Have you ever got so drunk that you couldn’t stop dancing and eventually fell over? Most likely yes. But have you ever danced in a frenzy whilst completely sober until you collapsed or died of exhaustion, all the time surrounded by hundreds of others doing exactly the same? Probably not.
This extraordinary phenomenon of uncontrollable dancing mania striking a city was recorded numerous times in the Middle Ages. Though an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing sounds rather comical and like something you might see on a night out in Newcastle, it was anything but.
1. It is often referred to as the ‘forgotten plague’
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 time it could easily prove fatal.
It is unknown exactly how spontaneous the outbreaks were, but we can be certain that the dancing was out of control and unconscious.
2. Behaviours exhibited by sufferers were extraordinary
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. It was also been noted by contemporaries that sufferers couldn’t perceive, or had a violent reaction to the colour red.
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.
3. The most famous outbreak happened in Aachen.
Though all of the outbreaks of dancing mania that took place between the 7th and 17th centuries involved these symptoms, the most famous outbreak occurred on 24 June 1374 in Aachen, a prosperous city of the Holy Roman Empire (today in Germany).
From Aachen, the mania spread across modern Germany and into Italy, “infecting” tens of thousands of people. Understandably, the authorities were deeply concerned and at a loss as to how to control the outbreak.
4. The authorities’ attempts to cope were often just as mad
As the outbreak 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 ways of dealing with had to be found.
One such way – which turned out to be just as mad as the disease – was to play music to the dancers. The music was played in wild patterns that matched the dancers’ movements, before getting slower in the hope that the dancers would follow suit. Often, however, the music only encouraged more people to join in.
5. Historians and scientists still don’t know the cause for certain
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, arguing that it was an organised form of manic religious worship and that the proponents of this worship pretended it was 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 given, including that the mania was caused by ergot poisoning, which came from a fungus that could affect rye and barley in damp weather. Though such poisoning causes hallucinations and convulsions, it does not explain all of the behaviours exhibited by those with dancing mania.
Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that dancing mania was in fact the first known outbreak of mass hysteria, whereby 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.
The reality is, however, that historians and scientists may never know for sure just what gave rise to this mad phenomenon.