Tarantella, tarantula: one’s a lively folk dance and the other’s a fuzzy arachnid, but they are linked by a bizarre common history. Once upon a time, the lightning-fast footwork of the Italian pizzica tarantella was the symptom of a terrifying malady, supposedly caused by a spider bite. Read on to discover the dancing plague and musical cure of medieval southern Italy.
Let me paint you a picture: a lively medieval village with peasants dancing, musicians fiddling and everyone downing vast quantities of wine under the glow of the summer sun. Sounds like a party, right? In reality, it was something more sinister: tarantism, a kind of contagious boogie fever that struck southern Italian villages every year for centuries.
Here, you see the scapegoat. Since the dancing plague was first described in the 11th century, the wild, feverish dancing of the tarantata (female sufferer) was blamed on spider bites. Specifically, it was ascribed to the venomous bite of the Apulian Lycosa tarantula. Puzzlingly enough, however, the Lycosa tarantula has no more venom than a bee’s stinger.
Still, the spider’s bite was believed to be potentially lethal. The first signs of the disease were fatigue, apathy and malaise. Once the victim began to slip away into a catatonic state, there was only one thing that could save them from succumbing to the poison: music.
The sufferer would be laid down on a sheet in the floor of her home and musicians brought in to play for her. They would strike up a tune, gradually increasing in tempo. As the music picked up, the victim would begin to roll back and forth on the sheet. Finally, she would leap up and begin to dance convulsively, flinging her limbs around and leaping across the room.
This sheet music isn’t just a recording of a tune; it’s a prescription. Only the right kind of lively, fast-paced music would work to save the sufferer from the spider’s poison. The tunes musicians developed to treat sufferers of tarantism eventually became codified into the music we call the tarantella today.
In 1753, violinist Stefano Storace described performing a treatment: “I was a learning the tune… the man began to move accordingly, and got up as quick as lightning, and seem’d as if he had been awaken’d by some frightful vision, and wildly star’d about still moving every joint of his body; but as I had not as yet learn’d the whole tune, I left off playing, not thinking that it would have any effect on the man. But the instant I left off playing the man fell down and cried out very loud, and distorted his face, legs, arms and any other part of his body, scraped the earth with his hands and was in such contortions, that clearly indicated him to be in miserable agonies.”
Some sufferers would seize swords and slash their hands and feet. Others held mirrors, using them to catch bright flashes of sunlight. Some would wrap themselves in vines or carry boughs dipped in water. The dancing might continue for days, fuelled by plenty of wine, with only brief breaks to eat, bathe and sleep. Once they had finally exhausted themselves, they would collapse to sleep it off; afterwards, they awoke remembering nothing of their illness. They were spared – at least for the year. Tarantism was known to flare up again every summer; once bitten, you were never fully cured.
Nonetheless, the sufferers were grateful for the illness’s remission. St Paul is the patron of people bitten by venomous critters, and so on his feast day in June, many would make their way to St Paul’s church in Galatina to thank the saint for their return to health.
Although its heyday was in the Middle Ages, tarantism didn’t die out until well into the 20th century, when the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino carried out his classical study of the condition, outlined in his book ‘The Land of Remorse’. Like other scholars, Martino noted that the spider’s venom could not be the real cause of the affliction and proposed a compelling alternative explanation.
Martino noted that women who had been forced into loveless marriages, women in abusive relationships, and recent widows were all particularly susceptible to tarantism. In this way, although the tarantella may not have been a cure for poisoning, it provided real relief for real suffering. In the frenzy of the dance, people in crisis were allowed to cut loose – to scream, cry and dance – and release their pain with the support of their community.