Today in 1374, much of the population of Aachen, Germany was struck by dancing mania, a type of social phenomenon. What exactly caused the mania is unknown, although several theories have been put forward as an explanation. What’s more, instances of dancing mania occurred throughout Europe from the late 1300’s through the middle of the 18th century. The Aachen outbreak was the first to be written about extensively by contemporary witnesses.
Medicine in medieval Europe was crude at best. Many ailments were treated with either foul-tasting mixtures or by bleeding the patient, a procedure that did more harm than good in almost all cases. Other illnesses could not be treated at all; dancing mania fell into this category. So even though outbreaks of the mania were well-documented and sometimes involved thousands of people, local doctors and civic leaders could do little as people danced until they collapsed from exhaustion or died from heart attacks. Some towns employed musicians when an outbreak occurred in the belief that music has a healing effect on the soul of the afflicted. As was common with many misunderstood phenomenon in those days, many local church leaders considered victims of the mania to be possessed, a belief that led to many exorcisms being performed. Family and friends of sufferers offered prayers to Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and other types of entertainers.
Dancing mania broke out in small villages and large cities all over continental Europe. The only thing linking these locations is the fact that almost all of them were located on routes used by pilgrims to visit holy sites. Perhaps the best documented case of an outbreak of dancing mania occurred in Strasbourg, France and became known as the Dancing Plague of 1518, which took place in July of that year. The outbreak began with one woman, who was seen dancing in the street for between four and six days. Within a week, more than 30 people had joined her; over the course of the next month, 400 more people were afflicted. Most of that number died, either from exhaustion, stroke or heart attack. Local doctors came to believe the mania was caused by “hot blood”, although the records they kept do not define what they thought this condition actually was or what caused it.
Only one incidence of dancing mania has been recorded since 1800, that being in Madagascar in the 1840’s. A laughing epidemic with similar properties occurred in part of Tanzania in 1962, although the number of people affected varies according to source. Other than these two incidents, public manias such as dancing mania seem to have died out.
Modern historians and medical professionals have put forth a number of theories in an effort to explain dancing mania. One theory is that the sufferers had ergot poisoning, referred to as “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the Middle Ages. Ergot is a fungus that can infect rye, which when eaten is psychoactive. People suffering from ergot poisoning can suffer spasms and hallucinations. However, the spasms cannot reasonably be described as dancing and they do not last for days.
Another possibility is that the dancing mania was caused by the onset of the disease known as Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Sydenham’s chorea, which results in jerking motions of the limbs and face brought on by a streptococcus infection in childhood. While this would certainly explain the dancing motion observed by contemporaries of the mania, it is highly unlikely that hundreds of people would have been struck by the disease simultaneously. The same can be said of Apraxia, a neurological disorder in which victims lose the ability to carry out the movements they intended.
Although we will never know with certainty, it is also possible that dancing mania could have been caused by what is now termed mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria. Other events in history show us that it is possible for large numbers of people, numbering even into the thousands, to believe that they saw something or are suffering from the same illness. Some modern professionals have attributed religious miracles and demonstrations as examples of mass hysteria, although this is a hotly debated topic, especially with regard to apparitions involving the Virgin Mary.
Mass hysteria cases have been attributed to unusual levels of stress placed upon the groups involved. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to think that mass hysteria was much more likely to occur in the towns and villages of medieval Europe. Starvation was only one bad harvest away for most people. Even when there was enough to eat, there was the constant stress of farming land that the farmer did not own for a local lord who claimed a large percentage of every crop for his own use or to sell. The vast majority of people lived in this state of near-permanent bondage for their entire lives. Most were illiterate and the only information they received from the outside world either came from travelers or from their local pastor. In such an environment, it is not hard imagine that one unusual occurrence could turn a town into a chaotic mess in which mass hysteria could become a real possibility.