Little Bits of History

Dance Fever

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 24, 2012

Depiction of St. John’s Dance

June 24, 1374: St. John’s Dance breaks out in Aachen, Germany. Dancing mania, or choreomania, is a social phenomenon. Historically, these outbreaks took place in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. However, a similar affliction was noted in Tanzania in 2008 where students simply fainted for no apparent reason. These were similar in nature to the hysterical reactions of the Middle Ages in mainland Europe noted in history. The first noted outbreak was this event in Germany.

Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle (or Oche or Aken – depending on language) is a spa city in North Rhine-Westphalia. Charlemagne lived there and it was the coronation location for many Kings of Germany. It is located at the westernmost edge of the country, abutting Belgium and the Netherlands. It was and is a place of refinement. During this outbreak of St. John’s Dance, people were dancing in the streets, screaming in pain but unable to stop until they collapsed in a heap from fatigue. They were also plagued by visions or hallucinations. According to the Catholic Church, they were possessed by the devil.

The “disease” spread quickly and people in small towns along the Rhine River were succumbing to an impulse to dance for hours or even days. Within just weeks, the dancing spread to France and the Netherlands. It took months for the epidemic to cease with records showing about 400 men, women, and children were affected with dozens of deaths attributed to it. There is compelling historical evidence attesting to this and later outbreaks of this type of behavior. With more sophisticated science, we may have some insight into what caused these outbreaks.

It is possible that people reached an altered state of consciousness (necessary to allow them to continue to dance with bruised and bleeding feet, or other odd behaviors exhibited in later outbreaks of a similar type). They may have eaten contaminated foods. Ergot can taint flour and cause adverse effects. Also, this was the time of the Black Plague and the Rhine area had suffered a devastating flood earlier in the year with water rising 34 feet. With farmlands unable to produce and people dying of the Plague, there was not only a food shortage, but an atmosphere of despair. With contaminated flour causing a problem with a few people, and a religious belief in the possibility of devil possession, it was possible for the trance to be spread through the power of suggestion.

I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror. – Charles Baudelaire

Pain is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria. – Naomi Wolf

Whatever hysteria exists is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it. – Elia Kazan

Mass hysteria is never that far beneath the skin, I suppose. A human being is a thinking animal, but crowds don’t seem to be. – Father Marco

Also on this day:

The Cynic – In 1842, Ambrose Bierce was born.
UFO – In 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw something strange in the sky.
Victory Parade – In 1945, a parade was held in Moscow.