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Dancing with Spiders: Tarantism in Early Modern Europe

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Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 58)

Abstract

In the early modern period learned physicians not only engaged in diagnosing and treating the ailments of the suffering but also evinced strong commitment to explaining how the forces of nature operated within the sick body to produce both diseases and cures. While instruction in natural philosophy and in medicine remained distinctly divided between university faculties, in practice such a division was blurred. Early modern learned physicians commonly felt themselves fully qualified to make theoretical pronouncements about a multitude of natural phenomena which were directly or indirectly observable. Moreover, if these phenomena manifested themselves in diseased human subjects, little deterred the early modern physician from regarding them as within the legitimate bounds of his profession. In this paper I will examine discussions of one peculiar disease, tarantism, to probe the character of early modern medicine.

Keywords

Case History Eighteenth Century Seventeenth Century Musical Therapy Medical Text 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Epiphanio Ferdinando, Centum historiae seu Observationes et Casus medici (Venice: apud T. Baglionum, 1621), p. 248.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Angelo Turchino dates the first account of the disease to 1590 in a letter from A. M. Manzoli, bishop of Gravina, to the famous naturalist of Bologna, Ulisse Aldrovandi; Turchino gives a printed transcription of the manuscript letter in his book, Morso, Morbo, Morte, La Tarantola fra Cultura medica e Terapia popolare (Milano: Franco Angeli Libri, 1987), pp. 201-203. Earlier references to the poisonous tarantula appeared throughout the sixteenth century in the literature on poisons but did not elaborate on the symptoms or the musical cure.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Modern incidence of the disease is found in the 1977 study of Miriam Castiglione, “Il Tarantismo oggi: Proposte per una Verifica, ” La Critica sociologica 11 (1977): 43-69. Today, victims who believe themselves possessed by the spider’s poison congregate on the birthday of a local saint, S. Paolo di Galatina, in a chapel dedicated to him in the village of Galatina. A good overview of the recent literature on tarantism is found in Turchini, Morso, Morbo, Morte; here he discusses extensively the sociological and psychiatric explanations which scholars have offered of the contemporary phenomenon. All of this recent anthropological and sociological literature is heavily indebted to the field work of Ernesto De Martino, La Terra del Rimorso: Contributo a una Storia religiosa del Sud, 3d ed. (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1976). On the historical connections between music and possession, see Gilbert Rouget, La Musique et la Transe (Paris: Gallimard, 1980); Marius Schneider, Gli Animali simbolici e la loro Origine musicale nella Mitologia e nella Cultura antiche (Milano: Ruscani, 1986); George Rosen, “Irrationality and Madness in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Europe, ” in Madness in Society, ed. Rosen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); and Henry Sigerist, “The Story of Tarantism,” in Music and Medicine, ed. Dorothy M. Schullian and Max Schoen (New York: H. Schuman, 1948), pp. 96-115.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Two Italian physicians are well known for their interest in toxicology-Francesco Redi (1626-1698) and Felice Fontana (1730-1805). Surprisingly neither was drawn into the debate on tarantism. On toxicological experiments in the early modern period, see Peter Knoefel, Francesco Redi on Vipers (Leiden: Brill, 1988), and A. H. Maehle, Johan Jakob Wepfer (1620-1695) als Toxikologe (Aarau: Verlag Sauerlander, 1987).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ferdinando, Centum historiae, pp. 248-268.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Athanasius Kircher, Magnes sive de Arte magnetica, 3d ed. (Rome: B. Deuersin & Z. Masotti, 1654), pp. 587–603.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    This is according to Kircher’s disciple, Gaspar Schott, who practically reproduced Kircher’s account of tarantism verbatim in his own Magiae Universalis naturae et artis, Pars II: Acoustica (Würzburg: sumptibus Haereden Joannis Godefridi Schoenwetter, 1657), pp. 236-250. Although Schott had lived in Sicily for over a decade and had traveled frequently in southern Naples and Calabria, he did not not make good on his boast to add to Kircher’s data. He merely repeated Kircher’s cases.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Giorgio Baglivi, The Practice of Physick (London: Printed for Andr. Bell, Ral. Smith, Dan. Midwinter, Tho. Leigh, Will. Hawes, Will Davis, Geo. Stalon, Bern. Lintott, Ja. Round, & Jrff. Wale, 1704), pp. 345–409. On Baglivi’s interest in tarantism, see Glauco de Bertolis and Carlo Agostoni, “Il Tarantolismo nell’Opera di Giorgio Baglivi, ” Minerva medica 58 (1967): 2620-2633.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Sangenito’s letter is published in Antoine Bulifon, Lettere memorabili, istoriche, pouliche ed erudite, 4 vols. (Naples: A. Bulifon, 1698), 2: 107-113.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    In Sangenito’s words, the afflicted were “gente rozza ed inculta” such as harvesters and shepherds and “simili altri uomini camparecci.” In Bulifon, Lettere, 2: 107.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ludovico Valletta, De Phalangio apulo (Naples: ex typographia de Bonis, 1706), p. 164.Google Scholar
