Saint Vitus of Lucania. Patron Saint of Chorea. The Power of Tradition in Medicine

Artículo de Revisión

Leonardo Palacios-Sánchez1, Juan Sebastián Botero-Meneses2, Luis Octavio Tierradentro-García3, Jesús David Charry Sánchez4

Abstract

St. Vitus of Lucania was a third century roman saint, who became posthumously associated with abnormal movements and chorea. He was put to death by command of Emperor Diocletian (Ruled from 284 A.D. – 305 A.D.) and was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. People who witnessed this monstrous execution saw Vitus dancing enthusiastically whilst he was being burned alive, and regarded it as a miracle. We explore in the present paper the historical context and the medical implications of what became known henceforth as St. Vitus dance, a term still used today to describe chorea, mainly minor chorea or Sydenham’s chorea, in patients with rheumatic fever. Very few people today, including physicians, are aware of the origin of many commonplace words used in medical jargon.

Key words: Chorea; St. Vitus Dance; Rheumatic Fever; History; Neurology.

San Vito de Lucania, Santo Patrón de La Corea. El Poder de la Tradición en Medicina.

Resumen

San Vito de Lucania fue un santo romano del siglo III, que fue asociado después de su muerte con movimientos anormales y corea. Fue ejecutado por orden del emperador Diocleciano y arrojado a un caldero de aceite hirviendo. Las personas que presenciaron esta monstruosa ejecución vieron a Vito bailando con entusiasmo mientras lo quemaban vivo, y lo consideraron un milagro.

En este artículo exploramos el contexto histórico y las implicaciones médicas de lo que se conocería en adelante como la danza de San Vito o el mal de San Vito, un término que aún se usa hoy para describir la corea, principalmente la corea menor o corea de Sydenham, en pacientes con fiebre reumática. Muy pocas personas en la actualidad, incluidos los médicos, conocen el origen de muchas palabras comunes utilizadas en la jerga médica.

Palabras clave: Corea; Mal de San Vito; Fiebre Reumática; Historia; Neurología.

Introduction

Vitus of Lucania was a saint and martyr of the church, born in the ancient city of Dioclea in 245 A.D. His life story, the miracles attributed to him and his link to chorea and epilepsy in later years are of both historical and medical interests, and shed light for authors into the designation that chorea had for many years: “Saint Vitus Dance” (1).

Some biographical data

Vitus was born in the region of what is now modern Sicily in Italy. He was the son of a wealthy Sicilian man named Hylas, or, according to other versions, a Roman senator from Sicily. His father, like many other Romans of high social stature, professed paganism, but his wetnurse Crescencia and his tutor Modesto, educated him from the age of seven in the Christian faith, converting him into it, against his father’s wishes (2).

After his conversion to Christianity, Vitus alongside his guardian and wetnurse, fled from Mazara del Vallo supposedly guided by an angel to (3) the Lucania region. Many years would pass before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. thus avoiding persecution (2). In Lucania, travelers started to profess the Gospel, converting more people to Christianity. According to tradition, from the moment of his conversion, Vitus began to perform mi-racles in the city of Regalbuto, all of these were curiously related to dogs: saving the life of a child who had been attacked by a herd of dogs and reattaching a pastor’s hand who had been bitten off (3).

Even today it is believed that part of the skull, an arm and a foot of St. Vitus remain in the Mother Church of St. Basil in Regalbuto, Sicily (3). Shortly after this, Vitus moved to Rome to exorcise the son of Diocletian (244 311) emperor of Rome, who was believed to be possessed by a demon due to the uncontrollable movements that he presented and could not control. It is difficult to determine if these were abnormal movements or epileptic seizures (2).

There was no kind of treatment available at the time for this sort of ailment, but the young saint miraculously healed the emperor’s son. A short time later it was discovered that Vitus and his tutors were Christians, and they were accused of sorcery. Diocletian offered them a chance to convert into paganism but they refused, and so they were sentenced to death in 303 A.D. Legend has it that just before being tortured, the saint said that everyone who commemorated his day would be protected from mania dance. Vitus was then submerged in a cauldron filled with searing hot oil.

Those who witnessed this dreadful and tortuous execution noticed that before he died he appeared to be dancing energetically causing stupor and great surprise. This dance was believed to be miraculous and supernatural since, having healed the emperor’s son of epilepsy or chorea, the movements attributed to these conditions would have passed into the body of the saint. Others consider that during the torture he had presented a seizure and the movements were produced by epileptogenic discharges, mistakenly viewed as a dance. Some of Vitus’ relics are preserved in Ulm, Germany and chorea patients who touched them were, supposedly, miraculously cured from their disease (4). The Saint Vitus’ cult grew thanks to the construction of multiple chapels dedicated to him throughout the European territory, and became more popular among the Slovaks, Czechs and Germans who sought to find with their prayers the cure for hydrophobia and other illnesses (5).

The relationship of saints with diseases became popular in the Middle Ages and their popularity varied according to medical, sociological, religious and even geographical criteria. Along with San Vitus, Saint John is also known as the patron of the dance mania. Numerous altars built in Germany were visited multitudinously by patients hoping to remedy their symptoms (6). However, the most famous procession of patients and pilgrims with chorea in honor of Saint Vitus happened originally in the eleventh century and still takes place in the chapel of St. Willibrord in Echternach, Luxembourg. After the great plague of choreal dances of 1518 in Strasbourg, patronage over this disease was awarded to Vitus (6, 7).


1 Neurology specialist; full profesor, Escuela de Medicina y Ciencias de la Salud, Universidad del Rosario. Bogotá, Colombia.
2 MD; Professor, Neuroscience Department, Universidad del Rosario. Bogotá, Colombia.
3 Neurology specialist; full profesor, Escuela de Medicina y Ciencias de la Salud, Universidad del Rosario. Bogotá, Colombia.
4 Neurology specialist; full profesor Escuela de Medicina y Ciencias de la Salud, Universidad del Rosario. Bogotá, Colombia.

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