How Music Saved Lives in 1755.

Yesterday, in my On This Day in History app, it said that on 14 June 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first edition of his dictionary. As it turns out the app was wrong. It was first published on Tuesday 15 April 1755. Nevertheless, it led me to spend an evening reading the dictionary – a favourite activity mentioned in an earlier post.

Old dictionaries are a delight and I read them aloud to myself, generally when nobody other than my housekeeper is in the house. My housekeeper is a sangoma (witch doctor) and she speaks to dead ancestors in dreams and through thrown bones, so I reckon she’s not judging. I once tried to read (with great relish) my Middle English Dictionary out loud to my son. He asked me to please behave like other mothers. When I asked how that was, he replied, “mature”. He’s 8.

But back to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary… I loved this definition for shabby:

Shábby. adj. [A word that has crept into conversation and low writing; but ought not to be admitted into the language.] Mean; paltry.

And here’s a word I want to use more:

Fópdoodle. n.s. [fop and doodle.] A fool; an insignificant wretch.

The story for the day, however, is about the word tarantula described thus in the dictionary:

Tarántula. n.s. [Italian; tarentule, French.] An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.

The tarantula that Johnson is referring to is not the hairy South American spider we know today. It was a wolf spider (Lycosa tarantula) from the Taranto Province of Italy. The bite of this spider was imagined to cause a disease called tarantism. The only way to survive the bite, so it was said, was to dance a frenzied tarantella*. As it turns out the wolf spider was unlikely to have been poisonous and no toxin has ever been flushed from the system by a dance (although the endorphins released in this activity might be useful in treating depression). I do completely love the idea of an imaginary cure for an imaginary disease (subluxations in chiropractic anyone?).

Reports of frenzied dancing to cure convulsions go back to Ancient Greece, where necessarily the lines between mythology and history become blurred. In writing about epidemics of the Middle Ages though, Justus Hecker said, “A convulsion infuriated the human frame […]. Entire communities of people would join hands, dance, leap, scream, and shake for hours […]. Music appeared to be the only means of combating the strange epidemic […] lively, shrill tunes, played on trumpets and fifes, excited the dancers; soft, calm harmonies, graduated from fast to slow, high to low, prove efficacious for the cure.” Reports of tarantism in 16th and 17th century Italy were frequent.

This dancing was either an imitation Bacchanalian ritual that led to a mass hysteria or perhaps the Italians really were affected by a poison. Ergot, a fungus that grows on rye, might have been the cause of the strange behaviour. Ergot poisoning can lead to nausea, hallucinations, and convulsions. In the harvest season, the farm hands would have been in contact with a great many spiders, disturbed while the rye was cut. Bites would have been common and it would have been far easier to attribute the symptoms of ergotism to a visible spider bite than to an invisible fungus.

Whatever the reason, in 1755, Samuel Johnson still believed that a fatal spider bite could be undone by a dance. And all of this leads me to Hilaire Belloc’s poem Tarantella which I studied in school. It is transcribed below for those who feel like a little poetry on a Friday morning. I tend to believe that poetry is better at saving a life than frenzy but I’ll give the dance a try tonight. Although God knows what my son will have to say about a tarantella if a few words slipping off the tongue make him uncomfortable. And for everybody else, if it’s been a long week, remember “It’s just a jump to the left…”

Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?

Do you remember an Inn?

And the tedding and the bedding

Of the straw for a bedding,

And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,

And the wine that tasted of tar?

And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers

(Under the vine of the dark veranda)?

Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,

Do you remember an Inn?

And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers

Who hadn’t got a penny,

And who weren’t paying any,

And the hammer at the doors and the din?

And the hip! hop! hap!

Of the clap

Of the hands to the swirl and the twirl

Of the girl gone chancing,



Backing and advancing,

Snapping of the clapper to the spin

Out and in-

And the ting, tong, tang of the guitar!

Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?

Do you remember an Inn?
Never more;


Never more.

Only the high peaks hoar;

And Aragon a torrent at the door.

No sound

In the walls of the halls where falls

The tread

Of the feet of the dead to the ground,

No sound:

But the boom

Of the far waterfall like doom

*For accuracy’s sake, the tarantella dance came later is not really particularly similar to the frenzied solo dances of the victims of tarantism. The root is there, however.

11 thoughts on “How Music Saved Lives in 1755.

  1. looking up words in the dictionary has always been a dangerous thing for me to do because i could never stop at just the one word. before i knew it, i would be so lost in the discovery of new words that i’d forget why i’d even opened the dictionary in the first place. sadly, i don’t seem to have this problem with the online dictionary sites. such a wonderful post. thanks for sharing such delicious new words!

    • Thank you!

      Yes, it’s not the same with digital books (thank goodness because my husband and I are both employed in the paper book trade) but some of the older dictionaries that you can ‘page through’ online are pretty cool. Try Open Library for a distraction.

  2. I love the word fopadoodle! I think I had heard it once in an English class long ago. Thank you for bringing it back into my lexicon. The spider dance is a great read also.

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