The Dancing Mania was a mysterious phenomenon which spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. It is in some ways a bizarre parody of the allegorical Dance of Death.
Thousands of people began dancing, joining with others in the streets, and forming vast uncontrollable crowds comprising hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. The dance seemed to be infectious in that those who observed it often joined in. The dancers were in a frenzy, and out of control. For them nothing but the dance mattered. Many danced until they died of exhaustion or lack of food and water.
Efforts to control the phenomenon or to cure the afflicted were rarely successful. Many theories have been put forward, ranging from mass hysteria to the effects of ergot contamination in the rye and wheat eaten by the people. However neither of these explanations can fully explain the events and they remain unexplained to this day.
The first recorded outbreak of the Dancing Mania was in France but it came to afflict many parts of Europe before disappearing as mysteriously as it had come.
In July, 1374, there appeared at Aix-la-Chapelle assemblies of men and women, who, excited by the wild and frantic, partly heathenish, celebration of the festival of St. John, began to dance on the streets, screaming and foaming like persons possessed. The attacks of this mania were various in form, according to mental, local, or religious conditions.
The dancers, losing all control over their movements, continued dancing in wild delirium till they fell in extreme exhaustion, and groaned as in the agonies of death; some dashed out their brains against walls. When dancing, they were insensible to external impressions, but haunted by visions, such as of being immersed in a sea of blood; which obliged them to leap so high, or of seeing the heavens open, and the Saviour enthroned with the Virgin Mary.
The frenzy spread over many of the towns of the Low Countries. Troops of dancers, inflamed by intoxicating music, and followed by crowds, who caught the mental infection, went from place to place, taking possession of the religious houses, and pouring forth imprecations against the priests. The mania spread to Cologne, Metz, and Strasburg, giving rise to many disorders, impostures, and profligacy.
These countries were generally in a miserable condition; and arbitrary rule, corruption of morals, insecurity of property, and low priest craft, prepared the wretched people, debilitated by disease and bad food, to seek relief in the intoxication of an artificial delirium. Exorcism had been found an efficacious remedy at the commencement of the outbreak; and in the beginning of the 16th century, Paracelsus, that great reformer of medicine, applied immersion in cold water with great success.
At the beginning of the 17th c., the St. Vitusís dance, as the affection was called (see Chorea), was already on the decline; and we now hear of it only in single cases as a sort of nervous affection. A detailed account of the phenomenon is given in Heckerís Epidemics of the Middle Ages.