The mysterious case of dance mania that broke out in Medieval Europe
St. John’s Dance, known historically as St. Vitus Dance, was a social phenomenon involving a type of dance mania that gripped mainland Europe between the 14 th and 17 th centuries. On this day, June 24 1374, just several decades after the Black Death swept across Europe, one of the most well-known major outbreaks of dance mania in Medieval Europe broke out in the German city of Aachen, even if it spread to Liege, Utrecht, Tongres and other towns up and down the Rhine.
What was the problem? Afflicted individuals would dance hysterically through the streets for hours, days, and apparently even months, until they collapsed due to exhaustion or died from heart attack or stroke. The number of participants at any one outbreak could reach into the thousands and, in modern literature, despite women are often portrayed as being victims of the St. John’s Dance, also men and children were equally likely to be affected. Strange enough, It was clear participants did not want to dance: they were in fact described as grimacing, exhausted and often in pain, and they shook and twitched as they continued to dance.
In 1374 this activity was named St John’s Dance for St John the Baptist and is an example of one of the strangest (and incredible) social phenomena of the Middle Ages in Europe. It was initially considered that the dancing mania was a curse sent by a saint, commonly thought to be St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus, hence the name of the condition. Therefore, people suffering from this condition would proceed to places dedicated to the said saint in order to pray for deliverance.
The earliest known case was in 1020 in Bernburg when 18 peasants danced wildly round a church, but the best documented case of all occurred 500 years ago in the French city of Strasburg and was called St Vitus’ Dance.
The association of this phenomenon with St. Vitus can be traced to an incident that happened in Germany in 1278. During that year, a group of 200 people were dancing so vigorously on a bridge over the Maas River that the bridge collapsed, killing many of the dancers. Those who survived were taken to a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, and many of them were reported to have been restored to full health.
However, examples of dance mania continued to occur throughout Europe with outbreaks in Luxembourg, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland over the following three centuries. Similar cases called Tarantism occured also in Southern Italy with local people thought themselves bitten by a local poisonous species of spider, the Tarantula, and danced compulsively in an effort to cure themselves.
Today opinion is divided about what actually caused this problem. Travelling religious pilgrims have been put forward as possible reason, but they usually dance out of choice and it is clear enough these dancers did not want to continue dancing.
Another suggestion is ergot poisoning from rye which produced LSD-like hallucinations. This form of poisoning coincided with floods and wet growing seasons, as the damp condition was suitable for the growth of the fungus claviceps purpura, which contains toxic and psychoactive chemicals, including lysergic acid and ergotamine. This fungus is usually found on cultivated grain such as rye, and may induce certain symptoms of the St. John’s Dance including nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, and convulsions. Nevertheless, it has been argued that the outbreaks usually do not happen during the floods or wet seasons, and not all the symptoms of the St. John’s Dance can be attributed to ergot poisoning.
A more likely hypotesis is mass hysteria, brought on by a combination of stress and superstitious belief. The outbreaks certainly took place in a time of famine and hardship and, in addition, it seems that also there was a belief that saints could and did place curses of dancing on people. St Vitus himself was regarded as the patron saint of dancing and capable of cursing people. In this case, instead of looking at the St. John’s Dance as a form of mental disorder, it may be considered as a social phenomenon, sometimes referred to as ‘mass psychogenic illness’. This involves the occurrence of similar physical symptoms, with no known cause, which affect a large group of people as a form of social influence. Perhaps it may be suggested that some of those engaged in the St. John’s Dance did so out of fear, while others danced in order to fit in with the crowd.
In any case, when Catholicism with its fervent worship of saints gave way to Protestantism and the rise of rationalist ideas across Europe, dance mania on any scale appears to have died out.
While this form of mass hysteria may seem to belong to the history books, incredible but true, it’s happened something similarin modern times.
A modern equivalent curious fact is perhaps the 1962 laughter epidemic that broke out in Tanganyika, Tanzania, among girls in a mission school, which went on to affect about 1000 people in the surrounding commun ty for 18 months with uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by fainting, respiratory problems, and crying.
Such episodes of mass hysteria have continued to confound the medical community and research has shown that there are a number of complex factors that can contribute to the formation and spread of collective hysteria, including rumours, extraordinary anxiety or excitement, cultural beliefs, or social and political context.
Despite cases of mass hysteria have been reported all over the world for centuries, they provide an incredible insight into the complex nature of human psychology.