Review: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Title: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania

Author: Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Translated by Benjamin Guy Babington

Genre: Non-Fiction. History, Medicine

First Published in 1832

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Published by Cassell & Co.

Rating 5/5 stars

Ever since I’ve heard about the Black Death and the Dancing Mania — in history class or in the Horrible Histories TV series — I wanted to understand better how they appeared, why, which were the symptoms of these odd diseases and how they died out.

The book I’m going to talk about today comprises of two studiesThe Black Death and The Dancing Mania — written by the German Professor of Medicine Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, also is considered the father of historical pathology. In these two works published in 1832, the  physician analyzes the main characteristics of the two pandemics, the causes which led the way to their spreading, the diseases viewed from the religious perspective, their various forms, the cures or procedures used by famous doctors of the Middle Ages and the way in which these diseases affected the human mind.

Even though Prof. Hecker doesn’t say anything about rats or fleas — which carried the plague from Asia to Europe and Africa — he gives an account of how the plague manifested itself in different countries of the world. Documents show that some people died from respiratory problems while others had blisters and buboes on their skin – located especially in the axilla and in the groin area – or other victims bled through the nose or other anatomical orifices. Through incisions and the opening of the buboes, some patients recovered, but these procedures took place towards the period when the epidemic began to decrease.

From a psychological and religious point of view, people saw the Black Death as a punishment sent from God, in order to make them pay for their sins. Medieval people, especially those from the lower ranks of the feudal system, were strong believers in supernatural phenomena because they were illiterate and poor, living in filth and ignorance. They were rude and their minds were subdued by the Church, which was very powerful. Meanwhile, the kings and noblemen lived in luxury and debauchery without caring too much for their subjects.

Due to the circumstances mentioned above, it is impossible to know the exact number of plague victims, but in the main European cities somewhere around ~10.000 and 100.000 people died. Because of this huge number of deaths, the deceased were randomly buried in large pits or in layers or even thrown into the river – such was the case in Avignon. Hecker writes that some plague victims were buried alive because of the general hysteria regarding the pandemic. Eventually, the pestilence died out and most of the towns and cities were depopulated or some were even abandoned because people had fled after the disease broke out, leaving behind sick children, parents, relatives and friends.

The Dancing Mania appeared in Western Europe and it probably had its roots in the human psyche. It might have been a negative mental response to the Black Death. During convulsions, the victims moved uncontrollably as in a dance, had hallucinations regarding religion, shouted and eventually fell with exhaustion or even dropped dead. People used to gather in public places to see the gruesome scenes and some of the spectators caught the mysterious dancing virus; therefore they joined the group affected by the disease. Priests began to perform exorcisms on the people possessed by the strange illness – known also as St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’s dance – and that proved to be effective. The physician believes that the Dancing Mania might be an ‘ancestor’ of epilepsy, chorea and of hysteria. A particular branch of this unusual mania manifested itself in Italy — spreading from Apulia to the entire country — and it was called Tarantism, the cause of the illness being the bite of a tarantula.

In the last chapter, Professor Hecker reveals other lesser known mental disorders, convulsions and hysterical fits which alarmed people from certain communities during the seventeenth and nineteenth century. The examples the author gives show that women were most affected because: “Now every species of enthusiasm, every strong affection, very 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 cord” (Page 127). It sounds a bit like hysteria, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m not a medical student to tell if Hecker was right or wrong about those mysterious diseases, but we mustn’t forget that the affected women usually belonged to the lower class. Who knows how hard and how many hours a day they were working and in what terrible conditions they lived?  In this chapter you will also find three awkward manias which resemble St. John’s Dance, fanatical sects, such as the Convulsionnaires in France and the Jumpers in Britain, religious ecstasy and the terrifying treatments of the convulsive people.

I will end this review here, hoping that it was an interesting read for you and I invite you to look through these two fascinating works of Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, if these subjects interest you

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