Home     Boris Sidis Archives Menu      Table of Contents     Next Chapter




Boris Sidis, Ph.D.

ę 1898. New York, D. Appleton and Company.




        THE phenomena of history lie open before us. Looking back to the middle ages, we find them to be times in which abnormal social suggestibility was displayed on a grand scale―times full of mobs, riots, of blind movements of vast human masses, of terrible epidemics ravaging Europe from end to end. They were ages peculiar for the seemingly strange fact that whole cities, extensive provinces, great countries were stricken by one mental disease. Men went mad in packs, in tens of thousands. An obscure individual in some remote country place went off into fits of hysterics, and soon nations were struggling in convulsions of hysterical insanity.            

        The middle ages appear to us as dark and brutal. We consider ourselves vastly superior to the mediŠval peasant, burgher, and knight, with their superstitions, religious fervor, with their recurrent mental epidemics. But might we not meet with a similar fate at the hands of our descendants? Might not a future historian look back to our own times with dismay, if not with horror? He might represent our "modern civilized" times as dark, cruel, brutal; times of the St. Bartholomew butchery and other Protestant massacres; times of the Thirty Years' War, of the Seven Years' War, of the terrors of the French Revolution, of the brutal Napoleonic wars; times of the absurd tulip craze in Holland, of great commercial manias and business bubbles, and of still greater industrial panics and crises; times of Salvation armies, Coxey mobs, of blind religious revivals, of mental epidemics and plagues of all sorts and descriptions.

        Different as mediŠval society is from our own, it is still at bottom of like nature. A close inspection of it will therefore help us to see clearer into the nature of our own social life.

        The life of the mediŠval individual was regulated down to its least details by rigid laws, orders, and commands. The guild, the order, the commune, and the church all had minute regulations, rules, and prescriptions for the slightest exigencies of life. Nothing was left to individual enterprise; even love had its rules and customs. Society was divided and subdivided into classes and groups, each having its own fixed rules, each leading its own peculiar, narrow, dwarfish life. The weight of authority was crushing, social pressure was overwhelming, the inhibition of the individual's will was complete, and the suggestible, social, subwaking self was in direct relation with the external environment.

        A brief review of the chief mental epidemics of that time will at once show us the extreme suggestibility of mediŠval society.

        The most striking phenomenon in mediŠval history is that of the Crusades, which agitated European nations for about two centuries, and cost them about seven million men. People were drawn by an irresistible longing toward the Holy Sepulchre, which fascinated their mental gaze, ,just as the butterfly is blindly drawn  toward the candle. This attraction of devout Christians by the Holy Sepulchre manifested itself in pilgrimages, which at first were rare, but gradually spread, and became a universal mania. Bishops abandoned their dioceses, princes their dominions, to visit the tomb of Christ.

        At the time of its highest tide, the flood of pilgrims was suddenly stopped by the Seljukian Turks, who conquered Palestine about 1076. As a maniac, when thwarted in his purpose, becomes raving and violent, so did Europe become when the floodgates of the pilgrim torrent were stopped, and only drops were let to trickle through. European humanity fell into a fit of acute mania which expressed itself in the savage ecstasy of the first Crusade.

        Peter the Hermit and Pope Urban II were the heroes who first broke the ice, and directed the popular current to the conquest of the Holy Land. The fiery appeals of the emaciated, dwarfish hermit Peter carried everything before them. The frenzy which had unsettled the mind of the hermit was by him communicated to his hearers, and they became enraptured, entranced with the splendid schemes he unfolded.

