arms, and its victims beat their breasts, clasped their hands, and made all sorts of strange gestures. The observer who gives this account remarked that the lower extremities were in no instance affected. In some cases exhaustion came on in a very few minutes, but the attack usually lasted much longer, and there were even cases in which it was known to continue for sixty or seventy hours. Many of those who happened to be seated when the attack commenced bent their bodies rapidly backwards and forwards during its continuance, making a corresponding motion with their arms, like persons sawing wood. Others shouted aloud, leaped about, and threw their bodies into every possible posture, until they had exhausted their strength. Yawning took place at the commencement in all cases, but as the violence of the disorder increased the circulation and respiration became accelerated, so that the countenance assumed a swollen and puffed appearance. When exhaustion came on patients usually fainted, and remained in a stiff and motionless state until their recovery. The disorder completely resembled the St. Vitus's dance, but the fits sometimes went on to an extraordinarily violent extent, so that the author of the account once saw a woman who was seized with these convulsions resist the endeavours of four or five strong men to restrain her. Those patients who did not lose their consciousness were in general made more furious by every attempt to quiet them by force, on which account they were in general suffered to continue unmolested until nature herself brought on exhaustion. Those affected complained more or less of debility after the attacks, and cases sometimes occurred in which they passed into other disorders; thus some fell into a state of melancholy, which, however, in consequence of their religious ecstasy, was distinguished by the absence of fear and despair; and in one patient inflammation of the brain is said to have taken place. No sex or age was exempt from this epidemic malady. Children five years old and octogenarians were alike affected by it, and even men of the most powerful frame were subject to its influence. Girls and young women, however, were its most frequent victims.

4. For the last hundred years a nervous affection of a perfectly similar kind has existed in the Shetland Islands, which furnishes a striking example, perhaps the only one now existing, of the very lasting propagation by sympathy of this species of disorders. The origin of the malady was very insignificant. An epileptic woman had a fit in church, and whether it was that the minds of the congregation were excited by devotion, or that, being overcome at the sight of the strong convulsions, their sympathy was called forth, certain it is that many adult women, and even children, some of whom were of the male sex, and not more than six years old, began to complain forthwith of palpitation, followed by faintness, which passed into a motionless and apparently cataleptic condition. These symptoms lasted more than an hour, and probably recurred frequently. In the course of time, however, this malady is said to have undergone a modification, such as it exhibits at the present day. Women whom it has attacked will suddenly fall down, toss their arms about, writhe their bodies into various shapes, move their heads suddenly from side to side, and with eyes fixed and staring, utter the most dismal cries. If the fit happen on any occasion of pubic diversion, they will, as soon as it has ceased, mix with their companions and continue their amusement as if nothing had happened. Paroxysms of this kind used to prevail most during the warm months of summer, and about fifty years ago there was scarcely a Sabbath in which they did not occur. Strong passions of the mind, induced by religious enthusiasm, are also exciting causes of these fits, but like all such false tokens of divine workings, they are easily encountered by producing in the patient a different frame of mind, and especially by exciting a sense of shame: thus those affected are under the control of any sensible preacher, who knows how to "administer to a mind diseased," and to expose the folly of voluntarily yielding to a sympathy so easily resisted, or of inviting such attacks by affectation. An intelligent and pious minister of Shetland informed the physician, who gives an account of this disorder as an eye-witness, that being considerably annoyed on his first introduction into the country by these paroxysms, whereby the devotions of the church were much impeded, he obviated their repetition by assuring his parishioners that no treatment was more effectual than immersion in cold water; and as his kirk was fortunately contiguous to a freshwater lake, he gave notice that attendants should be at hand during divine service to ensure the proper means of cure. The sequel need scarcely be told. The fear of being carried out of the church, and into the water, acted like a charm; not a single Naiad was made, and the worthy minister for many years had reason to boast of one of the best regulated congregations in Scotland. As the physician above alluded to was attending divine service in the kirk of Baliasta, on the Isle of Unst, a female shriek, the indication of a convulsion fit, was heard; the minister, Mr. Ingram, of Fetlar, very properly stopped his discourse until the disturber was removed; and after advising all those who thought they might be similarly affected to leave the church, he gave out in the meantime a psalm. The congregation was thus preserved from further interruption; yet the effect of sympathy was not prevented, for as the narrator of the account was leaving the church he saw several females writhing and tossing about their arms on the green grass, who durst not, for fear of a censure from the pulpit, exhibit themselves after this manner within the sacred walls of the kirk.

