A Brief History
On June 24, 1374, the German city of Aachen experienced a sudden outbreak of St. John’s Dance, a bizarre condition where masses of people experience hallucinations, jump and twitch (dance) until they fell from exhaustion! And this fiasco was not the only time or place.
The Aachen incident seems to have spread across Europe that year and into the next two years, affecting many other cities. Italy had their own brand of this disorder that they called “tarantism” where the dancers, presumably bit by a tarantula spider, would dance off the poison by dancing a “tarantella.”
The Aachen incident was one of the first, or possibly the first, major incident, although cases dating back to the 7th Century are known. Other cities across Europe were affected, notably Strasbourg in 1518. In Strasbourg, the mania had started with only one woman, but others joined in over the next few days and within a month, about 400 people were dancing around uncontrollably! Several people died from this activity in Strasbourg, presumably of heart attack or exhaustion.
The mental giants of Strasbourg figured they should let the dancers work through the mania by dancing it off, and musicians were paid to keep them going until they could no longer dance. A pair of guild halls, a grain market and a stage were made available for this purpose. Some of the afflicted were transported to shrines to pray away the dance craze.
An incident in 1278 resulted in a bridge over the Meuse River (Germany) collapsing from a throng of affected dancers. The uncontrolled dancing outbreaks seem to have stopped quickly in the 17th Century and have not occurred since.
Modern scientists call the affliction “choreomania” and other names that have been used are St. Vitus’ Dance, Syndenham Chorea, and Dancing Plague. Back in the day, people commonly blamed a curse sent by a saint (apparently not such a nice saint), and other explanations have been “collective hysteria” or “collective mental disorder.” Treatments besides dancing off the attack included exorcism, tying people up or conducting mock sword fights to burn off energy.
Today, although much documentation is available from the past incidents, scientist are not sure if the phenomenon was caused by real illness or some sort of stress relief response. Others think the incidents may have been staged, perhaps by religious cults or grain contaminated with ergot, or even the old standby, mass hysteria.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think caused this goofy behavior? Was it legitimate? Was it staged? Tell us what you think about it in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Waller, John. The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness. Sourcebooks, 2009.