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    Baglivi, Practice of Physick, pp. 352-355.Google Scholar
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    Wilhelm Homberg, “Observations sur les Araignées”, in Suites des Mémoires de Mathématique et de Physique, tiréz des Registres de l’Académie royale des Sciences. De l’Année MDCCVII, 4 vols. (Amsterdam: Pierre de Coup, 1746), 2: 438–454. Homberg (1652-1715) received his M.D. from Wittemberg after extensive travels in Europe, practiced medicine for a time in Rome, received admission to the Académie des Sciences in 1691, and was named first physician to the Duc d’Orléans in 1704.Google Scholar
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    Cornelis Stalpart van der Wiel, Observationum rariorum medic, anatomic, chirurgicarum, Centuriae (Leyden: Petrum van der Aa, 1687), pp. 424-448.Google Scholar
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    Hermann Grube, De Ictu tarantulae & Vi musices in ejus Curatione, Conjecturae physico-medicae (Francfurt: ex bibliopolio Hafniensi Danielis Paulli, 1679), and Wolferd Senguerd, Tractatus physicus de Tarantula (Leyden: apud Gaasbeeckios, 1668).Google Scholar
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    Andreas Flachs, Aranea, Imprimis vero de Tarantulis (Wittemberg: typ. J. Borckardi, 1660).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    The proceedings of the Bureau d’Adresse were published as Recueil genéral des Questions traitées es Conferences du Bureau d’Adresse, sur toute Sortes de Matière, par les plus beaux Esprits de ce Temps (Paris: chez Jacques le Gras, 1665). For the account of the discussion on tarantism held on 19 May 1642, see pp. 169-172.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Martin Lister’s account is found in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 6 (1671): 3002-3003; Cornelio’s in 7 (1672): 4066-4067; and Cirillo’s in 60 (1770): 233-238.Google Scholar
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    See Miscellanea curiosa sive Ephemeridum medico-physicarum germanicarum Academiae naturae curiosorum (1678): 281-282.Google Scholar
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  25. 25.
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  27. 27.
    On the broader issue of verifying experimental results in early modern science, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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  29. 29.
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  31. 31.
    Robert Boyle, “An Essay on the Great Effects of Even Languid and Unheeded Motion,” (1685) in The Works of the Hon. Robert Boyle, ed. Thomas Birch, 5 vols. (London: printed for A. Millar, 1741), 2: 26-0-261.Google Scholar
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    John Ray, Observations Topographical, Moral and Physiological Made in a Journey through the Low-Countries, Germany, Italy and France (London: printed for John Martin, 1673), p. 410.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg ed. A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, 14 vols. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965-1986), 5: 300.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Bulifon, Lettere, 2: 107.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
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  37. 37.
    Richard Mead, The Medical Works of Richard Mead (New York: AMS Press, 1978), pp. 48–56, in “A Mechanical Account of Poisons, in Several Essays, ” 1st ed. (1702).Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Bulifon, Lettere, 2: 107.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Geoffroy, “Diverses Observations, ” p. 23: “Voilà ce qui est attesté par des personnes dignes de foi & ce qui fut confirmé a l’Académie, non seulement par le soin que M. Geoffroy avoit eu de s’en informer en Italie, mais encore par des Lettres que lut le P. Gouye, où un P Jésuite de Toulon mandoit qu’il avoit vu danser plusieurs jours de suite un Soldat Italien mordu d’une Tarantule.”Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Valletta, De Phalangio, letter to the reader, p. 6.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Kircher, Magnes, pp. 587-603.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Baglivi, Practice of Physick, pp. 351, 369, and 385. When Boccone made field observations of the native tarantulas on Corsica in 1682, he noted that the Corsican variety did not produce the same effects as the Apulian ones and that music did not mitigate the unusual physical symptoms. Boccone, Museo, pp. 92-109. The lion’s share of the reported cases of tarantism involved patients living in Apulia who responded to musical therapy. But one well respected Italian naturalist, Paolo Boccone (1633-1704), enlarged the medical literature by documenting cases of tarantism in Corsica. Boccone denied that Corsican tarantulas were the same species as Apulian ones, and he concurred with all other medical writers on the geographic specificity of tarantism when he noted that Corsican patients did not respond to musical therapy. He did present two fatal cases of Corsican tarantism, one afflicting a peasant bitten under the throat, and another afflicting a peasant on the left breast. Not all the Corsican cases were mortal, however, for Boccone related that a local priest, Giovanni Domenico Cotti, was bitten one night in 1675 while sleeping. Muscle spasms in all of his joints followed the pain of the bite. After eight hours, heart palpitations immobilized Cotti. Lying unconscious for four hours, he later vomited four mouthsful of black blood, and his pain and muscle spasms returned. Treated with theriac, tepid wine, scarifications, cupping glasses and oil of scorpions, he passed two full days on the borders of life; finally, from the base of his fingernails there oozed painlessly a small amount of humor. Although his skin took on a livid hue for three continuous days, he ultimately returned to full health.Google Scholar
