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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/13

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NEW CHAPTERS IN THE WARFARE OF SCIENCE.

black death—was depopulating whole regions, reducing cities to villages, and filling Europe with that strange mixture of devotion and dissipation which we always note during the prevalence of deadly epidemics on a large scale.

It was in this ferment of religious, moral, and social disease that there broke out in 1374, in the lower Rhine region, the greatest perhaps of all manifestations of "possession"—an epidemic of dancing, jumping, and wild raving.

The cures resorted to seemed on the whole to intensify the disease; the afflicted continued dancing for hours, until they fell in utter exhaustion. Some declared that they felt as if bathed in blood, some saw visions, some prophesied.

Into this mass of "possession" there was also clearly poured a current of scoundrelism which increased the disorder.

The immediate origin of these manifestations seems to have been the wild revels of St. John's Day. In those revels sundry old heathen ceremonies had been perpetuated, but under a nominally Christian form: wild Bacchanalian dances had thus become a semi-religious ceremonial. The religious and social atmosphere was propitious to the development of the germs of diabolic influence vitalized in these orgies, and they were scattered far and wide through large tracts of the Netherlands and Germany, and especially through the whole region of the Rhine. At Cologne we hear of five hundred afflicted at once, at Metz of eleven hundred dancers in the streets, at Strasburg of yet more painful manifestations; and from the greater cities they spread through the villages and rural districts.

The great majority of the sufferers were women, but there were many men, especially of those whose occupations were sedentary. Remedies were tried upon a great scale—exorcisms first, but especially pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Vitus: the exorcisms accomplished so little that popular faith in them grew small, and the main effect of the pilgrimages seemed to be to increase the disorder by subjecting great crowds to the diabolic contagion. Yet another curative means was seen in the great flagellant processions—vast crowds of men, women, and children who wandered through the country, screaming, praying, beating themselves with whips, imploring the divine mercy and the intervention of St. Vitus. Most fearful of all the great attempts at cure were the persecutions of the Jews. A feeling had evidently spread among the people at large that the Almighty was filled with wrath at the toleration of his enemies, and might be propitiated by their destruction: in the great cities and villages of Germany, then, the Jews were plundered, tortured, and murdered by tens of thousands. No doubt that, in all this, greed was united with fanaticism, but the argument of fanaticism was sim-