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I Was Dancing When I Was 8-legged: Tarantulas and Dancing Plagues

Yes, that title is a T.Rex reference. And, as Marc Bolan sings, he “danced out of the womb”, and so our story begins with a term originating from that word…

The etymology of the term hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika or Latin hystericus, meaning uterus or “of the womb”, and thus the diagnosis of such an ‘affliction’ was reserved for women (although when talking gender, not all women have a uterus or vice versa). Even the word hysterectomy is still used today, with the same historical roots.

I could go on to talk about the historical use of the term hysteria, and the sexist connotations alongside it (and then there is also some mental health stigma on top), but that could be a whole other blog piece! An article on modern associations on this topic can be found here.

Image: ‘Anti-hysteria water’, produced by the pharmacy of the Carthusian Monastery, near Florence in Italy. The water was taken with a cup of coffee with a third of a cup of water and a little sugar. This created ‘an aromatic drink that calms nervous excitation.’ Monasteries often produced such simple remedies and cures for general sale. In the 1800s, hysteria was a broad diagnosis applied to women with ‘nervous’ conditions. 
Image credit:  Science Museum, London.

For the rest of this post though, I would like to touch on a couple of different social phenomena and mysteries from early periods of history, often associated with hysteria. First up, Tarantism.

First records of Tarantism are said to be from the 11th Century, but more commonly seen in Southern Italy, around the town of Taranto in ‘the heel of the boot’, from around the 16th and 17th centuries.

It was said that after the bite of a tarantula, a person would experience “confusion, melancholia, madness and became extremely sensitive to music”, and therefore music was used as a way to cure this; with hours of dance to help the wounds’ effects. It was seen as a form of possession – as soon as the music was played, the inflicted (who were predominantly women, hence the hysteria associations) would act as if they became the spider itself, crawling on their knees, dragging themselves across the floor. After the dancing, they would collapse on the floor, seemingly cured and having worked out the toxins in the bite. Atlas Obscura has a particularly interesting article on the topic of Tarantism, describing a 1728 sufferer, Anna Palazzo.

Image: ‘Antidotum Tarantula’, 16th Century
Image Credit: Wellcome Images

Tarantella, a group of Italian folk dances, also takes its origins from Tarantism. The words tarantula, Tarantism and tarantella are all ultimately said to have taken their names from the Italian town of Taranto.

And now we move from dancing cures to dancing plagues…

Dancing Mania, or the Dancing Plague, was a phenomenon that occurred during the middle ages and through the early modern period in Europe, from around the 14th to 17th centuries. Groups of people would dance erratically for days, till their feet bled, till they collapsed with exhaustion, and sometimes resulting in death.

Image: Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, a 1642 engraving by Hendrick Hondius after a 1564 drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The term dancing mania was derived from ‘choreomania’ – from the Greek choros (dance) and mania (madness), but has also been known as St John’s Dance, or St Vitus’ Dance (Saint Vitus was considered the patron saint of dance). St Vitus’ dance was later diagnosed as Sydenham’s chorea, discovered by English physician Thomas Sydenham. It was thought to cause involuntary tremors in the body, which were not the same sort of movements described in outbreaks of dancing mania, so accounts do not believe the two the same.

Music was commonly played during outbreaks of dancing mania, as, like Tarantism, it was thought to remedy the problem. 

Image: A depiction of dancing mania, with music being played, 1600s. painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One particularly famous occurrence of this dancing mania was the dancing plague of 1518, in Strasbourg, France (then in the Holy Roman Empire). 

In July 1518, a woman by the name of Frau Troffea stepped out into the streets of Strasbourg and began to dance. Frau Troffea kept up the dancing for nearly a week, with dozens of others joining in, before she collapsed with exhaustion. Resting for a short time, Frau Troffea began the frenzied dancing again.

Officials in the town set aside halls and constructed stages for the dancers to continue, believing that more dancing was the solution, dancing the ‘fever’ away. It is said that up to 400 people joined in by later the next month. Many dancers collapsed with exhaustion, some even died of strokes and heart attacks.

Some said this was caused by demonic possession, or overheated blood, and again suggesting hysteria; after all, it was predominantly women…

Image: ‘A Salem Witch Trial’, 1904
Image Credit: Frank O. Small, Wikimedia Commons 

Ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s Fire, the long-term effect of poisoning from ergot fungi, was a common issue in medieval and early modern Europe. Ergotism could cause gangrenous or convulsive symptoms, the latter of which have been likened to the effects shown in these dancing plagues, so some have even suggested that this was perhaps the cause.

However, ergotism symptoms were much more erratic, more spasm like, with blood supply causing issues with coordinated movements. It was not seen as ‘dancing’ in any way, so not the same as described during these dancing mania outbreaks.

Ergot poisoning was often caused by rye products, and in 1976 Linnda Caporael offered a related hypothesis for the 1692 Salem Witch Trials; the symptoms felt by the accusers was actually an ergot poisoning outbreak within rye, but they blamed it on the ‘witches’. This has been challenged by contemporaries. Coincidentally, while this persecution was happening in North America, Thuillier, a French physician, definitively linked the ergot fungus in rye with the St Anthony’s Fire in 1670.

Image: Part of the memorial for the victims of the 1692 witchcraft trials, Danvers, Massachusetts Still using that word hysteria…
Image Credit: Francis Helminski, Wikimedia Commons

I would like to end with a podcast recommendation – This Podcast Will Kill You features a great episode on the Dancing Plague (episode 40, in season 3). The podcast itself is excellent for anyone interested in the history and biology of different diseases and medical mysteries.

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