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

Review: Aucassin and Nicolette translated by Francis William Bourdillon vs. Andrew Lang

Title: Aucassin and Nicolette

Original Title: Aucassin et Nicolette

Author: Anonymous

Translated by Francis William Bourdillon / Andrew Lang

Genre: Cantafable, Humour, Satire, Parody

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011 / 2013

Published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. LTD / Delphi Classics

Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing a review about a tale I accidentally found on Amazon. Thus, I want to share with you some information and interpretations regarding this French medieval story most of you probably haven’t heard of.

Aucassin and Nicolette is an anonymous Old French chantefable (creation comprising prose and verse), probably from the 12th or 13th century; its only remaining source is a manuscript kept in the National Library of France, in Paris. The story fascinated authors such as Andrew Lang and Francis William Bourdillon, who translated the chantefable in English. I read both translations and I found them very good and similar, but I prefer Lang’s version because it’s more melodious and it sounds a little more old-fashioned than the other one. However, in this review, I will quote and use some of Bourdillon’s explanations from the preface of his edition and a few critical ideas from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages.

Bourdillon thinks that sometimes we need to leave modern complicated novels behind and turn to old and simple tales, which we may find “more moving, more tender, even more real, than all the laboured realism of these photographic days.” (Loc. 10) He compares Aucassin and Nicolette with Romeo and Juliet, Cupid and Psyche and other classic romances, but the things that make this Old French chantefable stand out are the “perpetual touches of actual life, and words that raise pictures (…)” (Loc.12). The translator speculates that the plot is not original because the particular form of this tale pre-exists in the Arabian or Moorish culture. Thus, Bourdillon suggests that the story probably comes from Spain, the place where two religions and mentalities met. To be more exact, the plot doesn’t seem to take place in Provence, where Old French literature flourished, but in Spain. The British poet argues that Carthage doesn’t refer to the Tunisian city, but to Cartagena (a port in South-East Spain), Valence is not the city situated on the Rhône River, but Valencia and the fictional name Torelore – the place where Aucassin and Nicolette shipwrecked – could be Torello.

That being said, let’s take a look at our protagonists. Aucassin is Count Garin or Warren of Beaucaire’s son, who should fight against Count Bulgarius or Bougars of Valence, his father’s enemy. However, the lad refuses to become a knight and save the besieged city because he has fallen in love with Nicolette, a christened Saracen girl, who was taken from Carthage as a slave and brought up in a culture different from her own. Unlike the other knights, Aucassin doesn’t care too much about duty or glory; he is constantly daydreaming about his sweetheart and laments when the two lovers are separated from each other by their parents.

A thing I haven’t expected to read in a 13th-century tale is the young man’s ideas about religion which are very modern for that time if you ask me. During an argument with the Viscount, Nicolette’s ‘father in God’, Aucassin says that he would rather go to hell than to heaven because in hell he would find all the great knights, courteous ladies, lovers, artists, princes and all the riches of the world. Well, you have to admit that he is certainly not your typical medieval Christian! Actually, if you look carefully at his name, Aucassin sounds pretty Moorish, unlike his sweetheart’s Christian name. Bourdillion writes that Aucassin could be related to the 11th century King of Cordova, Alcazin, whose name was turned into French.

Now let’s turn our attention to the relationship between the young man and the beautiful maiden. If Aucassin doesn’t like to fight against his father’s enemies, maybe he is better at fighting for his love interest, right? Unfortunately, he is more of a philosopher than a man of action, though you might expect more motivation in this case. Even though he goes to Nicolette’s house, fights and captures the Count of Valence just for the covenant’s sake or looks for his beloved into the forest, the young lady is the one n charge of their relationship. For example, she runs away from home in order to save herself from Count Beaucaire’s rage and determination to kill her. And, in order to return to her lover’s land, she dresses up as a troubadour. No damsel in distress has the courage and wit to do such a thing; at least I haven’t read of such women in medieval literature. It is true that Nicolette has sugary soliloquies like her lover and the narrator praises her beauty excessively, which matches perfectly the medieval female ideal – the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman with a light complexion and small, delicate hands.

