Dancing mania, also is known as dancing plague, choreomania, St. John’s Dance and St. Vitus’s Dance was a social phenomenon that 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.
One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, in the Holy Roman Empire, in 1374, and it quickly spread throughout Europe; one particularly notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518, also in the Holy Roman Empire.
Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, the dancing plague 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 the dancing plague.
The several theories proposed range from religious cults being behind the processions to people dancing to relieve themselves of stress and put the poverty of the period out of their minds.
It is speculated to have been a mass psychogenic illness, in which physical symptoms with no known physical cause are observed to affect a group of people, as a form of social influence.
The earliest known 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.
One of the earliest known incidents occurred sometime 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 marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a legend that originated at around the same time.
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.
The first major outbreak of the mania occurred between 1373 and 1374, with incidents reported in England, Germany, and the Netherlands.
On 24 June 1374, one of the biggest outbreaks began in Aachen, (Germany), before spreading to other places such as Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren, Utrecht, and countries such as Italy and Luxembourg.
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 was reportedly in a dancing frenzy.
Another of the biggest outbreaks occurred in July 1518, in Strasbourg (see Dancing plague of 1518), 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 and died.
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 a 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… [o]ne of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.
Dancing plague appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century. According to John Waller, although numerous incidents were recorded, the best-documented cases are the outbreaks of 1374 and 1518, for which there is abundant contemporary evidence.
In Italy, a similar phenomenon was tarantism, in which the victims were said to have been poisoned by a tarantula or scorpion.
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.
Some participated in further 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 until as late as 1959.
A study of the phenomenon in 1959 by religious history professor Ernesto de Martino revealed that most cases of tarantism were probably unrelated to spider bites.
Many participants admitted that they had not been bitten, but believed they were infected by someone who had been, or that they had simply touched a spider.
The result was mass panic, with a “cure” that allowed people to behave in ways that were, normally, prohibited at the time. Despite their differences, tarantism and dancing mania are often considered synonymous.
As the real cause of the dancing plague was unknown, many of the treatments for it were simply hopeful guesses, although some did seem effective.
The 1374 outbreak occurred only decades after the Black Death, and was treated in a similar fashion: dancers were isolated, and some were exorcized.
People believed that the dancing was a curse brought about by St Vitus; they responded by praying and making pilgrimages to places dedicated to Vitus.
Prayers were also made to St John the Baptist, who some believed also caused the dancing. Others claimed to be possessed by demons, or Satan, therefore exorcisms were often performed on dancers.
Bartholomew notes that music was often played while participants danced, as that was believed to be an effective remedy, and during some outbreaks, musicians were even employed to play.
Midelfort describes how the music encouraged others to join in, however, and thus effectively made things worse, as did the dancing places that were sometimes set up.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.