“We tell our triumphs to the crowds, but our own hearts are the sole confidants of our sorrows” – Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
When significant numbers of otherwise mild-mannered folks collectively begin behaving strangely, and we can discern no obvious source for their shared malady, we tend to give the phenomena significant sounding names, like “mass psychogenic illness” or Pilates, shrug our shoulders and move on as if we’ve explained something. Perhaps we mutter about certain classes of people being particularly susceptible to the power of suggestion or the madness of crowds, but this is really just a dodge as most psychologists and physicians will begrudgingly admit that when it comes to mass psychogenic illness (that is, where lots of people inexplicably contract the same symptoms/behaviors with no apparent organic cause) “little certainty exists regarding its etiology” (Balaratnasingam, 2009).
Still, we like to give things cool names, and having thus attached a label, we feel we can apply that appellation with an air of authority. When medieval peasants go dancing uncontrollably around Europe for a few centuries, we call it “Dancing Mania”. The more thoughtful consider possibilities like ergot poisoning, spider bites, or a social outlet for frustration with the oppression of the Man, but generally figure that whoever is in the currently accepted underclass is prone to insanity and forget about it. It’s intellectually soothing when it happened in the Dark Ages. A general decline in the sanity of the world was why they called it “dark” in the first place. Yet, modern examples abound, from the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962 to an outbreak of hysterical seizures of screaming and general violence in Singapore factories between 1973 and 1978.
I assume most scientifically-minded psychologists (actually, I don’t have to assume – I’m married to one – her professional diagnosis is that I’m “an idiot”) these days would scoff at the notion that insanity can be “transmitted” from one mind to another, so I can only assume the entire explanatory concept of mass psychogenic illness is what we would call the theoretical equivalent of “any port in a storm”. When the unruly and unwashed masses start misbehaving in groups, we’re all too happy to talk about the culture of poverty, reactionary social movements, or the psychological damage resulting from life consistently sucking (of course, without doing very much about it). Nobody seems to want to point out that the entire notion of mass psychogenic illness sounds a lot like “telepathy”, and because telepathy cannot exist, we’ll make up a cool acronym like “MPI” and maybe nobody will notice. Unless we can assign epidemic hysteria solely to the underprivileged or socially marginalized, we would have to worry that we would occasionally see parades of suburbanites uncontrollably performing the Tarentella.
This is why I find the 15th Century European epidemic of nuns biting nuns across Europe particularly amusing. You see, in 15th Century Europe, feminism pretty much consisted of “I didn’t kill you after the rape, therefore I must be a decent human being.” Thus, when cloistered nuns started biting other nuns in epidemic proportion in convents across the Continent, from the 15th – 19th Century the accepted explanation amounted to “Chicks who’ve sworn off dudes and dedicated themselves to the Lord, often against their will, what do you expect?” This has roughly the same explanatory power as saying it was demonic possession.
Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker (1795-1850 A.D.) was a physician and medical writer studying disease in relation to human history, who quoting Jerome Cardan, a 15th Century doctor, noted this peculiar instance when he said, “A nun in a German nunnery fell to biting all her companions. In the course of a short time all the nuns of this convent began biting each other. The news of this infatuation among the nuns soon spread and it now passed convent to convent throughout a great part of Germany principally Saxony and It afterwards visited the nunneries of Holland and at last the nuns had biting mania even as far as Rome” (Hecker, 1846, p127). German theologian Johann Jacob Zimmermann (1642-1693 A.D.), reflecting upon the nature of solitude, especially appropriate to cloistered nuns, suggested that the propagation of “fantastic affection” among the cloistered sisters of 15th Century Europe was perfectly explainable as “these are women, right?”
Among all the epidemic fancies of the sex I have found upon record, none equals that related by Cardan, to have displayed itself in the fifteenth century; which forcibly illustrates what has been remarked of the intuitive contagion, by which fantastic affection is propagated among women. A nun, in a certain German convent, was urged, by an unaccountable impulse, to bite all her companions; and her strange caprice gradually spread to others, till the whole body was infected by the same fury. Nor did the evil confine itself within these limits: the report of this strange mania travelled from one province to another, and everywhere conveyed with it the infectious folly, from cloister to cloister, through the German empire; from thence extending itself, on each side, to Holland and Italy, the Nuns, at length, worried one another from Rome to Amsterdam (Zimmermann, 1798, p102).
The 15th Century plague of nun-biting ultimately subsided. Exorcisms failed, but when the authorities decided to get “medieval”, threatening to beat the heck out of any nun who dared bite another nun, things shaped up quickly. Unsurprisingly, reports tapered off. Nobody wants to get beaten in the Dark Ages.
In a nunnery in Germany one nun was seized with a mania for biting her sisters who came into her presence. Soon her sisters began to bite each other. It was thought that the devil had taken possession of them. The matter began to be talked over in other nunneries. The idea that the devil had been let loose to plague the sisterhood in this way aroused the superstitious fears of all nuns who heard of it, exciting the imaginations of the most susceptible until they began to bite. When once the epidemic started in a nunnery nearly all of the sisters were affected by it. Thus nearly all the nunneries of Germany in a short time contained biting nuns. The priests reasoned, “If this is not the work of the demons what is it? We do not know; therefore it is the work of demons.” They tried to exorcise the evil spirits, but only spread the contagion by alarming the superstitious fears of the sisterhood. The physicians at last brought the biting mania to a sudden termination by threatening to duck or whip all nuns who should be found biting, and by telling them it was their own excited fancy which impelled them to the act (Craft, 1881, p84-85).
Humans are funny. Not funny, like “Ha-Ha”. More like, “Isn’t it funny how my severed hand keeps twitching for a few minutes”. We think the act of naming something gives us power over it. And it’s always the other guy, with all his presumed psychological and cultural baggage, that weird stuff happens to. Things really haven’t changed that much in the world of strange phenomena. We just dole out fancier names like pareidolia or apophenia and pat ourselves on the back for our modernity. Logician Bertrand Russel once remarked, “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it”. Obviously, we sometimes prefer hallucinatory explanations to the hallucination itself.
Craft, Amos Norton, -1912. Epidemic Delusions: Containing an Exposé of the Superstitions And Frauds Which Underlie Some Ancient Amd Modern Delusions, Including Especial Reference to Modern Spiritualism. Cincinnati: Walden and Stowe, 1881.
Hecker, J. F. C. 1795-1850. The Epidemics of the Middle Ages. London: [s.n.], 1846.
Balaratnasingam, Sivasankaran and Aleksandar Janca. “Mass hysteria revisited.” Current opinion in psychiatry 19(2) (2006): 171–4. Research Gate. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.
Zimmermann, Johann Georg, 1728-1795. Solitude Considered With Respect to Its Influence Upon the Mind And the Heart. The 8th ed. London: printed for C. Dilly, 1798.