The incredible story of the dancing mania, a form of contagious insanity of unknown cause.
The Dancing Mania was a mysterious phenomenon which spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. This contagious insanity was in some ways a bizarre parody of the allegorical Dance of Death, in that thousands of people from all levels of society began dancing to the point of exhaustion, and even death. No one knows what led them to act this way. Was it a contagious form of hysterical behavior, in which people began to copy each other? Or was it some sort of virus that affected their brains?.
There were several outbreaks of dancing mania throughout the Middle Ages. In each incident, a few people bagman dancing and then more and more people joined in. They were not having fun. They could not stop. They ignored the need to eat and drink, and eventually many of them died.
Soon the clusters of dancers bagman growing until eventually there were long columns that went on forever, dancing through the streets and then into the countryside, picking up more dancers. 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. Some have theorized that these visions and delusions were caused by the people having become high on a natural form of LSD found in a type of fungus that grows on wheat. While this theory may hold some clue to the origins of the dancing mania, it must be remembered that thousands of people exhibited these symptoms at once, making it unlikely that it was caused by something they ate, since they could not all have eaten the same contaminated flour nor, more importantly could they have eaten it at the same time or in the same quantities to cause the same effects in everyone. In addition, it is notable that the insane behavior exhibited by the dancers did not wear off. If they were acting under the influence of a drug or toxin, it would be expected that the body would eventually metabolize the substance and they would return to normal.
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 dancing 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. The fact that dowsing them in cold water seemed to help may suggest that this was merely a manifestation of collective hysteria. On the other hand, one may also look at a supernatural cause and it is notable that their behavior was truly a parody of the dance of death. Were they possessed by some mischievous force determined to act out the script of the dance of death, leading eacg of the dancers to their doom?
At the beginning of the 17th c., the St. Vitus's 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 affliction or manifestation of mental illness. The uncontrollable crowds of crazed dancers have faded into history, hopefully never to return. A detailed account of the phenomenon is given in Hecker's Epidemics of the Middle Ages.
Updated May 16, 2021