        Meantime Pope Urban II convoked two councils, one after another. At the second council, that of Clermont, the pope addressed a multitude of thousands of people. His speech was at first listened to in solemn silence. Gradually, however, as he proceeded, sobs broke out. "Listen to nothing," he exclaimed, "but the groans of Jerusalem! . . . And remember that the Lord has said, 'He that will not take up his cross and follow me is unworthy of me.' You are the soldiers of the cross; wear, then, on your breast or on your shoulders the blood-red sign of him who died for the salvation of your soul!" The suggestion was irresistible. Leaving the fields and towns, agricultural serfs and petty traders displayed intense eagerness to reach the Holy City. If a rational individual interfered with a word of warning, their only answer was the suggestion of the pope, "He who will not follow me is unworthy of me." The whole world of Western Christendom fell into a deep somnambulic condition. This state of social somnambulism was naturally accompanied by its usual phenomena, by illusions, hallucinations, and delusions―in other words, by religious visions and miracles. 

        Heinrich von Sybel, in speaking of the first Crusade, tells us that "we can hardly understand such a state of mind. It was much as if a large army were now to embark in balloons, in order to conquer an island between the earth and the moon, which was also expected to contain the paradise." Swarms of men of different races, with their wives and daughters, with infants taken from the cradle, and grandsires on the verge of the grave, and many sick and dying, came from every direction, all of them ready to be led to the conquest of the Holy Land. Peter the Hermit, Walter the Penniless, and Gottschalk became the heroes, the ringleaders of the mobs, which were cut to pieces before they reached Palestine. Then followed an army led by pilgrim princes, who succeeded in conquering the Holy Land, and founded there a Christian kingdom; but this kingdom was unstable, and it fell again and again into the hands of the unbelievers, and crusade after crusade was organized, each being a weaker copy of the preceding, until 1272, when the crusade epidemic was completely at an end.

        During the same period of time there were also western crusades against the Arabians in Spain and against the unfortunate Albigenses in southern France. In the crusade against the Albigenses, according to Albert von Stade, a peculiar religious mania broke out among women; thousands of them, stark naked and in deep silence, as if stricken with dumbness, ran frantically about the streets. In LŘttich many of them fell into convulsions of ecstasy.

        The abnormal suggestibility of mediŠval society was most clearly seen in the crusades of children; about 1212, between the fourth and fifth crusades, Stephen, a shepherd boy at Cloyes, in imitation of his elders, began to preach to children of a holy war. Stephen soon became the rage of the day; the shrines were abandoned to listen to his words. He even worked miracles. The appeal of Stephen to the children to save the Holy Sepulchre aroused in the young a longing to join him in the holy pilgrimage.

        The crusade epidemic rapidly spread among the little ones. Everywhere there arose children of ten years, and some even as young as eight, who claimed to be prophets sent by Stephen in the name of God. When the "prophets" had gathered sufficient numbers, they began to march through towns and villages. Like a true epidemic, this migration-mania spared neither boys nor girls; according to the statements of the chroniclers, there was a large proportion of little girls in the multitude of hypnotized children.

        The king, Philip Augustus, by the advice of the University of Paris, issued an edict commanding the children to return to their homes; but the religious suggestions were stronger than the king's command, and the children continued to assemble unimpeded. Fathers and mothers brought to bear upon the young all the influence they had to check this dangerous migration- mania, but of no avail. Persuasions, threats, punishments were as futile as the king's command. Bolts and bars could not hold the children. If shut up, they broke through doors and windows, and rushed to take their places in the processions which they saw passing by. If the children were forcibly detained, so that escape was impossible, they pined away like migratory birds kept in seclusion.

        In a village near Cologne, Nicolas, a boy of ten, began to play at crusade, preaching. Thousands of children flocked to him from all sides. As in France, all opposition was of no avail. Parents, friends, and pastors sought to restrain them by force or appeal; but the young ones pined so that, as the chroniclers say, their lives were frequently endangered, as by disease, and it was necessary to allow them to depart. Hosts of children assembled in the city of Cologne to start on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There they were divided into two armies, one under the leadership of Nicolas, the boy-prophet, the other under some unknown leader. The armies of the little crusaders, like Coxey's army of our own times, were soon reduced in numbers by mere lack of food.

