In the mid-14th century, the Black Death devastated Europe, claiming up to 60 per cent of the European population. Entire communities were wiped out, with the poor in particular unable to escape the relentless epidemic of the plague and the devastating famine that followed.
The desperate circumstances of the Black Death prompted desperate responses. One especially brutal example involved people committing acts of self-flagellation as they processed the streets, singing and lashing themselves as a form of penance to God.
Several years later, in the small town of Lausitz in central Europe, a record surviving from 1360 describes women and girls as acting “crazily”, dancing and shouting through the streets at the foot of the image of the Virgin Mary.
These dancers reportedly moved from town to town in a frenzy, in what is thought to be the earliest recorded example of the phenomenon known as “Saint John’s Dance” – a reference to St. John the Baptist who was believed by some to have caused the condition as a punishment, although it’s also sometimes known as ‘dancing mania’.
The flagellations and hysterical singing were a symptom of the terror that gripped communities at the time of the Black Death and of the belief that they were being punished by a greater and uncontrollable force. But the bizarre behaviour of the local women of Lausitz may have been more symptomatic of social and possibly even environmental factors.
Whatever the reasons behind their unbridled compulsion to dance, the question of how the affliction became epidemic in nature remains one of the strangest in western history.
The 1374 outbreak
In the summer of 1374, crowds of people began to stream into areas along the river Rhine to dance, including in the city of Aachen in modern-day Germany where they convened to dance before the altar of the Virgin (a secondary altar dedicated to Jesus’ mother that is found in some Catholic churches).
The dancers were incoherent and frenzied, with no sense of control or rhythm. They earned themselves the name of “choreomaniacs” – and it was certainly a type of mania that had overcome both their minds and bodies.
These people were quickly branded as heretics and many were dragged to the church of Liège in Belgium where they were tortured as a way of expelling the Devil or a demon believed to be within them. Some dancers were tied to the ground in order that holy water could be poured down their throats, while others were forced to vomit or had “sense” literally slapped into them.
By the Feast of the Apostles in the July of that summer, dancers had gathered in a forest in Trier, around 120 miles south of Aachen. There, the dancers stripped half naked and set wreaths upon their heads before beginning to dance and luxuriate in a bacchanalian orgy that resulted in more than 100 conceptions.
The dancing was not only on two feet; some were said to writhe and contort on their bellies, dragging themselves along with the crowd. This was likely the result of extreme exhaustion.
The 1374 epidemic reached its peak in Cologne when 500 choreomaniacs took part in the bizarre spectacle, but eventually subsided after around 16 weeks.
The Church believed its nights of exorcism and ritual saved the souls of many, for most seemed cured after around 10 days of brutal so-called “healing”. The others who perished as a result of exhaustion and malnutrition were considered to be victims of the Devil or a type of demonic spirit.
The epidemic returns
In the 16th century the epidemic reappeared on a mass scale. In 1518, a woman in Strasbourg named Frau Troffea left her house and made her way to a narrow street in the town. There, she began to dance, not to music but to her own tune. And she seemed unable to stop. People began to join her and so began a contagious display of flaying limbs and spinning bodies.
Written accounts of this epidemic describe the physical ailments of the sufferers. Bzovius, in a History of the Church, states:
“First of all they fell foaming to the ground; then they got up again and danced themselves to death, if they were not by others’ hands, tightly bound.”
A Belgian account, written in 1479, includes a couplet that reads, “Gens impact cadet durum cruciata salvat”. It is possible that “salvat” is meant to actually read “salivat”, in which case the couplet can be translated as, “Uneasily the people fall as they foam at the mouth in their pangs”. This would indicate death as the result of an epileptic seizure or cognitive disability.
The epidemic was subsequently attributed to a terrible demonic affliction, or even to the dancers allegedly being members of a heretical dancing cult. This latter suggestion earned the phenomenon the second nickname of “Saint Vitus’s Dance”, after Saint Vitus who was celebrated through dance.
The term “St. Vitus’s Dance” was adopted in the 19th century to identify a type of twitch that is now known as Sydenham’s chorea or chorea minor. This disorder is characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements that primarily affect the face, hands and feet, and is caused by a certain kind of bacterial infection in childhood.
In recent decades, however, there have been suggestions that look more to environmental influences, such as the ingestion of ergot, a type of mould containing psychotropic properties. This same mould has been attributed to the psychotic behaviour of girls in 17th century Salem, New England, which resulted in the infamous mass witch trials.
This mould theory was popular for some time; until even more recently when psychologists suggested that St. John’s Dance may have in fact been caused by mass psychogenic illness.
The main clue pointing to this conclusion is the fact that the dancers appeared to be completely disassociated from their bodies, continuing to dance even when physically exhausted, bloodied and bruised. This level of exertion was something that not even marathon runners could endure.
If the Black Death led people towards desperate states of public flagellation, then is it conceivable that traumatic events also acted as the catalyst for epidemics of St. John’s Dance? There is certainly evidence for epidemics coinciding with such events.
The river Rhine has historically been vulnerable to extreme flooding and, in the 14th century, water rose to 34 feet, submerging communities and causing utter devastation that would have been followed by disease and famine. In the decade prior to 1518, meanwhile, Strasbourg had suffered plague, famine and a severe outbreak of syphilis; the people were in despair.
St. John’s Dance occurred at a time when both physical and mental ailments and extreme situations were in most cases deemed to be the work of the supernatural or the divine. With the people of Medieval Europe facing mass epidemics of diseases such as the Black Death, as well as war, environmental disasters and low life expectancy, the dancing of the choreomaniacs may have been partly symptomatic of the uncertainty surrounding such devastating events and the extreme social, economic and physical trauma they caused.
But for now, at least, the true reason for the gathering of those who danced in mad ecstasy along the banks of the Rhine remains a mystery.