Tag Archives: Footloose

Tarantism, St. Vitus’s Dance & Non-existent Hunger Pest

Back from his date rather early, Silas took my temperature with a thermometer of his design and sighed that I had Hunger Pest. This means I have a relapsing fever. My appetite has been markedly unchanged, even with the Francine Soup incident this morning and Silas’s delicious pumpkin ice cream.

The term Hunger Pest led to some cogitating on my part regarding archaic medical terms. In this day and age of online self-diagnosis, we modern maniacs throw an awful lot of medical jargon around. But not all of it is delightfully descriptive or good fodder for the hypochondriatic imagination.

Pearl Eye, for example, was what cataracts were called in the 1800s. (Cataracts being clouding of the eye lens.)

But there’s a condition that interests me greatly, especially, perhaps, because it is rumored that my great grandmother on my paternal side suffered from it.

Tarantism is defined by Websters as a dancing mania or malady of late Medieval Europe. It is also said to have occurred specifically in Southern Italy following a bite from a Wolf Spider or Tarantula. Reports differ on whether the frenzied dancing – that would often last three to four days – was due to the bite or was the cure for the bite.

Tarantism is also defined as St. Vitus’s Dance which is itself also known as Sydenham’s Chorea, a disease that is marked by an acute disturbance of the central nervous system characterized by involuntary muscular movements of the face and extremities; often, but not always, associated with rheumatic fever.

St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, so clearly a “dancing disease” would be named after him. St. Vitus  is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a collective cult of saints that originated in the 14th-century Rhineland, believed to intercede effectively against various diseases. And, interestingly enough, lightening and sleeplessness.

Lest you think I’m pulling phrases from too far back, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referenced St. Vitus’s Dance in The Greek Interpreter.

The delightful blog Neurophilosophy has an entire post written on St. Vitus’s Dance, including this description: “St. Vitus’s Dance is a disorder of the nervous system that occurs following an A β-haemolytic streptococcal infection. The condition is usually latent, with the symptoms presenting up to 6 months after the initial infection. It normally occurs between 5-15 years of age, but can also appear later in life, and affects girls about twice as much as it does boys. St. Vitus’s Dance is characterised by involuntary and uncoordinated movements of the face, hands and feet.

Familial fable has it that my paternal great grandmother was quite the rug-cutter. While visiting friends in rural Budapest, she broke out into quite an involved dance number spontaneously, as was her wont. When she was arrested (unbeknownst to Great Grandmother, dancing had been outlawed in this outpost) she claimed she was a sufferer of Tarantism. Whether she was or not, she was soon released from the jail, and lived a long and rhythmic life freely. I am fairly convinced that relatives sold her story to the movie studios, but I supposed Kevin Bacon in a field is more palatable than my paternal great grandmother shaking a tail feather in Budapest.

Postscript: It should be noted that I do not have Hunger Pest or Relapsing Fever, which is defined in Websters as “Any of several forms of an acute epidemic infectious disease marked by sudden recurring paroxysms of high fever lasting from five to seven days, articular and muscular pains, and a sudden crisis and caused by a spirochete of the genus Borrelia transmitted by the bites of lice and ticks and found in the circulating blood. Also called recurrent fever.

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