Dancing mania

Sometime in mid-July 1518 a woman stepped into one of Strasbourg’s streets and began dancing. Within a week another thirty four had joined her. By end of August, it is said that 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing uncontrollably around the city.  

Local physicians were consulted. They excluded astrological and supernatural causes, declaring it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’; treatment: more dancing.  In an echo of the raves that would prove so popular five hundred years later, two guildhalls and an outdoor grain market were cleared so the afflicted could dance freely and uninterrupted.  Musicians were provided. 

When dancers began to die the governors rethought their strategy.  A new diagnosis was made; the dancing was now attributed to a curse sent down by an angry saint.  In contrition gambling, gaming and prostitution were banned and the dissolute banished.  When this proved ineffective the dancers were despatched to a mountaintop shrine and divine intervention was requested.   In the following weeks the epidemic finally abated. 

The first major outbreak of dancing mania is thought to have taken place in Aachen, Germany on June 24 1374 after which it spread quickly through France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.  Outbreaks virtually always struck close to earlier similarly effected sites.  Maastricht, Trier, Zurich and Strasbourg each experienced two or more episodes.  Thousands of people danced in agony for days or weeks, screaming of terrible visions and imploring religious leaders to save their souls.

It seems unbelievable today, but there is no question that these epidemics did occur.  Dozens of reliable chronicles from several towns and cities describe the events of 1374.

No consensus exists as to the condition’s aetiology.  One theory is that sufferers had ingested ergot, a mould that grows on stalks of ripening rye and can cause hallucinations, spasms, and tremors. Epidemics of ergotism are known to have occurred in mediaeval Europe when people ate contaminated flour. But it is unlikely that those poisoned by ergot could have danced for days at a time and nor would so many people have reacted to its psychotropic chemicals in the same way.  Others suggest that the dance was staged and part of a ritual of a banned sect, whose worship could take place under the guise of uncontrolled dancing. This explanation is questioned by those who believe that there is no evidence that the dancers wanted to dance, citing contemporaneous evidence that the dancers showed expressions of fear and desperation.

A convincing explanation comes from the historian John Waller who posits psychological distress as a predisposing factor, cultural contagion as a trigger and pious fear as a perpetuating factor.  He considers that sufferers were predisposed to the trance like states by high levels of psychological stress commonplace due to the travails of the Middle Ages.  The 1374 dancing plague, for instance, spread in the areas most savagely hit earlier in the year by the most devastating flood of the 14th century. 

This in itself is not sufficient to explain why so many danced to their deaths. Here cultural conditioning is important: anthropological field studies and accounts of possession rituals show that people are more likely to enter a trance state if they expect it to happen and that entranced participants behave in a ritualistic manner shaped by the spiritual beliefs. In the times of the dancing mania there were common beliefs about wrathful spirits able to inflict a dancing curse.  In this milieu once one particularly disturbed person started to dance others were likely to join.

The prolonged course of the epidemics were also shaped by prevailing belief. Alongside those who may have been truly entranced, numbers were swelled by many people who took part due to fear, or just to be like other people.   Dancing was thought to be both the affliction and its cure, although this now seems almost certain to escalate rather than ameliorate. This central role of belief is also apparent in the speed with which epidemics abated once victims had prayed at appropriate shrines or had undergone elaborate exorcism rituals. Finally further evidence for supernatural belief’s central role is that the demise of dancing mania by the mid-1600 coincides with its fall from influence. 

Dancing mania was confined to a specific period, but some have identified modern-day activities that display some of its characteristics. Raving features characteristics of dancing mania. For example, raves may involve activities that onlookers consider odd (such as partying all night), the use of drugs to bring on hallucinations, and participants who are part of a subculture.  If we do accept the psychological distress explanation, then viewed from this distance perhaps dancing mania’s main message to us now is that symptoms of psychological distress and mental illness may not be fixed but can heavily influenced by the cultural environment and prevailing belief structures. 

Image wikipedia

Links:

Wikipedia:
Dancing plague of 1518
Dancing mania

In a spin: the mysterious dancing epidemic of 1518 John C. Waller
A forgotten plague: making sense of dance mania John Waller Lancet
Falling down John Waller Guardian 2008

Rethinking dance mania Robert Bartholomew

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5 Responses to “Dancing mania”

  1. Nice. Mass hysteria can manifest in a variety of ways. Were most of the dancers women? That would gibe with similar outbreaks in history.

  2. Frontier Psychiatrist says:

    Hi Romeo – I don’t know personally, but check out the Bartholomew link at the end of the post and scroll down to Fallacy #3: Most “Dancers” Were Hysterical Females

  3. Robert McMaster says:

    The most important characteristics of this phenomenon are its geographic, demographic and temporal modalities. Lots of things might cause psychotic behaviour even on some scale but for it to occur and spread across regions, have a defined class character and be sustained requires a distinct driving engine. If you consider the unusual but prevailing cold, wet weather, the adverse state of agriculture and limited diet then a candidate emerges. The cause cannot be ergot. Ergot would require continual consumption as the alkaloids are external and their effects are attenuated over time. But cold wet weather could and does today engender the proliferation of toxic mould and bacteria on foodstuffs that can colonize the human digestive tract – a dysbiosis. Once a critical mass of fungal and endotoxins is being generated they profoundly affect physical health and mentation. As low molecular weight peptides, such toxins are able to enter circulation and really mess a person up. The way the Dancing Mania broke out and spread not once but many times supports this. You don’t see such behaviour in tropical regions because people there have already adapted nor in this case do we see the wealthy who were wheat eaters and had better quality food being much affected. You see this in temperate regions that experience a sudden climatic shift that leaves indigenous people abruptly exposed to a systemic insult they cannot adapt to. Another example would be the Ghost Dance phenomenon that affected native Americans in the 1890′s. Here were a people suddenly ripped away from their native diet, stuffed onto ‘reserves’ and fed imported garbage food that was alien to their systems.

  4. Mark says:

    You know, I actually knew nothing of Dance mania until I just came across this article.
    I guess nowadays we’d just call it a ‘flashmob’ and post a branded video on Youtube.

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