In the production of this disorder, which no doubt still exists, fanaticism certainly had a smaller share than the irritable state of women out of health, who only needed excitement, no matter of what kind, to throw them into prevailing nervous paroxysms. When, however, that powerful cause of nervous disorders takes the lead, we find far more remarkable symptoms developed, and it then depends on the mental condition of the people among whom they appear whether in their spread they shall take a narrow or an extended range--whether confined to some small knot of zealots they are to vanish without a trace, or whether they are to attain even historical importance.

5. The appearance of the Convulsionnaires in France, whose inhabitants, from the greater mobility of their blood, have in general been the less liable to fanaticism, is in this respect instructive and worthy of attention. In the year 1727 there died in the capital of that country the Deacon Paris, a zealous opposer of the Ultramontanists, division having arisen in the French Church on account of the bull "Unigenitus." People made frequent visits to his tomb in the cemetery of St. Medard, and four years afterwards (in September, 1731) a rumour was spread that miracles took place there. Patients were seized with convulsions and tetanic spasms, rolled upon the ground like persons possessed, were thrown into violent contortions of their heads and limbs, and suffered the greatest oppression, accompanied by quickness and irregularity of pulse. This novel occurrence excited the greatest sensation all over Paris, and an immense concourse of people resorted daily to the above-named cemetery in order to see so wonderful a spectacle, which the Ultramontanists immediately interpreted as a work of Satan, while their opponents ascribed it to a divine influence. The disorder soon increased, until it produced, in nervous women, clairvoyance (Schlafwachen), a phenomenon till then unknown; for one female especially attracted attention, who, blindfold, and, as it was believed, by means of the sense of smell, read every writing that was placed before her, and distinguished the characters of unknown persons. The very earth taken from the grave of the Deacon was soon thought to possess miraculous power. It was sent to numerous sick persons at a distance, whereby they were said to have been cured, and thus this nervous disorder spread far beyond the limits of the capital, so that at one time it was computed that there were more than eight hundred decided Convulsionnaires, who would hardly have increased so much in numbers had not Louis XV directed that the cemetery should be closed. The disorder itself assumed various forms, and augmented by its attacks the general excitement. Many persons, besides suffering from the convulsions, became the subjects of violent pain, which required the assistance of their brethren of the faith. On this account they, as well as those who afforded them aid, were called by the common title of Secourists. The modes of relief adopted were remarkably in accordance with those which were administered to the St. John's dancers and the Tarantati, and they were in general very rough; for the sufferers were beaten and goaded in various parts of the body with stones, hammers, swords, clubs, &c., of which treatment the defenders of this extraordinary sect relate the most astonishing examples in proof that severe pain is imperatively demanded by nature in this disorder as an effectual counter-irritant. The Secourists used wooden clubs in the same manner as paviors use their mallets, and it is stated that some Convulsionnaires have borne daily from six to eight thousand blows thus inflicted without danger. One Secourist administered to a young woman who was suffering under spasm of the stomach the most violent blows on that part, not to mention other similar cases which occurred everywhere in great numbers. Sometimes the patients bounded from the ground, impelled by the convulsions, like fish when out of water; and this was so frequently imitated at a later period that the women and girls, when they expected such violent contortions, not wishing to appear indecent, put on gowns make like sacks, closed at the feet. If they received any bruises by falling down they were healed with earth from the grave of the uncanonised saint. They usually, however, showed great agility in this respect, and it is scarcely necessary to remark that the female sex especially was distinguished by all kinds of leaping and almost inconceivable contortions of body. Some spun round on their feet with incredible rapidity, as is related of the dervishes; others ran their heads against walls, or curved their bodies like rope- dancers, so that their heels touched their shoulders.

All this degenerated at length into decided insanity. A certain Convulsionnaire, at Vernon, who had formerly led rather a loose course of life, employed herself in confessing the other sex; in other places women of this sect were seen imposing exercises of penance on priests, during which these were compelled to kneel before them. Others played with children's rattles, or drew about small carts, and gave to these childish acts symbolical significations. One Convulsionnaire even made believe to shave her chin, and gave religious instruction at the same time, in order to imitate Paris, the worker of miracles, who, during this operation, and whilst at table, was in the habit of preaching. Some had a board placed across their bodies, upon which a whole row of men stood; and as, in this unnatural state of mind, a kind of pleasure is derived from excruciating pain, some too were seen who caused their bosoms to be pinched with tongs, while others, with gowns closed at the feet, stood upon their heads, and remained in that position longer than would have been possible had they been in health. Pinault, the advocate, who belonged to this sect, barked like a dog some hours every day, and even this found imitation among the believers.