The unusual twists and unspecific elements found in this story made critics see this tale as a parody of the epic, romance and saint’s life. Actually, this chantefable satirises many Old French genres, such as amor de lonh or distant love; here, the maiden is the one who searches her lover, not vice versa. Karl Uitti writes in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that Aucassin and Nicolette combines elements from various Old French genres, such as ‘chanson de geste’, ‘lyric poems’ and ‘courtly novels’. He states that the term ‘chantefable’ appeared for the first time in the last line of this tale: “No cantefable prent fin”.

Some situations, such as the pregnant king in childbed and the rival armies, who fight against each other with baked apples, eggs and cheese projectiles, are truly hilarious scenes that reminded Lang of Rabelais’ grotesque humour. In real life, people fought in wars over food, not with food. If Aucassin and Nicolette’s romance was not enough to exemplify gender role reversals, the author threw in another one: the king lays in childbed and the queen is at war with the royal army. However, if we leave behind the comic aspects of the scene, we could follow Bourdillon’s interpretation of this strange behaviour. According to his research, in many cultures, there was a custom named Couvade, in which the father mimicked labour pains to sympathise with the mother and to protect her and the newborn against evil spirits. As a matter of fact, Strabo took notes of this ritual in his writings too.

In short, everything seems to be upside down in Aucassin and Nicolette, from the protagonist’s antiheroic character, the lady’s determination to be with him, their “against the grain” relationship, to the bizarre and funny situations they encounter.

A source I used besides the preface of the book.


Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Book 2 of The Chronicles of Narnia 

Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Author: C. S. Lewis

Illustrator: Pauline Baynes

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Children’s Books

First Published in 1950

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2009

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books

Series: The Chronicles of Narnia

Rating: 5/5 stars

I’m almost sure that many of you love C. S. Lewis’ fantasy book series The Chronicles of Narnia, so I wanted to surprise you with my review for the second book: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I haven’t read the rest of the books, but you can write in the comment section why you love this series or which book is your favourite.

As you already know, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy novel which revolves around the lives of four siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie) who are sent to the countryside to escape the Blitz. While they explore the old house of Professor Digory Kirke, the children find an empty room where the only item of furniture is a wardrobe, which is actually a secret passage to the enchanted land named Narnia. It’s always winter there, but Christmas never comes. Gradually, each of the four siblings enters into this fairy-like world, where they encounter Tumnus the faun, Jadis the White Witch or the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia, Mr and Mrs Beaver, Aslan the Lion or the true King of Narnia, and other magical and mythical creatures.

The kids initially go on a mission to save Tumnus from the witch’s castle, but when some old prophecies need to be fulfilled and spells to be broken, the siblings undergo adventures they have never dreamt of. I also want to add that there are very obvious religious symbols in this fantasy novel, but I won’t get into that. If you are interested in this topic, please check out Raluca’s article posted in two parts about J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings.

Though I loved the movie and watched it a few times before actually reading the novel, I also enjoyed most of the book for the depiction of Narnia, its characters, but also for the beautiful writing and plotline. Until next time!

Review: Songs of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Songs of Kabir

Author Kabir

Genre: Poetry, Religion. Mysticism, Sufism, Spirituality

First Published in 1518

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Start Publishing LLC

Translator: Rabindranath Tagore

Introduction by Evelyn Underhill

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

For today’s second post, I’m going to review a poetry collection entitled Songs of Kabir, which is written by the Indian saint and mystic poet Kabir and it is translated into English by another famous Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

What I understood from Evelyn Underhill’s presentation of Kabir’s life and poems is that Kabir was the Muslim disciple of the Hindu ascetic Râmânanda, who wanted to reconcile the Islamic mysticism of the Persian poets Attar, Saadi, Jalaladin Rumi and Hafez with traditional Hinduism. Many aspects of Kabir’s life are unclear and contradictory, but what you need to know is that he is recognised as a saint, both by the Sufis and the Hindus, the two beliefs that strongly influence his poetic work. However, some scholars say that Kabir’s poems also have traces of Jewish and Hellenistic Christian thought, but not everyone agrees with this theory, even though there are poems which reminded me of the Biblical Song of Solomon, with its famous metaphor of the bride and the Bridegroom.

