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 https://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 lit