On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe.
There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht, Tongeren, and then across Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
This huge outbreak came to be called “St. John’s Dance”, though at other times and in other places it was called “St. Vitus’ Dance”. (These names were coined based on the assumption that the “plague” was the result of a curse cast by either St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus, the former having been beheaded by Herod Antipas between 28 and 36 CE and the latter martyred in 303 during the persecution of Christians by the co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian.)
Writing in his book The Black Death and the Dancing Mania, the German physician and medical writer Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker (1795-1850) describes St. John’s Dance this way:
“They formed circles hand in hand and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”
The American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew (born 1958) is an expert on mass hysteria, mass psychological illness, and hysterical contagion. Writing in his book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (Macfarland, 2001), Bartholomew observes that sometimes tens of thousands of people would dance for hours, days, weeks, and even months at a time and that throughout, dancers screamed, laughed or cried. And while we do not know whether the dancing was spontaneous or organized, the dancers themselves appeared to be unconscious and unable to control themselves. Bartholomew further notes that some dancers “paraded around naked, made obscene gestures and acted like animals”, while still others managed to have sexual intercourse while they danced. (This is all starting to sound like Studio 54 in New York City during the 1970s.)
So to the question each and every one of us is asking: what could cause such mass frenzy? Regrettably (but not unexpectedly), the answer is that no one really knows for sure. Of course, this doesn’t mean that lots of explanations haven’t been put forward, and here are a few of them.
Rye fungus. Writing in Toxipedia, Steven G. Gilbert, Ph.D. (who, according to his biography, “has been working to bring awareness about the health effects, history and politics of toxic substances to the public for over 30 years”) claims that the dancing plague was caused by a psychoactive toxin produced by a fungus that grows on rye grain. The fungus is called Claviceps purpurea, and it produces alkaloids that induce something called ergot poisoning or “ergotism,” which can induce hallucinations, delusions, and involuntary spasms. But as Robert Bartholomew points out, “not all of the regions affected by the strange compulsion to dance would been home to people who consumed rye. Furthermore, the outbreaks didn’t always happen during the wet season when the fungus would have grown.”
Okay; scratch ergot poisoning.
Disease. Other folks have suggested that dancing mania might have been caused by encephalitis, epilepsy, or typhus, but like ergotism, those diseases cannot account for all the symptoms exhibited by dancing mania.
Sydenham chorea. Another explanation is something called Sydenham chorea, a childhood neurological disorder caused by the same bacterium that causes rheumatic fever that strikes children and does indeed cause involuntary tremors and movements in the arms, legs and fascial muscles, but not the sort of movements attributed to dancing mania. Besides, dancing mania was experienced by people across a full spectrum of age, from toddlers to the elderly.
Others claim that the outbreaks were simply staged, but this cannot explain the scale of the events or the fact that no small number of participants actually died during the outbreaks.
Madness. The most likely explanation is stress induced psychosis: temporary madness. When choreomania broke out in Aachen 645 years ago today, the region around the Rhine was coping with a recent outbreak of the real plague, the big cahuna, the Black Death. It is believed that the extreme psychological duress produced by years of plague, disease, and famine, coupled with the superstitious belief that a region was cursed by evil spirits (or even the devil himself) could create the panic-induced trance-state necessary for the dancing mania to take hold, during which normal societal prohibitions and personal inhibitions could be tossed aside, leaving people free to purge themselves of their fear through unrestrained behavior and pure exhaustion.
We can only hope that we’ll experience no such choreomania on either side of the political spectrum following the next presidential election.
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