October 16, 2015
This week’s Ooh, Interesting looks at the strange craze that swept Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, where groups of people were caught up in ‘dancing mania’ or a ‘dancing plague’ whereby they’d dance erratically before collapsing and sometimes dying from exhaustion. But where did it start? Why did it happen and what was so notable about the outbreak in Strasbourg, France in 1518?
To dance. To trip the light fantastic. To put on your dancing shoes. Dancing is meant to be a fun activity but in the 1020s, almost a thousand years ago, the first properly documented case of dancing mania occurred when 18 peasants disrupted a Christmas Eve service with their singing and no doubt hypnotic swinging hips. Nowadays this would be disregarded as 18 people having fun but clearly this was something far more bizarre.
How do we know this? Well it reappeared again in the 13th century in the form of multiple ‘outbreaks’. A large group of children travelled the four hours from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237, dancing for the entire journey. A sort of real life version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In 1278, 200 people danced across a bridge causing it to collapse. By 1373 and 1374, incidents were reported across Europe in countries including England, Germany and the Netherlands.
This was not an early precursor to Eurovision, this was a genuine, albeit bizarre, health epidemic. One incident on the 24th June 1374 started in Aachen, Germany and actually spread to Cologne, Flanders and Utrecht, before crossing borders and ‘infecting’ those in Strasbourg in France as well as other locales in Luxembourg and Italy. 1375 continued in much the same way, whilst 1381 kicked off with an outbreak in Augsburg.
In a 1428 outbreak in Schaffhausen, a monk danced to his death whilst Zurich reported women in a dancing frenzy. Strasbourg seems to have been the centre of these dancing festivities and parties though; they had got in on the act once again in 1418, fasting for days during their dances. Not a good idea. A century later, as if marking the event, Strasbourg was at it again. Their 1518 outbreak is referred to as the Dancing Plague of 1518 on Wikipedia. Frau Troffea danced in the street, four days later 33 others had joined her. Within a month? 400 people were dancing and then, err, suffering heart attacks and dying en masse. The mania was at its peak in the 16th century but by the 17th century, all but died put rather abruptly.
Nobody quite knows why this occurred. Historians have pored over various writings from the time, discovering that in most cases dancers were ‘in a state of unconsciousness’ and ‘unable to control themselves’. Throughout the dancing, revellers would scream, laugh or cry but the most important aspect was that once you start, you don’t stop. But it gets weirder. They would stop but only if they saw the colour red, which they would act violently towards. Another cause of this violence was apparently pointy shoes. No records indicate if red pointy shoes cancelled one another out.
By all accounts, if you were on the people to have been suffering from dancing mania, by the time you stopped you could expect to have chest pains, hallucinations and epileptic fits. Most would drop down from exhaustion. Because nobody knew how or why it had started, some blamed the Black Death, others blamed witchcraft. Musicians were sometimes employed to, umm, play music to remedy the problem. Unsurprisingly, this only made things worse.
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By Henry Fosdike