        After many tribulations the army led by Nicolas, considerably reduced in size, reached Rome, where the pope, Innocent III, succeeded in diverting this stream of little pilgrims back to Germany. Ruined, degraded, and ridiculed, the poor German children reached their homes; and when asked what they in reality wanted, the children, as if aroused from a narcotic state, answered that they did not know.

        The other German army had a worse fate. After untold sufferings and enormous loss of numbers, they reached Brindisi, where they were treated with extreme cruelty. The boys were seized by the citizens and sold into slavery, and the girls were maltreated and sold into dens of infamy.

        The French little crusaders met with a similar fate. When, after a long and fatiguing journey, they at last reached Marseilles, two pious merchants voluntarily offered to provide vessels to convey the children to Palestine. Half of the vessels suffered shipwreck, and the rest were directed to the shores of Africa, where the little pilgrims were delivered into the hands of the Turks and Arabians. The two pious merchants were slave dealers.

        A contemporary chronicler1 describes the children's crusade epidemic in the following barbaric, doggerel Latin verse:

Hic vide perigrinacioncm et qualiter per
    incantacinnes sunt decepti,
Illis temporibus stupendum quid crevit.
Mundoque mirabilis truffa inolevit.
Nam sub boni specie malum sic succrevit.
Arte quiden magiclt iata tatc aevit.

                            . . . . . .     

Talis devocio ante hec non est audito.
Aures cunctis pruriunt virgnes ornantur.
Annos infra scdecim evangelizantur.
Concurrentes pucri ccrtant et seqllantur.
Et romorew viderant casso consolantur.
Ungarus Theutunicus Francus sociantur.
Boemus Lombardicus Brittoque canantur.
Flandria Vestfalia amnes federantur.
Friso cum Norwagia cuncti conglobantur
Prurit pes et oculus pucros venantur.

                           . . . . . .     

Risum lctus occopat digne lamentantur.


        No sooner did the crusade epidemic abate than another one took its place, that of the flagellants. In 1260 the flagellants appeared in Italy, and from there spread all over Europe. "An unexampled spirit of remorse," writes a chronicler, "suddenly seized on the minds of the people. The fear of Christ fell on all; noble and ignoble, old and young, and even children of five, marched on the streets with no covering but a scarf round their waists. They each had a scourge of leather thongs, which they applied to their limbs with sighs and tears with such violence that blood flowed from their wounds." 

        As the flagellant epidemic was dying away, a terrible plague arose, and this time a deadly one―that of the black death. While the black death was doing its merciless, destructive work, a frenzy of anti-Semitic mania seized on European nations; they brutally burned and slaughtered the unfortunate Jews by thousands, sparing neither sex nor age. The black death over, the dancing mania began. About the year 1370 thousands of dancers filled the streets of European cities. So virulent was this epidemic that peasants left their ploughs, mechanics their workshops, and housewives their domestic duties, to join the wild revels. Girls and boys quitted their parents, and servants their masters, to look at the dancers, and greedily imbibed the poison of mental infection.

        In Italy the dancing mania took a somewhat different form. There a belief spread that he who was bitten by a tarantula (a species of spider whose sting is no more harmful than that of the ordinary wasp) got dangerously sick, and could not be cured unless he danced to the tune of the tarantella. Nothing short of death itself was expected from the wound which those insects inflicted; and if those who were bitten escaped with their lives, they were pining away in a desponding state of lassitude. Many became weak-sighted, lost the power of speech, and were insensible to ordinary causes of excitement. At the sound of musical instruments the patients awoke from their lethargy and started a most passionate dance. Tarantism became the plague of Italy. Crowds of patients thronged the streets of the Italian cities, and danced madly to the merry tune of the tarantella. The epidemic reached such a height and became so widely spread that few persons could claim to be entirely exempt from it. Neither youth nor age was spared. Old men of ninety and children of five were alike attacked by it.

