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The Dance Manias of the Dark Ages

The Dancing Mania by Hendrick Hondius (1642)

Dance mania was a craze that hit Europe primarily in the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Gangs of people, usually young, would spontaneously gather in circles and begin a spasmodic, jerking, convulsive dance. They would twist and contort wildly, scream, and even foam at the mouth. While in the throes of the mania, they would be delirious and seemingly unable to see or hear anything around them. Some would have fantastic visions of both heaven and devils and would shriek out the names of whatever spirits they saw. Others would fall to the ground gasping for breath, only to spring back up and continue the bizarre dance. Groveling in the mud like pigs, making animal sounds, making obscene gestures, and ripping off their clothes to dance naked were not uncommon; even outright sexual intercourse has been documented as occurring during these manias. The fit would conclude with the maniacs finally collapsing on the ground in complete exhaustion as they returned to their senses. The dance could last anywhere from a few hours to days, weeks or even months in some cases, and the number of dancers ranged from a dozen to thousands.

This spectacle was commonly known as either St. Vitus’s dance or St. John’s dance depending on the region. However, the earliest dances were thought to be the result of demonic possessions. A dance that erupted in a churchyard in Kölbigk in 1247 was described as a “polluted ring-dance of sin.” A fourteenth century monk recorded that the dancers were tormented by Satan and were driven to drown themselves in the Rhine due to the agony they felt during the dance. The chroniclers of this period are clear that the dancers were in pain and unable to stop to movements.

All of the dancers across the continent enjoyed music and the manias were always in the summertime, primarily in July and August. It is also noteworthy that St. Vitus’s feast day is June 15 and St. John the 
Baptist’s feast day is June 24. The maniacs were almost exclusively from the peasant class, with the only exceptions being a few priests who succumbed to the craze. Another observation from historical records tells us that the outbreaks were always in times of particular hardship, such as famine or severe oppression form the nobility. 

In Liège, Belgium, the dancers were driven mad by the color red and pointed toe shoes, which were very much in fashion at the time. If the dancers saw either of these, they would attack the wearer. It became so bad that a local ordinance was put in place requiring only square toed shoes were to be made.

Different methods were tried to cure the mania, some with limited success. Tight cloths were bound around the victims’ stomachs and limbs; this practice was known as “swathing,” and it did relieve the symptoms temporarily in some cases. On many occasions, the dancers asked to be stomped on, have their stomachs beat, claiming they gained some relief from it. Exorcisms were also employed, with limited success. 

St Vitus chapel in Písek district, Czech Republic
St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, which is one reason he is easily associated with these dance epidemics. When he professed himself to be a Christian at age twelve, his father (a Roman senator) had him arrested and scourged. According to legend, during the night, his father looked in on him through a keyhole into the dungeon and saw St. Vitus dancing with seven angels. In 1278, about two hundred people danced on a bridge over the Maas River in Germany, when it collapsed, killing most of them. The survivors were taken to a church dedicated to St. Vitus, where they were all miraculously cured, further connecting St. Vitus to dancers. It came to be believed that St. Vitus inflicted the dancing mania onto those who angered or displeased him.

An Idol of Svetovid in Arkona, Germany
Frequently, sufferers of dance mania would be taken to, or directed towards, the nearest chapel dedicated to St. Vitus. The Cathedral of Prague is the most famed of them (although it is not affiliated with any dance manias), but there are many small countryside churches throughout France and Germany. It has been suggested that St. Vitus had a cult status among the common people of the time. This is not such a stretch, since it is known that in Slavic lands (particularly Serbia and Croatia), St. Vitus, or Sveti Vid as he is known there, replaced the older Pagan god Svantovid. Svantovid was the god of war, abundance, and most importantly fertility. Svantovid’s worship extended from the Black Sea to Poland, and it is not unreasonable to assume that St. Vitus held similar importance in western lands as well. 

Western Germany seems to have first associated the dance craze with St. John the Baptist. Cologne, 1374, was the site of an outbreak where the dancers begged to have their stomachs beaten and cried out to St. John for relief.  In 1463, during an outbreak, the dancers said they saw the “head of St. John the Baptist swimming in a sea of blood,” and in 1374, a small group of afflicted dancers ended at a chapel dedicated to him. That chapel became a pilgrimage site for dancers and the disease was known locally as “St. John’s Disease.” The connection of St. John and the dance mania spread from there.

View of the Strasbourg Canal Today
Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of eastern France, was the site of at least two notable dance manias. In 1418, after days of fasting and prayer a dance mania broke out. Exactly one century later, Strasbourg would be the scene of the largest recorded dance manias, which would come to be known as “The Dance Plague of 1518.” It all began one week before the festival of Mary Magdalene when a woman known only as Frau Troffea began the spastic dance in the streets. Over the next week more people joined in and after a month the numbers swelled to over four hundred. It is reported that a number of these dancers actually danced until they died of exhaustion or heart failure.

