Today’s installment concludes Medieval Dancing Mania,
our selection from Epidemics of the Middle Ages by J. F. C. Hecker published in 1832. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of five thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in Medieval Dancing Mania.
Such were the words which Paracelsus addressed to his contemporaries, who were as yet incapable of appreciating doctrines of this sort; for the belief in enchantment still remained everywhere unshaken, and faith in the world of spirits still held men’s minds in so close a bondage that thousands were, according to their own conviction, given up as a prey to the devil; while, at the command of religion as well as of law, countless piles were lighted, by the flames of which human society was to be purified.
Paracelsus divides the St. Vitus’ dance into three kinds: First, that which arises from imagination (Vitista, chorea imaginativa, æstimativa), by which the original dancing plague is to be understood; secondly, that which arises from sensual desires, depending on the will (chorea lasciva); thirdly, that which arises from corporeal causes (chorea naturalis, coacta), which, according to a strange notion of his own, he explained by maintaining that in certain vessels which are susceptible of an internal pruriency, and thence produce laughter, the blood is set in commotion, in consequence of an alteration in the vital spirits, whereby involuntary fits of intoxicating joy, and a propensity to dance, are occasioned. To this notion he was, no doubt, led from having observed a milder form of St. Vitus’ dance, not uncommon in his time, which was accompanied by involuntary laughter, and which bore a resemblance to the hysterical laughter of the moderns, except that it was characterized by more pleasurable sensations, and by an extravagant propensity to dance. There was no howling, screaming, and jumping, as in the severer form; neither was the disposition to dance by any means insuperable. Patients thus affected, although they had not a complete control over their understandings, yet were sufficiently self-possessed, during the attack, to obey the directions which they received. There were even some among them who did not dance at all, but only felt an involuntary impulse to allay the internal sense of disquietude, which is the usual forerunner of an attack of this kind, by laughter, and quick walking carried to the extent of producing fatigue. This disorder, so different from the original type, evidently approximates to the modern chorea, or rather is in perfect accordance with it, even to the less essential symptom of laughter. A mitigation in the form of the dancing mania had thus clearly taken place at the commencement of the sixteenth century.
On the communication of the St. Vitus’ dance by sympathy, Paracelsus, in his peculiar language, expresses himself with great spirit, and shows a profound knowledge of the nature of sensual impressions, which find their way to the heart — the seat of joys and emotions — which overpower the opposition of reason; and while “all other qualities and natures” are subdued, incessantly impel the patient, in consequence of his original compliance, and his all-conquering imagination, to imitate what he has seen. On his treatment of the disease we cannot bestow any great praise, but must be content with the remark that it was in conformity with the notions of the age in which he lived. For the first kind, which often originated in passionate excitement, he had a mental remedy, the efficacy of which is not to be despised, if we estimate its value in connection with the prevalent opinions of those times. The patient was to make an image of himself in wax or resin, and by an effort of thought to concentrate all his blasphemies and sins in it. “Without the intervention of any other person, to set his whole mind and thoughts concerning these oaths in the image;” and when he had succeeded in this, he was to burn the image, so that not a particle of it should remain.* In all this there was no mention made of St. Vitus, or any of the other mediatory saints, which is accounted for by the circumstance, that, at this time, an open rebellion against the Romish Church had begun, and the worship of saints was by many rejected as idolatrous. For the second kind of St. Vitus’ dance, Paracelsus recommended harsh treatment and strict fasting. He directed that the patients should be deprived of their liberty, placed in solitary confinement, and made to sit in an uncomfortable place, until their misery brought them to their senses and to a feeling of penitence. He then permitted them gradually to return to their accustomed habits. Severe corporal chastisement was not omitted; but, on the other hand, angry resistance on the part of the patient was to be sedulously avoided, on the ground that it might increase his malady, or even destroy him; moreover, where it seemed proper, Paracelsus allayed the excitement of the nerves by immersion in cold water. On the treatment of the third kind we shall not here enlarge. It was to be effected by all sorts of wonderful remedies, composed of the quintessences; and it would require, to render it intelligible, a more extended exposition of peculiar principles than suits our present purpose.
[* “This proceeding was, however, no invention of his, but an imitation of a usual mode of enchantment by means of wax figures (peri cunculas). The witches made a wax image of the person who was to be bewitched; and in order to torment him, they stuck it full of pins, or melted it before the fire. The books on magic, of the Middle Ages, are full of such things; though the reader who may wish to obtain information on this subject need not go so far back. Only eighty years since, the learned and celebrated Storch, of the school of Stahl, published a treatise on witchcraft, worthy of the fourteenth century.” — Treatise on the Diseases of Children.]
About this time the St. Vitus’ 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.
This ends our series of passages on Medieval Dancing Mania by J. F. C. Hecker from his book Epidemics of the Middle Ages published in 1832. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.