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    On the efforts of the Apulian archbishop to have specimens collected and transported to Dresden for scientific study, see his letters published by Franco Strazzullo, “Fragmenta historica, ” in Settecento napoletano, Documenti, ed. Franco Strazzullo (Napoli: Ligouri Editore, 1982), pp. 352-356.Google Scholar
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    Van der Wiel, Observationum rariorum, quotes Kircher’s report of experiments conducted by his informants, pp. 438-439.Google Scholar
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    See Correspondence of Oldenburg 9: 45-46. Cornelio’s reply, entitled “Extract of a Letter from Tommaso Cornelio, Neapolitan Philosopher and Physician Concerning Some Observations Made of Persons Pretending to be Stung by Tarantulas: English’d out of the Italian, ” appeared in the Philosophical Transactions 7 (1672): 4066-4067.Google Scholar
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    Rossi’s correspondence regarding the transport of the tarantulas is found in Settecento napoktano, Documenti, pp. 352-356. David Gentilcuore documents further efforts of seventeenth-century ecclesiastics to speak authoritatively about tarantism in his From Bishop to Witch: The System of the Sacred in Early Modern Terra d’Otranto (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 149-161.Google Scholar
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    Tommaso Campanella, Del Senso delle Cose e della Magia, ed. and trans. A. Bruers (Bari: G Laterza & Figli, 1925), pp. 260–273. The first edition of the book appeared in 1620.Google Scholar
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    Daniel Sennert, “Medicinae praticae” in Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Venice: apud Franciscum Baba, 1641), 2: 154. While concluding that the way is which music effected the cure was “obscurissimum, ” Sennert used the evidence of the disease presented by Ferdinando to insist that music attacked the poison by an “occult means.” While offering the conclusion that music contained in it some special force, something divine, he considered tarantism one of the hidden wisdoms of the divine treasury which no man will easily unearth.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Lazare Meysonnier, Pentagonum philosphicum-medicum (Lyon: sumptibus Jacobi & Petri Prost, 1639), pp. 80–81.Google Scholar
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    Meysonnier, Pentagonum, pp. 80-81. See also his Nova et arcana Doctrina febrium (Lyon: sumptibus Petri Prost, 1641), p. 89, where he cites the universally accepted belief that music “can sweeten the ardors of fevers.”Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    For twentieth-entury evaluations of Kircher’s contributions to medicine, see Harry Torrey, “Athanasius Kircher and the Progress of Medicine, ” Osiris 5 (1938): 246-275, and John Fletcher, “Medical Men and Medicine in the Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher, ” Janus 58 (1969): 259-277. Less reliable is Ralph Major, “Athanasius Kircher, ” Annals of Medical History 1 (1939): 105-120.Google Scholar
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    Marco Aurelio Severino, Vipern pythia (Padua: typis Pauli Frambotto, 1650), p. 336.Google Scholar
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    Samuel Haffenreffer, Nosodochium, de Cutis affectibus (Ulm: typis & expensis B. Kuhnen, 1660), p. 502.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ibid., pp. 457-520.Google Scholar
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    One finds further explanations of tarantism in Cornelis Stalpart van der Wiel, Robert Boyle, Richard Meade, and Herman Grube.Google Scholar
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    Nicolai Caputi’s “De tarantulae Anatome et Morsu” remained unpublished until 1741, when it issued forth from a press in the remote Lecce: Typis Dominici Viverito. The elegant manuscript version remains in the Oxford University Library.Google Scholar
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    For Cornelio’s account, see Philosophical Transactions 7 (1672): 4067.Google Scholar
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    For instance, the author of the article “tarantisme” in the remarkably skeptical work of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers, 17 vols. (Paris: Briasson, 1751-1765), 15: 905-908, reviewed the evidence set forth by Geoffroy, Mead, Grube and Baglivi. Though suspicious that the bite might be imagined, he did not hesitate to assert that music truly produced efficacious cures; the author of the article “musique” was even more adamant that music cured the poisonous disease. On the largely unsuccessful attempts of medical skeptics to shake belief in the musical cure in late eighteenth-century Italy, see Vincenzo Ferrone, I Profeti dell’Illuminismo, Le Metamorfosi delta Ragione nel tardo Settecento italiano (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1989), pp. 26-28.Google Scholar

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