Jun 242018

On this date in 1374, one of the biggest, and most well-known, outbreaks of dancing mania began in Aachen, a major city in the Germanic region of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages (now part of northwest Germany). Because the mania began on the feast of St John the Baptist (that is, today), it is sometimes referred to as St. John’s Dance, but is also called the dancing plague, choreomania, and St. Vitus’s Dance. Dancing mania occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. Dancing mania was not an isolated event, and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork. Generally, musicians accompanied dancers, to help ward off the mania, but this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging more to join in. There is no consensus among modern-day scholars as to the cause of dancing mania.

The earliest documented outbreak of dancing mania occurred in the 7th century, and it reappeared many times across Europe until about the 17th century, when it stopped abruptly. Did the Enlightenment put a stop to it ??? One of the earliest known incidents occurred in the 1020s in Bernburg, where 18 peasants began singing and dancing around a church, disturbing a Christmas Eve service. Further outbreaks occurred during the 13th century, including one in 1237 in which a large group of children traveled from Erfurt to Arnstadt (about 20 km), jumping and dancing all the way, in similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a legend that originated at around the same time http://www.bookofdaystales.com/pied-piper-of-hamelin/ .  Another incident, in 1278, involved about 200 people dancing on a bridge over the river Meuse in Germany, resulting in its collapse. Many of the survivors were restored to full health at a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Vitus.

Certainly, one of the biggest outbreaks was the one that started on this date in Aachen. The mania is reported to have spread from Aachen to other places such as Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren, Utrecht, then to Italy and Luxembourg. How exactly the mania “spread” is not clear.  We are not talking about an air- or water-borne disease. Further episodes occurred in 1375 and 1376, with incidents in France, Germany and Holland, and in 1381 there was an outbreak in Augsburg. Further incidents occurred in 1418 in Strasbourg, where people fasted for days and the outbreak was possibly caused by exhaustion. In another outbreak, in 1428 in Schaffhausen, a monk danced to death and, in the same year, a group of women in Zurich were reportedly in a dancing frenzy.

Another of the biggest outbreaks occurred in July 1518, in Strasbourg, where a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street; within four days she had been joined by 33 others, and within a month there were 400, many of whom suffered heart attacks or stroke and died.  This occurrence is particularly well documented in notes by nobles, the city council, physicians and others. As the dancing plague worsened, concerned nobles sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood”. However, instead of prescribing bleeding, authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would recover only if they danced continuously night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving.

Further incidents occurred during the 16th century, when the mania was at its peak: in 1536 in Basel, involving a group of children; and in 1551 in Anhalt, involving just one man. In the 17th century, incidents of recurrent dancing were recorded by professor of medicine Gregor Horst, who noted:

Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance madly all day and all night until they collapse in ecstasy. In this way they come to themselves again and feel little or nothing until the next May, when they are again… forced around St. Vitus’ Day to betake themselves to that place… One of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.

Dancing mania appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th  century. The outbreaks of 1374 and 1518 are the best documented.

In Italy, there was a similar phenomenon called tarantism, in which the victims were said to have been poisoned by a tarantula or scorpion. Its earliest known outbreak was in the 13th century, and the only prescribed “antidote” was to dance to particular music to separate the venom from the blood. It occurred only in the summer months. As with dancing mania, people would suddenly begin to dance, sometimes affected by a perceived bite or sting and were joined by others, who believed the venom from their own old bites was reactivated by the heat or the music. Dancers would perform a tarantella, accompanied by music which would eventually “cure” the victim, at least temporarily. The history of the courtly dance called the tarantella and the dance performed by people suffering from tarantism, is long and convoluted, and I will avoid getting into details. Do the research if you are interested, but be on guard against amateur speculators.

It is reported that some people affected with tarantism engaged in a host of unusual activities, such as tying themselves up with vines and whipping each other, pretending to sword fight, drinking large amounts of wine, and jumping into the sea. Some died if there was no music to accompany their dancing. Sufferers typically had symptoms resembling those of dancing mania, such as headaches, trembling, twitching and visions. As with dancing mania, participants apparently did not like the color black, and women were reported to be most affected. Unlike dancing mania, tarantism was confined to Italy and southern Europe. It was common until the 17th century, but ended suddenly, with only very small outbreaks in Italy reported until as late as 1959.

Numerous hypotheses have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania with zero consensus. The main divide is between those who see it as a phenomenon with psychological causes, and those who speculate that there was a physical cause. One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St. Anthony’s fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops. Ergotism can cause hallucinations and convulsions, but cannot account for the other strange behavior most commonly identified with dancing mania. Other theories suggest that the symptoms were similar to encephalitis, epilepsy, and typhus, but as with ergotism, those conditions cannot account for all symptoms.

Some sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods. People may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day, and in so doing, may have become ecstatic and seen visions.

Another popular theory is that the outbreaks were all staged, and the appearance of strange behavior was due to its unfamiliarity. One suggestion is that religious cults were performing well-organized dances, in accordance with ancient Greek and Roman rituals. Despite being banned at the time, these rituals could be performed under the guise of uncontrollable dancing mania. One might add to this speculation the notion that such cults could gain strength in times of severe stress.

It is certain that many participants of dancing mania were psychologically disturbed, but it is likely that others joined in for a number of reasons, including simply being caught up in the social experience. Sources agree that dancing mania was one of the earliest-recorded forms of mass hysteria, and describe it as a “psychic epidemic”, with numerous explanations that might account for the behavior of the dancers. For me, as an anthropologist/historian, the main question is not what caused dancing mania, but why it abruptly stopped. What changed? I was being only slightly facetious when I suggested that the Enlightenment stopped dancing mania. Something changed to bring a startling and widespread phenomenon to an end. I’d have to examine the sources in detail to be more precise in my analysis, but my opening hypothesis starts with the obvious point that if dancing mania was a cultural phenomenon, then a radical change in culture could end it.

Aachen, site of the outbreak that began on this date, is especially noted for Aachener printen, somewhat akin to gingerbread or Lebkuchen. Here I must profess my ignorance. I’ve never been to Aachen and never tasted Aachener printen, so I will rely on other sources. The first pastries of this kind most likely originated from the city of Dinant in what is now Belgium. The city has produced pastries with engraved pictures (couques de Dinant) for over a thousand years. Coppersmiths (another specialty of Dinant) who emigrated to Aachen in the 15th century probably brought the recipe, concept, and tradition of engraved pastries with them to Aachen. Originally, the Printen were sold by Aachen’s pharmacists since some of their ingredients (honey, several herbs and spices) were considered to possess medical benefits.

Aachener Printen were originally sweetened with honey, but nowadays are sweetened with syrup from sugar beets because honey became temporarily unavailable when Napoleon issued a trade embargo, banning all trade with the main supplier of honey (and cane sugar), the United States. The tradition of sweetening with sugar beets was kept even after Napoleon was defeated and the French occupation lifted. Printen are made from a variety of ingredients including cinnamon, aniseed, clove, cardamom, coriander, allspice and also ginger. The exact mixture of these ingredients, however, is a close kept secret of the individual Printen bakeries. As well as the original Printen, there are also Printen with nuts (usually almonds), covered in chocolate or glaze and marzipan. The tradition of stamping printed designs on the Printen still survives – especially around Christmas – but ones without designs are more common, year round.

This site tells you all you need to know about baking Aachener Printen at home: http://crawfishandcaramel.com/aachener-printen/

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