According to both Hindu and Islamic ecclesiastical authorities, “Kabir was plainly a heretic, and his frank dislikes of all institutional religion, all external observance (…) completed, so far as ecclesiastical opinion was concerned, his reputation as a dangerous man” (Loc.66-67). Perhaps Kabir was seen as a heretic because he thought that between the soul and God intermediaries like priests, rituals or temples were unnecessary substitutes for the real faith. Therefore, the religion he believed in was more accessible to the poor than to the sages who were educated in the spirit of Islam or Hinduism.

Because of this type of direct bond with God, Kabir was constantly persecuted by religious authorities. Legend has it that Brahmans sent a courtesan to tempt Kabir, but she ended up a convert like Mary Magdalene “by her sudden encounter with the initiate of a higher love”. (Loc. 78). In another episode of his life, Kabir was banished from his hometown by Emperor Sikandar Lodi, in order to maintain the peace in Benares.

Kabir’s poems are truly fascinating because they form an interesting combination between Sufism and Hinduism. In this poetry collection you will find the well-known  mystic metaphors depicting the transcendental bond between the mystic and God (the guru and the disciple, the Bridegroom and the bride, the Lord and the slave), the ecstasy or the longing for the presence of the Divine Teacher, Comrade or Fakir to whose feet the lover bows obediently.

But here the Lord is Brahma, who reveals Himself through Unstruck Music of the Universe, which can be heard only by illuminated mystics like Kabir, who detached himself from his ego, in order to let Love fill his heart. He found the Truth and realised that both material and spiritual world are as one because God is within everything and everything is within God. Therefore, Kabir’s Union with the Supreme Spirit is made through Love and not through Knowledge. As well as in Rumi’s poems, we find the recurrent theme of the ecstatic dance, but here, instead of the Whirling Dervishes, we have the Eternal Swing of the Universe which is “held by the cords of love” (Loc.161).

The poems are written in vernacular Hindi rather than in the literary tongue of the ecclesiastical class, they contain simple metaphors and symbols drawn from everyday life (e.g. the bird, the pilgrim, the weaver). As in the Persian poets’ mystic works, we find that Kabir’s name is placed towards the end of the poems, which symbolises a kind of signature of the poet in Medieval Middle-Eastern poetry, a period when copyright laws weren’t invented yet.

I found a few editing mistakes here and there, but they don’t alter the reading and comprehension of the text very much. I hope that you enjoyed my review of the Songs of Kabir. For more book reviews and other literary and non-literary topics, don’t forget to like my facebook page or subscribe to the newsletter. Until next time!

Review: The Essential Rumi by Jalaladin Rumi and Coleman Barks

Title: The Essential Rumi

Author: Jalaladdin Rumi

Genre: Poetry, Religion. Mysticism, Sufism, Spirituality

First Published in 1995

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2004

Publisher: HarperCollins

Translator: Coleman Barks

Rating: 5/5 stars

For today’s review, I’m going to write about a mystic Persian poet I came across on Amazon, whose works are still read, sung and frequently quoted. Jalaladdin Muhammad Rumi was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic born in Balkh, modern day Afghanistan. During the Mongol Invasion, he was forced to flee with his family to Konya, in central Turkey. It was a peaceful and blooming cultural city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony.