The term Dance Mania or "choreomania" was first used by Paracelsus, the renowned physician, alchemist, and astrologer. He was the first to attribute the mania to medical causes as opposed to the supernatural (i.e. demonic possession or curses from displeased saints). He visited Strasbourg seven years after the Dance Plague took place and is actually the only one to have recorded the name of Frau Troffea. From his case study of the incident, we know that at first, the citizens of Strasbourg suspected the frau of faking it, because “nothing annoyed her husband more than just dancing.” However, as the dance continued late into the night, they believed she was genuinely stricken. Paracelsus seemed to have believed that St. Vitus dance was more or less caused by unhappy wives doing it to make fools of their husbands. They then fell victim of what he termed “chorea lasciva” and were then unable to stop. He did not believe that to be the only cause, however. Paracelsus had three different causes:

First, from imagination (chorea astimativa); second, from sensual desires (chorea lasciva); third, from corporeal causes (chorea -naturatis). His method of cure was, with one exception, eminently sensible and modern: low diet, fasting, solitary confinement, being made to sit in uncomfortable places, till misery and pain cured the laughter and jigging desires, immersion in cold water, and even severe corporeal chastisement.
--Chambers's Journal, Volume 28, W. & R. Chambers, 1858

The Bite of a Tarantula was Believed to
Cause Dance Mania in Italy
Italy was also affected by dance mania; however, they knew it as tarantism. It was believed to be caused by the bite of a tarantula, hence the name. The earliest record of tarantism is to be found in the Cornucopiae Latinae Linguae by Nicholas Perotti in the fifteenth century. Perotti states that the malady began in the Apulia region of south east Italy (or the “boot heel” of Italy). The symptoms of tarantism were essentially the same as in St. Vitus’s dance. Tarantati (as sufferers of the mania were called) were incited at the color black. The Italian dancers were strongly drawn to the sea, sometimes even jumping into it to their deaths. The Tarantati enjoyed music as much as their northern counterparts; it was said that they were even cured of their malady by the music dissipating the “venom” from their blood. It has since been proven that tarantism is not caused by tarantula bites; tarantula bites are painful but pose no danger to humans. It is fascinating to note that, while St. Vitus’s dance died out by the end of the Renaissance, taratism in Italy, while rare, lasted into the present day. The last cases of it were investigated in 1959.

I feel like it is not surprising to see a great spectrum of behavior among the different outbreaks. We now know that it was not caused by the supernatural or even a medical disease, but rather a psychological cause. Most moderns attribute the dance crazes to mass hysteria. The behavior of the choreomaniacs is therefore likely to vary quite a bit from place to place, especially when taking into account the fact that the outbreaks spanned a few centuries, as well as different cultures.

It is worth noting, however, the similarities and possibility of a connection to earlier pagan rites. The bacchanalias of ancient Greece come to mind, as well as the rites of Cybele from Roman times. The bacchanalia is noted for its wild drunken revelries, and Maenads were said to become so ecstatic that they would tear apart animals with their bare hands; however this does not quite fit for the dance manias. Bacchanalias were much more joyful occasions than for the choreomaniacs. 

The rites of Cybele seem a very likely candidate to be a precursor to the dance manias. Ecstatic dances, wild music, and self mortification were all staples of the celebration. I think it worthwhile to quote at length from one of my source books: 

These rites came on the twenty-fourth of March, a day that was called, significantly enough, the "Day of Blood." At this time the Great Mother of the Gods inspired her devotees with a frenzy surpassing that which the followers of Dionysus knew. It was a madness induced not by wine, but by the din of crashing music, the dizzy whirling of the dance, and the sight of blood. The music that accompanied these rites was wild and barbaric, made by clashing cymbals and blatant horns, shrilling flutes and rolling drums. It was maddening music, noisy and savage. Lucian vividly described the wild tumult made by the Galli on Mount Ida blowing their horns, pounding their drums, and clashing their cymbals. Music of this kind--the Anatolian prototype of modern jazz--was popularly known as Phrygian music.
To the accompaniment of these barbaric strains a dance was staged. With wagging heads and streaming hair, the devotees of the Great Mother whirled their bodies round and round in a dizzy dance, shouting and singing as they gyrated. Apuleius pictured such a dance performed in a Thessalian village by the mendicant priests of the Syrian goddess.                                              --Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, ch. 5

Cybele was Commonly Depicted with Two lions
and a Hand-Held Drum Called A "Tympanum"

Some sects of the early Christians also danced in circles, possibly in imitation of the Hellenic Mystery cults. According to the apocryphal record of this ritual dance, the men and women would separate into two groups, hold hands and dance in a circle while singing a hymn, led by Jesus (or presumably a priest standing in his place). It concludes with:

“And having danced these things with us, Beloved, the Lord went forth. And we, as though beside ourselves, or wakened out of [deep] sleep, fled each our several ways.” --The Hymn of Jesus by G.R.S. Mead

Interestingly, while researching this topic, I was surprised to find that there are very few period artistic representations of the dance manias. I find that rather strange; usually, the local artists are quick to document unusual occurrences, especially in a city the size of Strasbourg. Taking into account the possible association of St. Vitus with the older pagan god, perhaps the Catholic church suppressed depictions of these events, viewing them as remnants of the pagan cult.

We may never know the full details of this most bizarre phenomenon. Was it a relic of Europe’s Pagan past, a massive outbreak of some unknown neurological illness, or just a mass delusion? I would suspect a combination thereof, as things as complicated as this are usually not attributable to one easy cause. It is also important to consider cultural differences between the middle ages and today; I’ve no doubt that a fourteenth century observer would find many of our practices equally strange. 

An Engraving Usually Captioned as a Village Dance;
However, It Does Bear a Resemblance to a Dance Mania


Bartholomew, Robert E. 2001. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics. McFarland & Company, Inc. 

Daboo, Jerry. 2010. Ritual, Rapture and Remorse: A Study of Tarantism and Pizzica in Salento. Peter Lang Publisher. 

Mead, G.R.S. 1963. The Hymn of Jesus. John M. Watkins Publisher.

Waller, John. 2009. The Dancing Plague. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Willoughby, Harold R. 1929. Pagan Regeneration. The University of Chicago Press.

Retrieved October 21, 2012 from Catholic Online: Saints & Angels: St. Vitus: