Oddities 1: An English Tarantula in an 18th century manuscript at Chetham’s Library

Here Raffaella starts an occasional series of posts on some of the “oddities” we have found:

Our project is specifically concerned with Latin poems in manuscripts dating from between the second half of the 16th century and the first decade of the 18th century. However, we often find materials that are out of our scope because they are too early or too late for us – and sometimes these items are curious or funny in some way. This is the first post of a series that aims at pointing out some oddities we found so far.

In March, Bianca and I visited the Chetham’s Library in Manchester as we knew that it held some relevant materials for our research. We found and analysed a few manuscripts containing several poems each, some of which written by well-known British Latin authors such as William Alabaster.

However, the largest collection of Neo-Latin poetry we found was all composed in the late 18th century, and therefore out of scope for the project. Although too late for our purposes, we decided to have a look anyway at the miscellany contained in the six volumes catalogued as Mun. A. 4.8-13.

I came across some peculiar verse compositions, such a long hexametric poem on Wales, entitled Cambria, or another hexametric poem on the Globus aerostaticus, which testifies the interest in the scientific and technological discoveries – a field that produced many Latin poems in the 18th and 19th century both in England and abroad.

However, the most intriguing finding is undoubtedly the Tarantula, a poem about the Apulian tarantella and the related ‘tarantism’. This was a tradition deeply rooted in the ancient Apulian folklore and now remaining as a cultural heritage with music and dances.

I never expected to find a piece on a such local southern-Italian dimension in an English manuscript: I was so surprised! I was sure that after a research I could have traced down the history of this poem, and discover how it arrived from an Apulian 18th poet to the Chetham’s manuscript. I quickly identified this Tarantula, however, to have been composed by an English poet, a certain Lyne. The text was published in a Florentine edition in 1765, alongside the popular mock-epic poem Muscipula by the English poet Edward Holdsworth (which had already been published in England in 1709). This text can easily be accessed via Google Books (however, this version slightly differs from the one in the manuscript):


The Tarantula poem is structured as a description of the local and seasonal context of the phaenomenon, the alleged effects of the tarantula’s bite and its remedies. The description/narration is interlaced with some didactic hints and admonitions to a reader or viator, as he is mentioned in v. 7. At the beginning of the poem, an introduction is followed by a warning to the reader: ‘Incautum ne te nova vulnera cogant | exercere choros, cantusque haurire salubres’ (vv. 16-17: ‘don’t be imprudent, make sure that fresh wounds don’t force you to perform dances or absorb the sound of healing chants’). We then find the description of the effects of the bite of the spider, including nervous breakdowns, hallucinations, difficulties in speaking (‘quaerulo nunc murmure lingua | fracta gemit’, vv. 28-29), laugh (‘nunc effuso sonat alta cachinno’, v. 29) and torpidity. Doctors have troubles in curing this morbum and, in addition, a healing song good for a young unmarried woman (the most affected category) may not be effective on an old man. The healing sing and dance ceremony is so dynamic and uncontrolled that the author claims: ‘Dementes credas sacra orgia ducere Baccho | Moenadas’ (‘you might think that this demented people are Menades dancing a sacred Dionysian dance’, v. 49), taking the readers back to an ancient Greek tradition.

The conclusion is somehow intriguing and may have multiple explanations. The author states that the tarantula has touched the British land as well (‘tandem etiam nostros insana tarantula fines | attigit, inque tuos manans, Brittannia, fines’, vv. 74-5) – but a different type of disease (‘contagia morbi’, v. 76) is involved in this final and perhaps satirical section. There seems to be some topical and probably political force to the poet’s suggestion that any who wish to sing effeminate songs (‘femineos cantus’, v. 84), and try Bacchic dances or play the cithara, should at once leave England for Apulia: ‘ite procul molles […] | ite per arva | Appula, per campos, baccataque rura Choreis’ (vv. 80-82). Since I have not been able to determine the date of composition of this English Tarantula poem, it is impossible to be sure who, exactly, these final lines are aimed at. But any suggestions from readers would be very welcome!

Author: Victoria

I am an early modernist who works primarily upon the relationship between Latin and vernacular (especially but not only English) poetry between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. I am Senior Lecturer in Latin Language and Literature at King's College London.

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