        Social suggestibility is individual hypnotization written large. The laws of hypnosis work on a great scale in society. Hypnotic suggestion is especially effective if it accords with the character of the subject. The same holds true in the case of social hynotization. Each nation has its own bent of mind, and suggestions given in that direction are fatally effective. The Jew is a fair example. Religious emotions are at the basis of his character, and he is also highly susceptible to religious suggestions. The list of Jewish Messiahs is inordinately long. It would take too much space to recount the names of all the "saviours" who appeared among the Jews from the second destruction of the temple down to our own times. A few strong cases, however, will suffice. In the year 1666, on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), a Jew, by name Sabbathai Zevi, declared himself publicly as the long-expected Messiah. The Jewish populace was full of glee at hearing such happy news, and in the ardour of its belief, in the insanity of its religions intoxication, shouted fervently, "Long live the Jewish King, our Messiah!" A maniacal ecstasy took possession of the Jewish mind. Men, women, and children fell into fits of hysterics. Business men left their occupations, workmen their trades, and devoted themselves to prayer and penitence. The synagogues resounded with sighs, cries, and sobs for days and nights together. The religious mania became so furious that all the rabbis who opposed it had to save their lives by flight. Among the Persian Jews the excitement ran so high that all the Jewish husbandmen refused to labour in the fields. Even Christians regarded Sabbathai with awe, for this event took place in the apocalyptic year. The fame of Sabbathai spread throughout the world. In Poland, in Germany, in Holland, and in England, the course of business was interrupted on the exchange by the gravest Jews breaking off to discuss this wonderful event. The Jews of Amsterdam sent inquiries to their commercial agents in the Levant, and received the brief and emphatic reply, "It is He, and no other!"

        Whenever the messages of the Messiah came, there the Jews instituted fast days, according to the cabalistic regulations of Nathan the prophet, and afterward abandoned themselves to gross intemperance. The Jewish communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg were especially conspicuous for their absurd religious extravagances. In Amsterdam the Jews marched through the streets, carrying with them rolls of the torah, singing, leaping, and dancing as if possessed. Scenes still more turbulent, licentious, and wild occurred in Hamburg, Venice, Leghorn, Avignon, and in many other cities of Italy, Germany, France, and Poland. The tide of religious mania rose so high that even such Jearned men as Isaac Aboab, Moses de Aguilar, Isaac Noar, the rich banker and writer Abraham Pereira, and the Spinozist, Dr. Benjamin Musaphia, became ardent adherents of the Messiah. Spinoza himself seemed to have followed these strange events with great interest.

        The tide of religious mania rose higher and higher. In all parts of the world prophets and prophetesses appeared, thus realizing the Jewish belief in the inspired nature of Messianic times. Men and women, boys and girls, wriggled in hysterical convulsions, screaming praises to the new Messiah; many went raving about in prophetic raptures, exclaiming: "Sabbathai Zevi is the true Messiah of the race of David; to him the crown and kingdom are given!"

        The Jews seemed to have gone mad. From all sides rich men came to Sabbathai, putting their wealth at his disposal. Many sold out their houses and all they possessed, and set out for Palestine. So great was the number of pilgrims that the price of passage was considerably raised. Traffic in the greatest commercial centres came to a complete standstill; most of the Jewish merchants and bankers liquidated their affairs. The belief in the divine mission of Sabbathai was made into a religious dogma of equal rank with that of the unity of God. Even when Sabbathai was compelled by the Sultan to accept Mohammedanism the mystico-Messianic epidemic continued to rage with unabated fury. Many stubbornly rejected the fact of his apostasy: it was his shade that had turned Mussulman.

        After Sabbathai's death a new prophet appeared, by the name of Michael Cordozo. His doctrine, in spite of its manifest absurdity, spread like wildfire. "The Son of David," he said, "will not appear until all Israel is either holy or wicked." As the latter was by far the easier process, he recommended all true Israelites to hasten the coming of the Messiah by turning Mohammedans. Great numbers with pious zeal complied with his advice. As individual man may be foolish and mischievous, but as a social brute he is absurd and dangerous.



1. Anon. Chron. Rhythmicum, in Rauch's Rerum Austriacarum Scriptores.


Boris Menu    Next