Dancing mania (also known as dancing plague, choreomania, St John’s Dance and, historically, St. Vitus’ Dance) was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, Germany, in 1374, and it quickly spread throughout Europe; one particularly notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518.
Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, dancing mania was not an isolated event, and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork. Generally, musicians accompanied dancers, to help ward off the mania, but this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging more to join in. There is no consensus among modern-day scholars as to the cause of dancing mania.
The several theories proposed range from religious cults being behind the processions to people dancing to relieve themselves of stress and put the poverty of the period out of their minds. It is, however, thought to be as a mass psychogenic illness in which the occurrence of similar physical symptoms, with no known physical cause, affect a large group of people as a form of social influence.
“Dancing mania” is derived from the term “choreomania”, from the Greek choros (dance) and mania (madness), and is also known as “dancing plague”. The term was coined by Paracelsus, and the condition was initially considered a curse sent by a saint, usually St John the Baptist or St Vitus, and was therefore known as “St Vitus’ Dance” or “St John’s Dance”. Victims of dancing mania often ended their processions at places dedicated to that saint, who was prayed to in an effort to end the dancing; incidents often broke out around the time of the feast of St Vitus.
St Vitus’ Dance was diagnosed, in the 17th century, as Sydenham chorea. Dancing mania has also been known as epidemic chorea and epidemic dancing. A disease of the nervous system, chorea is characterized by symptoms resembling those of dancing mania, which has also rather unconvincingly been considered a form of epilepsy. Scientists have described dancing mania as a “collective mental disorder”, “collective hysterical disorder”, and “mass madness”.
The earliest known outbreak of dancing mania occurred in the 7th century, and it reappeared many times across Europe until about the 17th century, when it stopped abruptly. One of the earliest known incidents occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, where 18 peasants began singing and dancing around a church, disturbing a Christmas Eve service.
Further outbreaks occurred during the 13th century, including one in 1237 in which a large group of children travelled from Erfurt to Arnstadt, jumping and dancing all the way, in marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Another incident, in 1278, involved about 200 people dancing on a bridge over the River Meuse in Germany, resulting in its collapse. Many of the survivors were restored to full health at a nearby chapel dedicated to St Vitus. The first major outbreak of the mania occurred between 1373 and 1374, with incidents reported in England, Germany and the Netherlands.
On 24 June 1374, one of the biggest outbreaks began in Aix-la-Chapelle, Aachen (Germany), before spreading to other places such as Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren, Utrecht, and to countries such as Italy and Luxembourg. Further episodes occurred in 1375 and 1376, with incidents in France, Germany and Holland, and in 1381 there was an outbreak in Augsburg. Further incidents occurred in 1418 in Strasbourg, where people fasted for days and the outbreak was possibly caused by exhaustion. In another outbreak, in 1428 in Schaffhausen, a monk danced to death and, in the same year, a group of women in Zurich were reportedly in a dancing frenzy.
One of the biggest outbreaks occurred in July 1518, in Strasbourg (see Dancing Plague of 1518), where a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street; within four days she had been joined by 33 others, and within a month there were 400, many of whom suffered heart attacks and died. Further incidents occurred during the 16th century, when the mania was at its peak: in 1536 in Basel, involving a group of children; and in 1551 in Anhalt, involving just one man. In the 17th century, incidents of recurrent dancing were recorded by professor of medicine Gregor Horst, who noted:
Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance 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… [o]ne of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.
Dancing mania appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century. According to John Waller, although numerous incidents were recorded, the best documented cases are the outbreaks of 1374 and 1518, for which there is abundant contemporary evidence.
The outbreaks of dancing mania varied, and several characteristics of it have been recorded. Generally occurring in times of hardship, up to tens of thousands of people would appear to dance for hours, days, weeks, and even months.
Women have often been portrayed in modern literature as the usual participants in dancing mania, although contemporary sources suggest otherwise. Whether the dancing was spontaneous, or an organised event, is also debated. What is certain, however, is that dancers seemed to be in a state of unconsciousness, and unable to control themselves.
In his research into social phenomena, author Robert Bartholomew notes that contemporary sources record that participants often did not reside where the dancing took place. Such people would travel from place to place, and others would join them along the way. With them they brought customs and behaviour that were strange to the local people. Bartholomew describes how dancers wore “strange, colorful attire” and “held wooden sticks”.
Robert Marks, in his study of hypnotism, notes that some decorated their hair with garlands. However, not all outbreaks involved foreigners, and not all were particularly calm. Bartholomew notes that some “paraded around naked” and made “obscene gestures”. Some even had sexual intercourse. Others acted like animals, and jumped, hopped and leaped about.