The insanity of the Convulsionnaires lasted without interruption until the year 1790, and during these fifty-nine years called forth more lamentable phenomena that the enlightened spirits of the eighteenth century would be willing to allow. The grossest immorality found in the secret meetings of the believers a sure sanctuary, and in their bewildering devotional exercises a convenient cloak. It was of no avail that, in the year 1762, the Grand Secours was forbidden by act of parliament; for thenceforth this work was carried on in secrecy, and with greater zeal than ever; it was in vain, too, that some physicians, and among the rest the austere, pious Hecquet, and after him Lorry, attributed the conduct of the Convulsionnaires to natural causes. Men of distinction among the upper classes, as, for instance, Montgeron the deputy, and Lambert an ecclesiastic (obt. 1813), stood forth as the defenders of this sect; and the numerous writings which were exchanged on the subject served, by the importance which they thus attached to it, to give it stability. The revolution finally shook the structure of this pernicious mysticism. It was not, however, destroyed; for even during the period of the greatest excitement the secret meetings were still kept up; prophetic books, by Convulsionnaires of various denominations, have appeared even in the most recent times, and only a few years ago (in 1828) this once celebrated sect still existed, although without the convulsions and the extraordinarily rude aid of the brethren of the faith, which, amidst the boasted pre-eminence of French intellectual advancement, remind us most forcibly of the dark ages of the St. John's dancers.

6. Similar fanatical sects exhibit among all nations of ancient and modern times the same phenomena. An overstrained bigotry is in itself, and considered in a medical point of view, a destructive irritation of the senses, which draws men away from the efficiency of mental freedom, and peculiarly favours the most injurious emotions. Sensual ebullitions, with strong convulsions of the nerves, appear sooner or later, and insanity, suicidal disgust of life, and incurable nervous disorders, are but too frequently the consequences of a perverse, and, indeed, hypocritical zeal, which has ever prevailed, as well in the assemblies of the Maenades and Corybantes of antiquity as under the semblance of religion among the Christians and Mahomedans.

There are some denominations of English Methodists which surpass, if possible, the French Convulsionnaires; and we may here mention in particular the Jumpers, among whom it is still more difficult than in the example given above to draw the line between religious ecstasy and a perfect disorder of the nerves; sympathy, however, operates perhaps more perniciously on them than on other fanatical assemblies. The sect of Jumpers was founded in the year 1760, in the county of Cornwall, by two fanatics, who were, even at that time, able to collect together a considerable party. Their general doctrine is that of the Methodists, and claims our consideration here only in so far as it enjoins them during their devotional exercises to fall into convulsions, which they are able to effect in the strangest manner imaginable. By the use of certain unmeaning words they work themselves up into a state of religious frenzy, in which they seem to have scarcely any control over their senses. They then begin to jump with strange gestures, repeating this exercise with all their might until they are exhausted, so that it not unfrequently happens that women who, like the Maenades, practise these religious exercises, are carried away from the midst of them in a state of syncope, whilst the remaining members of the congregations, for miles together, on their way home, terrify those whom they meet by the sight of such demoniacal ravings. There are never more than a few ecstatics, who, by their example, excite the rest to jump, and these are followed by the greatest part of the meeting, so that these assemblages of the Jumpers resemble for hours together the wildest orgies, rather than congregations met for Christian edification.

In the United States of North America communities of Methodists have existed for the last sixty years. The reports of credible witnesses of their assemblages for divine service in the open air (camp meetings), to which many thousands flock from great distances, surpass, indeed, all belief; for not only do they there repeat all the insane acts of the French Convulsionnaires and of the English Jumpers, but the disorder of their minds and of their nerves attains at these meetings a still greater height. Women have been seen to miscarry whilst suffering under the state of ecstasy and violent spasms into which they are thrown, and others have publicly stripped themselves and jumped into the rivers. They have swooned away by hundreds, worn out with ravings and fits; and of the Barkers, who appeared among the Convulsionnaires only here and there, in single cases of complete aberration of intellect, whole bands are seen running on all fours, and growling as if they wished to indicate, even by their outward form, the shocking degradation of their human nature. At these camp- meetings the children are witnesses of this mad infatuation, and as their weak nerves are with the greatest facility affected by sympathy, they, together with their parents, fall into violent fits, though they know nothing of their import, and many of them retain for life some severe nervous disorder which, having arisen from fright and excessive excitement, will not afterwards yield to any medical treatment.

But enough of these extravagances, which even in our now days embitter the live of so many thousands, and exhibit to the world in the nineteenth century the same terrific form of mental disturbance as the St. Vitus's dance once did to the benighted nations of the Middle Ages.

End of the Project Gutenberg eText of The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by Hecker

Up Previous Contents

The Climate Change and 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

Provide Website Feedback - https://www.lsu.edu/feedback
Privacy Statement - https://www.lsu.edu/privacy
Accessibility Statement - https://www.lsu.edu/accessibility