The medieval dance of death

From the 14th to 16th centuries, Europeans were seized by a manic desire to dance – and did so in their hundreds, often until they dropped. But, asks Helen Carr, what caused this bizarre phenomenon – disease, disaster or the devil?

Outbreaks of dance mania saw sufferers foaming at the mouth and trying to beat demons out of their bodies with sticks. (Photo by The Granger Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In Strasbourg, 1518, a local woman named Frau Troffea stepped out of her house and made her way to a narrow street nearby. At first, she would have attracted little attention from her neighbours as they went about their daily business. But that was about to change very quickly. For Frau Troffea intended to dance – and, when she started, she brought the entire neighbourhood to a standstill.

Frau Troffea didn’t dance to music, nor were her movements in any way restrained or self-conscious. Instead, she danced with a type of madness that was apparently every bit as contagious as it was unstoppable. First a trickle of onlookers joined the impromptu rave – then a flood. Soon Frau Troffea was accompanied by almost 400 revellers, dancing through the streets in a dizzying display of flailing limbs and spinning bodies.

As strange as they may appear to us today, the events of 1518 were far from unique. In fact, chronicles from the 14th to 16th centuries are full of reports of people across central Europe being seized by a compulsion to dance – and doing so in their hundreds, sometimes until they dropped dead from exhaustion. Saint John’s Dance, as this phenomenon is known (due to the fact that people often called out the name of John the Baptist as they cavorted), traumatised onlookers and triggered a fearsome backlash from a horrified, confused clergy. Today, half a millennium later, scientists are still puzzling over its causes.

The genesis of the medieval dance of death can perhaps be traced to the fallout from Europe’s greatest catastrophe. In the 1340s and 50s, the Black Death tore its way across the continent – killing up to 60 per cent of the population, wiping out entire communities and causing devastating famines.

In response to these horrors, flagellants could soon be seen processing through the streets of villages, towns and cities, singing and lashing themselves in a desperation born out of loss, starvation, and the fear of God. Then in 1360, in Lausitz, bordering Bohemia, something more extraordinary still started happening. A record from the town describes women and girls acting “crazily”, dancing and shouting through the streets at the foot of the image of the Virgin.

The Lausitz dance craze seems to have subsided quickly. But, 14 years later, the phenomenon returned – this time, on a far larger scale. That summer, crowds of people began to stream into towns around the river Rhine, including Aachen, where they started cavorting before the altar of the Virgin. Like their predecessors in Lausitz, the dancers’ movements were incoherent and frenzied, marked by manic twists, jumps and spins. In fact, it soon became clear that their actions were less a flamboyant expression of joy than a virulent, uncontrollable mania – one that gripped minds and bodies. (This explains why the affliction has also been called ‘choreomania’, from the Greek words for dancing and madness.)

Monk and chronicler Petrus de Herenthal described people gripped by choreomania to be “so tormented by the Devil that in markets and churches as well as in their own homes, they danced and held each other’s hands and leaped high into the air”.

The chronicler Bzovius’s description was more disturbing still. Dance mania, he wrote, drove sufferers into “a mad flight from their homes and communities”, before “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”. This indicates death by a type of epileptic seizure or cognitive disability.

Bacchanalian orgy

A few weeks after dancers filled the streets of Aachen, there was an even more extraordinary outbreak – in a forest near the city of Trier. Here, the revellers were so numerous that the gathering resembled a small market town. They then proceeded to strip half-naked and set wreaths upon their heads, to luxuriate in a bacchanalian orgy that would result in more than 100 conceptions.

Some of the dancers were said to have writhed and contorted on their bellies, dragging themselves along with the crowd, likely as a result of extreme exhaustion. Many attempted to control their convulsions by binding themselves in linen and beating their torsos with small sticks. It seems that, in a haunting echo of the flagellations of 1349, they believed that a demon moved within them.

Such was the hysterical, untempered rage coursing through the dancers that, in some towns, they began attacking people who were wearing red, or dressed in the latest fashions. The authorities in the town of Liège were so troubled by the attacks that they banned the production of pointed shoes, which were in vogue at the time.

Dumbfounded by what they saw unfolding before them, church authorities rapidly denounced the dancers as heretics. Many of the revellers were dragged to the church of Liège, where they were tortured in an attempt to expel the devils or demons within them. Priests poured water down their throats while mocking and bullying them. If that didn’t work, they attempted to slap them back to their senses, before submerging them in barrels of water, or forcing their fingers down their throats in order to purge whatever demons had occupied their bodies.

Brutal healing

A few months after it erupted, the dancing epidemic of 1374 blew itself out – not to reappear on a mass scale for more than a century. The church concluded that its brutal campaign of ‘healing’ had worked, and solemnly declared that the many dancers who had succumbed to exhaustion or malnutrition (literally dancing themselves to death) had fallen victim to demonic forces. But was this diagnosis correct? Were the dance epidemics of the Middle Ages truly the work of the devil?

Over the past five centuries, numerous explanations have been put forward to explain why hundreds of people chose to dance themselves into a frenzy. Some have claimed that they were members of a hysterical dancing cult; others that they were suffering from Sydenham’s Chorea or Chorea Minor (also known as St Vitus’s Dance), a disorder characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet.

In recent years, scientists have increasingly sought to find an answer in environmental influences. They have suggested that the sufferers may have ingested ergot, a type of mould containing psychotropic properties. (Ergot has long been in the frame for causing the psychosis that gripped the American town of Salem in 1692, leading to the infamous witch trials.)

But there’s a problem with this theory – and that’s the nature of the dance itself. The fact that the dancers appeared to be completely disassociated with their bodies – that they jumped and lurched as if in a dissociative trance, and put themselves through rigours that not even marathon runners could endure – suggests that the source of their affliction was more likely to be psychological than something that they’d ingested.

The river Rhine is vulnerable to extreme floods, and in the 14th century, water rose to 34 feet, submerging the surrounding communities and leaving disease and famine in its wake. In the decade prior to the outbreak of choreomania in 1518, Strasbourg experienced plague, famine and a severe outbreak of syphilis. In both cases, the people were in despair – as they were when the Black Death ravaged the continent in the 1340s. The question is, did that despair lead to mass outbreaks of hysterical dancing?

At a time of lethal plague, terrible wars, environmental disasters and low life expectancy, we certainly can’t discount the link between extreme stress and Saint John’s Dance. But, for now, the true reason for the gathering of the choreomaniacs, who danced in mad ecstasy at the banks of the Rhine, remains a mystery.

Helen Carr is a cultural historian, writer and presenter.

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