They hardly stopped, and some danced until they broke their ribs and subsequently died. Throughout, dancers screamed, laughed, or cried, and some sang. Bartholomew also notes that observers of dancing mania were sometimes treated violently if they refused to join in. Participants demonstrated odd reactions to the colour red; in A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany, Midelfort notes they “could not perceive the color red at all”, and Bartholomew reports “it was said that dancers could not stand… the color red, often becoming violent on seeing [it]”.
Bartholomew also notes that dancers “could not stand pointed shoes”, and that dancers enjoyed their feet being hit. Throughout, those affected by dancing mania suffered from a variety of ailments, including chest pains, convulsions, hallucinations, hyperventilation, epileptic fits, and visions. In the end, most simply dropped down, overwhelmed with exhaustion. Midelfort, however, describes how some ended up in a state of ecstasy. Typically, the mania was contagious but it often struck small groups, such as families and individuals.
In Italy, a similar phenomenon was tarantism, in which the victims were said to have been poisoned by a tarantula or scorpion. Its earliest known outbreak was in the 13th century, and the only antidote known was to dance to particular music to separate the venom from the blood. It occurred only in the summer months. As with dancing mania, people would suddenly begin to dance, sometimes affected by a perceived bite or sting and were joined by others, who believed the venom from their own old bites was reactivated by the heat or the music. Dancers would perform a tarantella, accompanied by music which would eventually “cure” the victim, at least temporarily.
Some participated in further activities, such as tying themselves up with vines and whipping each other, pretending to sword fight, drinking large amounts of wine, and jumping into the sea. Some died if there was no music to accompany their dancing. Sufferers typically had symptoms resembling those of dancing mania, such as headaches, trembling, twitching and visions.
As with dancing mania, participants apparently did not like the colour black, and women were reported to be most affected. Unlike dancing mania, tarantism was confined to Italy and southern Europe. It was common until the 17th century, but ended suddenly, with only very small outbreaks in Italy until as late as 1959.
A study of the phenomenon in 1959 by religious history professor Ernesto de Martino revealed that most cases of tarantism were probably unrelated to spider bites. Many participants admitted that they had not been bitten, but believed they were infected by someone who had been, or that they had simply touched a spider. The result was mass panic, with a “cure” that allowed people to behave in ways that were, normally, prohibited at the time. Despite their differences, tarantism and dancing mania are often considered synonymous.
As the real cause of dancing mania was unknown, many of the treatments for it were simply hopeful guesses, although some did seem effective. The 1374 outbreak occurred only decades after the Black Death, and was treated in a similar fashion: dancers were isolated, and some were exorcised. People believed that the dancing was a curse brought about by St Vitus; they responded by praying and making pilgrimages to places dedicated to Vitus.
Prayers were also made to St John the Baptist, who others believed also caused the dancing. Others claimed to be possessed by demons, or Satan, therefore exorcisms were often performed on dancers. Bartholomew notes that music was often played while participants danced, as that was believed to be an effective remedy, and during some outbreaks musicians were even employed to play. Midelfort describes how the music encouraged others to join in however, and thus effectively made things worse, as did the dancing places that were sometimes set up.
Numerous hypotheses have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania, and it remains unclear whether it was a real illness or a social phenomenon. One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St. Anthony’s fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops. Ergotism can cause hallucinations, but cannot account for the other strange behaviour most commonly identified with dancing mania.
Other theories suggest that the symptoms were similar to encephalitis, epilepsy, and typhus, but as with ergotism, those conditions cannot account for all symptoms. Numerous sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods. Hetherington and Munro describe dancing mania as a result of “shared stress”; people may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day, and in so doing, attempted to become ecstatic and see visions.
Another popular theory is that the outbreaks were all staged, and the appearance of strange behaviour was due to its unfamiliarity. Religious cults may have been acting out well-organised dances, in accordance with ancient Greek and Roman rituals. Despite being banned at the time, these rituals could be performed under the guise of uncontrollable dancing mania. Justus Hecker, a 19th-century medical writer, described it as a kind of festival, where a practice known as “the kindling of the Nodfyr” was carried out. This involved jumping through fire and smoke, in an attempt to ward off disease. Bartholomew notes how participants in this ritual would often continue to jump and leap long after the flames had gone.
It is certain that many participants of dancing mania were psychologically disturbed, but it is also likely that some took part out of fear, or simply wished to copy everyone else. Sources agree that dancing mania was one of the earliest-recorded forms of mass hysteria, and describe it as a “psychic epidemic”, with numerous explanations that might account for the behaviour of the dancers. It has been suggested that the outbreaks may have been due to cultural contagion triggered, in times of particular hardship, by deeply rooted popular beliefs in the region regarding angry spirits capable of inflicting a “dancing curse” to punish their victims.