Every so often, the RedState Department of History comes across something truly unique in its never-ending search for key anniversaries from bygone days.
Today appears to be one of those days. While listening to old Artie Shaw recordings and getting down with its bad self in the office, the Department came across a truly unique anniversary.
On this date in 1374, a portion of the population of Aachen, Germany, took to the streets in a spontaneous exhibition of dance. Yet this wasn’t necessarily what we might call a “flash mob” today. There was a purpose for this dance, and to this day, researchers aren’t certain what it was.
The dancers started, and kept on going until they collapsed from exhaustion.
The phenomenon was known as “St. John’s Dance”, “Dancing Plague”, “Choreomania” or “St. Vitus’s Dance” depending on where it was experienced, and it was evidently a real thing.
Spontaneous outbreaks of mass dancing were fairly common in parts of the Holy Roman Empire in those days. In 1278, a spontaneous gathering of 200 peasants on a bridge over the Moselle River at Maastricht resulted in a dance party that resulted in the collapse of the bridge and mass casualties. Survivors were treated in a hospital dedicated to St. Vitus, giving the phenomenon one of its popular names.
The 1374 dance party was noteworthy because it spread. From Aachen to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Metz, Strasbourg, Utrecht and other cities in Germany, France and Holland, soon people were dancing the night away.
Strasbourg appears to have been a particular hotbed of mass dancing. In 1518, an event took place which was known as the “dancing plague“, in which up to 400 people gathered in the town square and danced until some of them died of heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion.
Medical science of the day had no idea what possessed people to almost literally dance their lives away. The conventional wisdom of the time believed that sufferers of the “dance plague” suffered from “hot blood”, which had to be danced out of their bodies. So it was that the city fathers of Strasbourg built wooden stages for their plague victims to use, and paid for musicians to help treat them.
In even older days, dance was used as a form of medical treatment — such as in the Taranto region of Italy. In the days of the original Roman Empire, bites from a local wolf spider known as the Tarantula were believed to lead to a hysterical condition known as Tarantism. As a form of emergency treatment, bite victims were instructed to dance, leading to a dance known to this day as the Tarantella.
No one really knows why the outbreaks occurred but modern historians have made attempts to determine the cause of the dance parties, which are quite well chronicled in journals of the day. One rather amazing theory speculates that:
One theory is that they had ingested ergot, a mould that grew on stalks of ripening rye and can cause hallucinations, spasms, and tremors. Epidemics of ergotism certainly occurred in mediaeval Europe when people ate contaminated flour.
Ergot is related to the drug LSD. However, in the same article, Waller essentially rules out ergot poisoning as a cause by suggesting that it wouldn’t have given dancers the energy to dance for days at a time. One thing was for certain: being afflicted was not pleasant:
Chronicles agree that thousands of people danced in agony for days or weeks, screaming of terrible visions and imploring priests and monks to save their souls. A few decades later, the abbot of a monastery near the city of Trier recalled “an amazing epidemic” in which a collection of hallucinating dancers hopped and leapt for as long as 6 months, some of them dying after breaking “ribs or loins”. On a far larger scale was the outbreak that struck the city of Strasbourg in 1518, consuming as many as 400 people. One chronicle states that it claimed, for a brief period at least, about 15 lives a day as men, women, and children danced in the punishing summer heat. There were also several isolated cases during the 1500s and 1600s, from Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire, of the mania gripping an individual or entire family.
A somewhat more plausible explanation relates to mass hysteria caused by pure stress. Famimes, poverty and simple hard living were commonplace in the affected areas – and the outbreaks themselves had ceased by the 17th Century. Still, the mass outbreaks of dancing remain one of the more curious historical facts of medieval times.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!