Issue 119, Summer 1991
In 1027, not far from Bernburg,
eighteen peasants were seized
by a common delusion.
Holding hands, they circled for hours
in a churchyard, haunted by visions,
spirits whose names they called in terror or welcome,
until an angry priest cast a spell on them
for disrupting his Christmas service,
and they sank in the frozen earth
up to their knees. In 1227
on a road to Darmstadt, scores of children
danced and jumped in a shared delirium.
Some saw devils, others the Savior enthroned
in the open heavens. Those who survived
remained palsied for the rest of their days.
And in 1278, two hundred fanatics raved on a bridge
that spanned the Mosel near Utrecht.
A cleric passed, carrying the host
to a devout parishioner, the bridge collapsed,
and the maniacs were swept away.
A hundred years later, in concert with
the Great Mortality, armies of dancers
roved in contortions all over Europe.
The clergy found them immune to exorcism,
gave in to their wishes and issued
decrees banning all but square-toed shoes,
the zealots having declared they hated
pointed ones. They disliked even more
the color red, suggesting
a connection between their malady
and the condition of certain infuriated
animals. Most of all, they could not endure
the sight of people weeping.
The Swiss doctor Paracelsus was the first to call
the Church’s theories of enchantment
nonsensical gossip. Human life is inseparable
from the life of the universe, he said.
Anybody’s mortal clay is an extract
of all beings previously created. Illness
can be traced, he said,
to the failure of the Archaeus, a force
residing in the stomach and whose function
is to harmonize the mystic elements (salt,
sulphur, mercury) on which vitality depends.
He advocated direct measures, proposed remedies
fitting the degree of the affliction.
A patient could make a wax doll of himself,
invest his sins and blasphemies within the manikin,
then burn it with no further ceremony.