Dance Until You Drop: The Mysterious Case of Medieval Dance Mania
St. John’s Dance was a social phenomenon involving a type of dance mania that gripped mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries whereby participants literally danced until they dropped. Also known as St. Vitus Dance, these dance mania outbreaks involved afflicted individuals, who could number into the thousands, dancing hysterically through the streets for hours, days, and apparently even months, until they collapsed due to exhaustion or died from heart attacks or strokes.
In modern literature, the victims of this dance mania are often portrayed as women, although medieval accounts record that men, women and children were equally likely to be affected. In fact, one of the most famous outbreaks took place in Aachen, Germany, on the 24th of June 1374, several decades after the Black Death swept across Europe.
The pilgrimage of the epileptics to the Church at Molenbeek, by Pieter Bruegel The Elder in 1642. (Rijksmuseum / CC0)
Why Were People Afflicted with Dance Mania?
It was initially considered that the dance mania was a curse sent by a saint, commonly thought to be St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus, hence the name of the condition. For that reason, people suffering from dance mania would proceed to places dedicated to St. John the Baptist in order to pray for deliverance.
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The association of this phenomenon with St. Vitus can be traced to an incident that happened in Germany in 1278. During that year, a group of 200 people were dancing so vigorously on a bridge over the Maas River that the bridge collapsed, killing many of the dancers. Those who survived were taken to a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Vitus and many of them were reported to have been restored to full health.
Interestingly, these were not isolated events, but occurred numerous times throughout medieval Europe. Outbreaks occurred in Italy, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland over the following three centuries. Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this phenomenon. For instance, ergot poisoning has been blamed by some for the hallucinations and convulsions that accompanied the St. John’s Dance.
Could dance mania have been caused by a fungus? Various stages in the life cycle of Claviceps purpurea. (Public domain)
Blaming a Fungus for Dance Mania
This form of ergot poisoning coincided with floods and wet growing seasons, as the damp condition was suitable for the growth of the fungus claviceps purpura. This fungus contains toxic and psychoactive chemicals, including lysergic acid and ergotamine, used in modern times as a precursor in the synthesis of LSD. Usually found on cultivated grain such as rye, the fungus can induce certain symptoms of the St. John’s Dance including nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, and convulsions.
Nevertheless, it has been argued that outbreaks of dance mania usually didn’t occur during the floods or wet seasons. Furthermore, not all the symptoms of the St. John’s Dance can be attributed to ergot poisoning.
Another explanation for the St. John’s Dance is that those participating in it were followers of deviant religious sects. These people were known to have made pilgrimages throughout Europe during the years following the Black Death in order to gain divine favor. Over time they grew in numbers. As they were involved in prolonged dancing, fasting, and emotional worship, such symptoms as hallucinating, fainting, and trembling uncontrollably would have been common.
St. John's Dance, seen here in a 1592 painting by Pieter Brueghel II, was a social phenomenon involving a kind of dance mania that gripped mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. (Public domain)
Dance Mania as a Social Phenomenon
Although it is highly plausible that some of the participants of the St. John’s Dance were genuinely affected by mental illnesses, it has been argued that the majority of those engaged in the dance did not actually suffered from any of the symptoms cited above. Instead of looking at the St. John’s Dance as a form of mental disorder, it may be considered as a social phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “mass psychogenic illness.”
This kind of social phenomenon, or sickness, involves the occurrence of similar physical symptoms, with no known cause, which affect a large group of people as a form of social influence. Perhaps it may be suggested that some of those engaged in the St. John’s Dance mania did so out of fear, while others danced in order to fit in with the crowd.
Similar Forms of Mass Hysteria in Modern Times
While this form of mass hysteria may seem to belong to the history books, it is in fact just as common in modern times. The Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, for example, was an outbreak of mass hysteria in Tanzania in which uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by fainting, respiratory problems, and crying, spread from a group of school girls, to the entire school, neighboring schools, and entire villages. Thousands of people were affected to some degree. It is said that the phenomenon was not completely eradicated for some eighteen months!
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Occurrences of mass hysteria, such as the dance mania of the past, have continued to confound the medical community and while it is easy to laugh off as ridiculous and bizarre behavior, research has shown that there are a number of complex factors that can contribute to the formation and spread of collective hysteria.
These include rumors, extraordinary anxiety or excitement, cultural beliefs, social and political context, reinforcing actions by authority figures, and stress. Cases of mass hysteria have been reported all over the world for centuries and provide a fascinating insight into the complex nature of human psychology!
Top image: Dance mania, or St. John’s Dance, during as depicted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Source: Public domain
Bartholomew, R. E. 2000. “Rethinking the Dancing Mania” in Skeptical Inquirer. Available at: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/rethinking_the_dancing_mania
Hecker, J. 1832. The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by J. F. C. Hecker. Available at: http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/Books/hecker/Death_c.htm
Hiskey, D. 2012. “This Day in History, 1374: Thousands of People on the Streets of Aachen, Germany Suddenly Suffer from the ‘Forgotten Plague’” in Dance Mania. Available at: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/this-day-in-history-1374-thousands-of-people-on-the-streets-of-aachen-germany-suddenly-suffer-from-the-forgotten-plague-dance-mania/