History of Neurology
January 2005

Charcot RevisitedThe Case of Bruegel’s Chorea

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Department of Neurology, Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium.




Copyright 2005 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2005

Arch Neurol. 2005;62(1):155-161. doi:10.1001/archneur.62.1.155

Since Jean-Martin Charcot’s time, Pieter Bruegel has been invoked as a famous contributor to the iconography of chorea. This is based not on a picture by Bruegel himself but on a 19th century engraving declared by Charcot to depict St Vitus’ dance or chorea germanorum, a form of mass hysteria. A search through the art history literature did not find chorea or St Vitus’ dance as a subject of any of Bruegel’s works. However, the picture presented by Charcot appeared to be based on a composition that features a pilgrimage of patients suffering from St John’s disease or falling sickness, one of the many names applied to epilepsy. This study traces the history of Charcot’s allusions to Bruegel’s picture and explores the little-known works—drawings, engravings, and paintings—based on Bruegel’s composition in the context of chorea, epilepsy, and hysteria. The conclusion of this study is that while Charcot ignored the precise details of Bruegel’s composition, his overall interpretation was correct. Beyond any specific diagnosis, Bruegel’s work remains universal, giving a unique and compelling picture of human suffering and of the plight of devoted caregivers.