Why did people dance until they collapsed in the Middle Ages?
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Scientists call this, “a social phenomenon” that occured in mainland Europe (mainly) between the 14th and 17th centuries, but what exactly is it?
It’s basically people dancing erratically, sometimes up to thousands of people at a time until they collapsed from exhaustion.
The biggest known outburst was in Aachen, Germany in 1374 another particularly big outbreak happened in Strasbourg, France in 1518.
The earliest known outbreak of the mania occurred in the 7th century and it continued appearing, on and off, until the 17th century when it just…stopped.
One of (if not the) earliest known incidents happened around the 1020’s in Bernbug, Germany where 18 peasants began singing and dancing around a church.
The next known outbreak occurred around the 13th century around 1237 when a large group of children travelled from Erfurt to Arnstadt (both in Germany), while jumping and dancing all the way. Actually they did so in a way strikingly similar to what we’ve come to know as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”.
The next recorded incident was bigger. Around 1278, it involved around 200 people dancing over a bridge until it collapsed. This was the first major outbreak of the mania with incidents reported in England, Germany and the Netherlands.
Several more incidents occured with another of the biggest happening in July 1518, in Strasbourg, where a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street; within four days 33 others had joined her and that number became 400 within a month. Many of those people suffered heart attacks and died.
The mania’s peak was in 1536 in Basel, Switzerland with a group of children. Many of the incidents were recorded by Gregor Horst who was professor in medicine back then and reported:
Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance madly all day and all night until they collapse in ecstasy. In this way they come to themselves again and feel little or nothing until the next May, when they are again… forced around St. Vitus’ Day to betake themselves to that place… [o]ne of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.
The mania appears to have completely died around the mid-17th century. Though there are many of recorded incidents the best-documented ones are those of 1374 and 1518. ̶T̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶a̶i̶d̶,̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶n̶o̶ ̶i̶d̶e̶a̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶y̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶s̶t̶o̶p̶p̶e̶d̶.
So, who feels like dancing?
It was pointed out to me by one of my readers that there is, in fact, knowledge as to why this happened. It’s called “Mass Psychogenic Illness” and this is one of the earliest examples of it throughout history. Well, Today I Learned, cool!