The Fatal Dance Manias of Medieval Europe

A depiction of dancing mania, on the pilgrimage of epileptics to the church at Molenbeek. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
A depiction of dancing mania, on the pilgrimage of epileptics to the church at Molenbeek. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

by Wendy Graham

June 24, 1374 — On the 24th June 1374 the first major incident of dance mania in Medieval Europe broke out. It occurred in the German city of Aachen and spread to Liege, Utrecht, Tongres and other towns up and down the Rhine.

Individuals took up dancing and seemed unable to stop and soon others joined them. Accounts say the dancers hardly paused to eat or sleep for days and sometimes weeks. It was clear participants did not want to dance, they were described as grimacing, exhausted and often in pain, and they shook and twitched as they continued to dance.

In 1374 it was named St John’s Dance for St John the Baptist and is an example of one of the strangest social phenomena of the Middle Ages in Europe. The earliest known case was in 1020 in Bernburg when 18 peasants danced wildly round a church, but the best documented case of all occurred 500 years ago in the French city of Strasburg and was called St Vitus’ Dance.

It began in 1518 with a woman named Fra Troffea stepping outside of her house to begin dancing uncontrollably in the streets for 6 days. One hundred people had joined her within a week and by the end of the month 400 people were dancing without seeming able to stop. The city council tried to help by seeking medical advice which told them it was due to “overheated blood”. They, probably unwisely, decided to encourage the dancers hoping they could just get it out of their system. They cleared a market space, set aside guildhalls and hired musicians to accompany them. They even arranged for strong men to support the dancers so they could keep on dancing. The results were fatal and many people died through exhaustion, heart attacks or by stroke.

Eventually the city council reversed their policy and banned public dancing. They shipped those affected off to a nearby shrine of St. Vitus to be healed.

Examples of dance mania continued to occur throughout Europe. Similar cases called Tarantism occurred in Southern Italy. Local people thought themselves bitten by a local poisonous species of spider, the Tarantula, and danced compulsively in an effort to cure themselves.

Opinion today is divided about what actually caused dance mania. Travelling religious pilgrims have been put forward as possible instigators, but religious pilgrims usually dance out of choice and it is clear these dancers did not want to continue dancing.

Another suggestion is ergot poisoning from rye which produced LSD-like hallucinations. However, not all areas affected grew rye and ergot poisoning tends to cut off the blood supply, usually making movements more difficult.

A more likely diagnosis is mass hysteria, brought on by a combination of stress and superstitious belief. The Strasburg outbreak certainly took place in a time of famine and hardship. There also appears to have been a belief that saints could and did place curses of dancing on subjects. St Vitus was regarded as the patron saint of dancing and capable of cursing people. In Strasburg dancers were taken to a nearby shrine dedicated to St Vitus to be healed.

As Catholicism with its fervent worship of saints gave way to Protestantism and the rise of rationalist ideas across Europe, dance mania on any scale appears to have died out. It remains a very strange example what the human condition is capable of in any age. A modern equivalent is perhaps the 1962 laughter epidemic that broke out in Tanganyika among girls in a mission school, which went on to affect about 1000 people in the surrounding community for 18 months.

Published: August 19, 2018

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