This Day in History, 1374: Thousands of People on the Streets of Aachen, Germany Suddenly Suffer from the “Forgotten Plague”, Dance Mania

This Day In History: June 24, 1374

Amidst our people here is come, the madness of the dance. In every town there now are some, who fall upon a trance. It drives them ever night and day, they scarcely stop for breath. Till some have dropped along the way, and some are met by death. [A 17th century poem about Dance Mania]

Drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of people suffering from Dance Mania (1564)

On this day in history, 1374, people on the streets of Aachen, Germany inexplicably began dancing around and reportedly experiencing hallucinations with an apparent case of “St. John’s Dance” or “The Dance Plague”, with their numbers swelling into the thousands before the event ceased.  This was the first of the two best documented cases of this phenomenon, though this sort of thing wasn’t unheard of, with instances as far back as the 7th century. It also periodically popped up all the way up to the 17th century.

While a mass number of people suddenly breaking out in hysteric dance and sometimes song may sound funny and today YouTube gold, in fact it was anything but at the time. The people would continue vigorously jumping and dancing about, sometimes also screaming out or chanting, until completely exhausted at which point they would collapse and some would die from cardiac arrest or injuries suffered from their violent dance.  Those who didn’t die, once exhausted, would often twitch around on the ground, foaming at the mouth and gasping, until they were able to once again get up and continue their dance. This Dance Mania in some cases would last for weeks or even months.

Besides dancing, participants would also sometimes roll around in the dirt squealing and acting like animals; others would rip off their clothing and sometimes would begin having sex with other Dance Mania participants.  Some also would scream for people to beat the bottoms of their feet while they writhed on the ground or would other times try to get people to throw them high in the air.  Others would make crude or sexual gestures at those around them or threaten to attack spectators who refused to join in the hysteric dance.

At the time, it was thought that this hysteric dancing was possibly caused by demons possessing people, a curse, “hot blood”, and a number of other wild guesses.

Today most take a more pragmatic view of things.  One of the more popular theories it that these “Dance Mania” events were carefully organized, possibly by a religious cult or cults who were performing some ritual or other, not unlike certain rituals Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks used to perform.  This is somewhat supported by the fact that many of the instigators of Dance Mania events were often people on pilgrimages.  Normally this sort of behavior would have gotten them burned at the stake or the like, but masking it as a mass outbreak would sometimes allow them to perform their ritual publicly without retribution.

Another theory is that it was caused by ergotism, also called “St. Anthony’s Fire”. Specifically, the rye and other food stuffs eaten by people may have been infected with a fungus called Claviceps purpurea, which in turn contains alkaloids that cause hallucinations, seizures, mania, convulsions, irrational behavior, and unconsciousness.  However, it is also associated with loss of limbs due to restricted blood circulation, and these incidents of Dance Mania don’t seem to be connected with many of the people having their limbs become gangrenous.

Another popular theory, which seems the most reasonable, is that due to the extreme stress people were often under during times where Dance Mania would often pop up, such as rampant plagues, floods, poverty, etc., it simply started with a few people snapping and others joining in.  As the numbers swelled, herd behavior took over and a form of mass hysteria resulted.  As the hysteria reached a fever pitch, people were even willing to inflict serious physical injury upon themselves, even to the point of death from injury or exhaustion, seemingly unable to stop.  In the extreme, this could potentially cause hallucinations and the like as the people became sleep deprived, dehydrated, malnourished, and physically exhausted.

