To medieval peasants in southern Italy, the tarantella was more than a catchy tune. It was something powerful and dangerous. The tarantella could save your life—or drive you to the brink of madness.

It was the dead heat of summer in Apulia, some year in the mid-15th century. After a midday nap in the fields, a woman leapt up, crying out that she’d been bitten by a tarantula. The venom began to work in her body, making her dance convulsively. She strutted her way toward the center of town. Soon others joined her, leaping, shrieking, and twirling uncontrollably. They decked themselves out in bright colors and strange ornaments, dancing for days on end and downing vast quantities of wine.

This is how Giorgio Baglivi, who wrote a treatise on these frenzies, described them: “Some victims called for swords and acted like fencers, others for whips and beat each other. Women called for mirrors, sighed and howled while making indecent motions. Some of them had still stranger fancies, liked to be tossed in the air, dug holes in the ground and rolled themselves in the dirt like swine.” It was, at once, a rollicking party and a terrifying epidemic.

The dancers believed that the only cure for the tarantula’s bite was to shimmy the venom away. There were even accounts of people who died as a result of not having the right music available. To avoid such disasters, many…

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