Besides his father’s and other Sufi poets’ theological and mystic writings, Rumi’s poems and other works were strongly influenced by Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish who became Rumi’s spiritual guide and through whom he achieved a deeper level of love for God. “They spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation” (Loc. 419). Rumi and Shams’ friendship stirred jealousy among the Persian teacher’s disciples and family, forcing Shams to disappear for a while from Konya.

During this time, Rumi started to write mystic poems or as Annemarie Schimmel puts it: “He turned into a poet, began to listen to music, and sang, whirling around, hour after hour” (Loc. 422). The second time Rumi and Shams met, the two men fell at each other’s feet that “no one knew who was lover and who the beloved” (Loc.424) – the relationship between the lover and the Beloved became a recurrent theme in Rumi’s poems. However, the reencounter didn’t last long, because Shams was called outside on a December night and never returned. His disappearance remains a mystery; he might have been murdered by a disciple with one of Rumi’s sons’ consent. Rumi’s desperate and useless search for Shams and his longing for his friend were materialised in a collection of odes (ghazals) and quatrains (rubaiyat) entitled Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz /The Works of Shams of Tabriz.

The mystic poet was a well-known and respected spiritual leader of his time (he took the name of Mawlana or Our Master) because he founded the Mevlevi order or the Whirling Dervishes, whose unique ceremonies are called Sama. Through music and ecstatic dance, the Sufis ascend the mystic stages, which lead to their complete union with God. One of Rumi’s most important works is the Mathnawi, a vast poetic creation comprised of six books (26.000 verses), where the master teaches the disciples Sufi morals through mystic poetry and folk tales. The most remarkable thing about this lengthy work is that Rumi didn’t write it with his own hand, but he recited it continuously during the weeks or even months of ecstatic trance and it was written down by his scribe, Husam Chelebi.

The Essential Rumi is Coleman Barks’ selective translation from Rumi’s works, because “Rumi’s creativity was a continuous fountaining from beyond forms and the mind” (Loc. 444) and the twenty-eight divisions of the book are fluid and playful, as Barks himself writes. However, each section contains a Sufi symbol or poetic motif (the wine, desire-body, the sheikh, the turn etc.) and a few explanations before the series of poems begins. These literary creations contain Sufi wisdom and quotes from the Qur’an, which are interweaved with tales and fables, whose purpose is to teach the reader how harmful bodily desires and instincts (the animal-soul or the metaphor of the donkey) are and how important is the annihilation of the ego (one’s identity/personality must be dissolved) in order to become one with God.

The poems about instincts and desires are pretty graphic and their purpose is to show the ridiculous situations and wrongdoings caused by human lust, greed, envy or pride. However, my favourite part of this volume is the variety of metaphors about the relationship between soul, body and God. If the body is a donkey, God is the King or the Caliph, the Friend or Beloved to whom the lover must ascend to unite with Him, the flame through which the Sufi is cooked like a clay pot and so on.

Rumi uses biblical figures that appear in the Qur’an: Adam, Joseph, Moses and Jesus. King Solomon is also a metaphor for God, Queen of Sheba is the soul, but she doesn’t want to come to the king’s court without her impressive throne (the body). Jesus also appears in some poems, where He rides a donkey, “how the rational intellect/ should control the animal-soul./Let your spirit be strong like Jesus” (Loc. 3464). Though the relationship between the lover and the Beloved is spiritual, that doesn’t mean it is not intense or sensual. To exemplify, I’m going to recommend a video, in which many well-known people (including Madonna, Demi Moore, Deepak Chopra and Coleman Barks) read Rumi’s poems and the experience is enhanced by amazing music with Middle-Eastern inflexions.

Overall, mystic poetry wasn’t that hard to read, because Coleman Barks translated Rumi’s works into plain and colloquial English. The verses don’t have rhymes and the editorial explanations are like that well-trained guide that doesn’t let you get lost in the Persian poet’s divine wisdom. This is a book that makes you meditate on your soul and the nourishment it needs, especially in a materialistic world like ours. Also, his poems inspire you to appreciate more your family, friends and the small things that make your life beautiful.