Popular “cures” for Dance Mania at the time included:

  • Praying to St. John the Baptist.  Some even thought perhaps he was causing the dancing, hence the name “St. John’s Dance”.
  • Performing mass exorcisms on people afflicted by the dance.
  • Getting musicians to play.  The musicians would attempt to try to match their music to the general pace of the dance, then once they did so, would gradually slow the pace down in attempt to get people to stop. Even though this was considered a common cure, it more often than not appears to have caused the number of participants to swell. Along the same line of reasoning as adding music to the dance to stop it, one wonders why they didn’t just go all out and distribute free alcohol.  That would have cured it for sure!
  • On that note, another popular cure was to use musicians in another way.  In this case, they’d actually try to encourage dancing with musicians and they’d even build dance stages where people could “dance it out”.  Some believed the dance was caused by “hot blood” and the only way to cure it was for people to dance continuously day and night until the affliction passed.  Thus, they provided the facilities and musicians who were instructed to try to keep people dancing as long as possible.

Bonus Facts:

  • Another extreme Dance Mania event that was well documented happened in July of 1518, starting with just one woman, Drau Troffea, who began to dance about in the street in Strasbourg, Alsace.  Soon others joined her for a near month long dance orgy, with the numbers swelling throughout the event and a few hundred participants dying from cardiac arrest, physical injuries, and extreme exhaustion.
  • In the Middle Ages, small doses of ergot were often used as an effective means of aborting a pregnancy.  It was also used after child birth to help stop maternal bleeding.
  • There is a story, presumably wildly exaggerated, that one of the first cases of Dance Mania occurred on Christmas Eve of 1021.  At this time in Kölbigk, Germany, supposedly a group of people gathered outside a church which was having its Christmas Eve service.  They then formed a ring and began chanting and dancing around in what was described as a “ring of sin”, interrupting the Christmas Eve service.  The priest giving the service tried to get them to stop, which only made them dance more vigorously and chant louder.  Unable to get them to shut-up, the priest kind of went the other way with things and cursed them such that they’d not be able to stop dancing for a calendar year.  Up to this point, the story seems believable enough, hoodlums or some cult pull a prank to interrupt a Church service, priest gets angry and curses them.  The next part, however, not so much.  As a result of this curse, the story goes that the participants of the ring were unable to stop dancing for a year, at the end of which most died from exhaustion.
  • In another early incidence of Dance Mania, this time in Erfurt, Germany (apparently medieval Germans loved them some dance hysteria), began dancing manically on a bridge over the Moselle River, which then collapsed killing many of the 200 participants.  Those who survived were taken to a chapel that was dedicated to St. Vitus, hence why Dance Mania is also sometimes referred to as “St. Vitus’ Mania”.
  • The association with St. Vitus eventually resulted in people thinking he was causing the dancing, with people congregating around chapels dedicated to him and “dancing madly all day and all night until they collapse in ecstasy. In this way, they come to themselves again and feel little or nothing until the next May, when they are again… forced around St. Vitus’ Day to betake themselves to that place…” [Gregory Horst]
  • Another case of inexplicable mass hysteria, this time unrelated to dancing and much more recent, occurred on January 30, 1962 known as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, occurring in Kashasha, Tanzania.  In the beginning, three girls began giggling and laughing apparently uncontrollably, as young girls often seem to do.  What made this incidence notable was that this laughter spread throughout the school.  After about four months of this occurring off and on with as many as 60% of the students effected, the school was forced to close down.  It didn’t stop there though, spreading to villages such as Nshamba and Bukoba.  In the end, 14 schools had to be shut down and an estimated one thousand people, mostly school aged children, were affected.
  • Depending on where Dance Mania occurred, the reaction from the general populace varied greatly.  For instance, in Italy Dance Mania was thought of as a good thing, with it being used as a cure for people bitten by something poisonous or if they thought they were bitten or came in contact with someone who was bitten.  However, in other place, you were libel to be killed if you took part, such as in 1507 in Spain when 30 women were burned alive after being seen dancing hysterically.
  • Some consider raves to be a modern day form of Dance Mania, with participants free-style dancing, sometimes to the point of physical exhaustion, and also taking drugs to induce  hallucination during the rave.
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  • This is an invitation
    Across the nation
    A chance for folks to meet
    There’ll be laughin’ and singin’ and music swingin’
    And dancing in the streets
    – Martha and the Vandelas