Have you ever got so drunk that you couldn’t stop dancing and eventually fell over? Most likely yes. Have you ever danced in a frenzy whilst completely sober until you collapsed or died of exhaustion, while surrounded by hundreds of others doing exactly the same? Probably not. This extraordinary phenomenon of uncontrollable dancing mania striking a city has been recorded numerous times in the middle ages, most famously in the German city of Aachen in 1374.
Though an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing sounds comical and like something you might see on a night out in Newcastle, it was anything but. Some historians refer to these outbreaks as the “forgotten plague” and it has been diagnosed as an almost inexplicable disease by scientists. It appears to have been contagious, and could last for as long as several months -in which case it could easily prove fatal. It is unknown how spontaneous the outbreaks were, but we can be certain that the dancing was out of control and unconscious, and was accompanied by other extraordinary behaviours. In an age of strict church domination, some of the unwilling revelers would strip naked, threaten those who didn’t join in, and even have sex in the street. Others would hop around grunting like animals and many broke their ribs due to the aggressive jerkiness of their dancing, or collapse on the ground foaming at the mouth until they were able to get up and resume.
Though all the various outbreaks from the 7th to the 17th centuries involved these symptoms, the most famous occurred on the 24th June 1374 in Aachen, a prosperous city of the Holy Roman Empire. From there it was spread across modern Germany and into Italy, infecting tens of thousands. Understandably, the authorities were deeply concerned and at a loss as to how to control the outbreak. As it took place just a few decades after the Black Death, the received wisdom was to deal with it in the same way – by quarantining and isolating sufferers. When there were tens of thousands of aggressive, hysterical and possibly violent people gathered together, however, other tactics had to be used. Another tactic, just as mad as the disease, was to play music to the dancers, in wild patterns that matched their movements, before gradually slowing down the playing in the hope that the dancers would follow suit. Often, however, this only encouraged more to join in.
After the Aachen outbreak eventually died down, others followed until they suddenly and abruptly stopped in the 17th century. Ever since, scientists and historians have grappled with the question of what might have caused this extraordinary phenomenon. Some have taken a more historic approach in arguing that it was an organised form of manic religious worship, which pretended to be caused by madness in order to disguise deliberate heresy. Given the fatalities and remarkable behaviour involved, however, it appears that there was more to it than that. As a result, many medical theories have also been propounded, including that it was caused by ergot poisoning, which came from a fungus that could affect rye and barley in damp weather. Though this does cause hallucinations and convulsions, it is still not adequate to explain all that the sufferers of dancing mania experienced. Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that dancing mania was the first known outbreak of mass hysteria, where one person cracking under the strain of Medieval life (the outbreaks normally took place after or during times of hardship) would gradually infect thousands of others who were likewise suffering. In truth, however, we may never know for sure just what gave rise to the mad dancers of Aachen.