The unanswered questions surrounding the dancing plague of the Middle Ages - TheDailyWorld.NET

The unanswered questions surrounding the dancing plague of the Middle Ages

Back in the middle ages in Europe, a peculiar disease was responsible for a widespread epidemic.

It wasn’t the sort of medieval plague you’re probably thinking of, which included bile, boils, and blood; rather, it was a dancing epidemic that was known as “choreomania” or “St John’s dance.” Choreomania was a condition in which a person becomes obsessed with dancing in order to express themselves.

And when we come to think of it, there was a significant quantity of blood involved.

The world’s worst epidemic of dance madness started in Aachen, Germany, in 1374, and it swiftly spread to cities in Belgium and the Netherlands along the Rhine River.

Villagers who were affected by the disease flocked out into the streets in their hundreds, dancing to music that no one else could hear. Those who were afflicted seemed to be in a trance and were unable to exert control over their body. It was unclear if the writhing and jerking gestures they were making were dancing or something else else.

A German engraving of hysterical dancers in a churchyard

Spectators described the dancing maniacs as wild, frantic, and delusional in their accounts. Even though they were in excruciating agony, several of the dancers were unable to stop screaming and crying out.

They were so exhausted that they were unable to eat or sleep, but they continued to dance until their bloody feet could no longer support them. After that, they passed out from tiredness and fell.

The dance craze lasted for weeks and spread to thousands of people around the world. After then, it came to an end nearly just as abruptly as it had begun.

There are dozens of reports from the time period that were written by physicians, chroniclers, monks, and priests, so there is no question that such an event did take place. Despite the fact that the phenomenon was (and still is) frequently discussed in terms of the mystical or supernatural, there is no room for doubt that such an event did take place.

Although the epidemic in Aachen was the most severe of its type, it wasn’t the only one that has been documented throughout history.

In the year 1518, another outbreak of the dance frenzy plagued the city of Strasbourg, which is located in present-day France. When it was at its height, some reports indicate that 15 people perished every single day as a direct result of the nonstop dancing that took place in the blistering heat of July. However, it should be brought to your attention that none of the contemporaneous records documented any deaths at the time.

This outbreak of dance mania was very much real, as demonstrated by the frantic municipal directives published by the Strasbourg authorities at the time of the pandemic. This is true regardless of whether or not anybody died as a result of this outbreak of dancing mania.

This specific epidemic was started by a single lady, the identity of whom has not been determined but who is referred to in a number of chronicles as Frau Troffea. Frau Troffea allegedly began dancing in the street after getting into a disagreement with her husband and continued to do so for a period of six days, during which time she sustained cuts and bruises as a result of her behavior. At that time, the authorities intervened and transported her to a sacred site in another location.

However, just a few days later, another 34 persons reported having the involuntary need to move their bodies and dance until they passed out.

As the dance craze continued to grow, the authorities took action once again; however, the solution they implemented led to tragic results. They made the decision to play music in the hopes that it would help alleviate some of the tension; unfortunately, it only served as a backdrop that encouraged people to get up and dance.

Dance at Molenbeek by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1638), based on a 1564 drawing by his father, Pieter Breughel the Elder

The authorities then made a remarkable about-face and forbade people from listening to music while also tying them to wagons in the vain assumption that this would reduce people’s desire to dance. After that, those who were affected were forced to go on a pilgrimage against their will, which in the end was successful in bringing the manic episode to an end. It is believed that between fifty and four hundred persons were impacted by this.

What was the source of the dance epidemic?

At the time, people believed that dance madness may be caused by demon possession or blood that had become too hot.

Even while we have a number of potential explanations for what happened today, the real reason is still a mystery.

Poisoning by the ergot fungus, which can grow on rye and other grains, is one explanation that has been put up to explain what could have caused it. Lysergic acid, which is the ‘LS’ in LSD, is one of the primary chemical components that may be found in ergot. As a result of the fact that this has been shown to create hallucinations and delusions, it has been speculated that it drove the peasants in the medieval era into a dance frenzy.

This notion is not likely to be accurate, however, given that dance mania has been documented in areas that are characterized by a variety of vegetation and weather. In addition, prolonged episodes of involuntary dancing due to ergotism or the ingestion of lysergic acid are very improbable to be caused by any of these conditions.

Mass psychogenic sickness, often known as mass hysteria, is the theory that seems to provide the best explanation for what had place. This phenomenon takes place when an idea or concept may act like a contagious disease and spread across a society, especially in times of high stress.

Even by the standards of the Middle Ages, the years that immediately preceded the outbreaks of dance epidemics were very difficult. It is not a coincidence that the regions that were hit by the dance disease in 1374 were also the ones that were hit the worst by enormous floods earlier in the year. According to the chronicles, the Rhine rose to a height of 34 feet, flood waters poured over the walls of the town, and decaying horses floated through the streets.

At a similar fashion, the decade leading up to 1518 in Strasbourg was marked by severe disease, malnutrition, and famine.

An engraving of dancing mania victims by Hendrik Hondius (1573-1649), based on Pieter Breughel the Elder's 1564 drawing

It is important to note that cultures who believed in the presence of dance curses were the only ones that ever experienced outbreaks of dancing frenzy. In the case of the outbreak that occurred in 1374, the victims believed that they had been placed under a curse by the Devil, and as a result, they prayed to God for help and voluntarily submitted to exorcism.

Equally, the people of Strasbourg believed that they had been cursed by Saint Vitus, and as a result, they behaved in accordance with the conventions of the legend by dancing continuously for several days.

These underprivileged and hopeless populations were, as a result, ideal breeding grounds for an epidemic of possession. In light of this information, the fact that they believed they were being attacked by a power over which they had no control probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

To those of us who enjoy dancing, the idea that it could actually be the factor that leads to one’s demise is difficult to fathom. Thankfully, by the middle of the 17th century, it appears that dancing mania had completely vanished from the world.

Whatever the case may be, the next time you find yourself overcome with the urge to shake your hips, make sure you stop yourself before you fall over!

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