[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]
by Leah Esterianna & Richard the Poor of Ely
Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.(1)
So goes a grim ditty from the Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625, describing another outbreak of 'dancing mania'. Manic dancing was first mentioned in the 14th C., and sporadic outbreaks are described in the 15th, 16th, and 17th C.
The first major outbreak of dancing mania was in Aix-la-Chapelle in July of 1374. A group of people were seen to dance uncontrollably in the streets, foaming at the mouth and screaming of wild visions. They kept on dancing until they collapsed from exhaution, but even then they flailed about in agony until forcefuly restrained. The dancing caught on, and spread rapidly throughout France and the Low Countries.
Crowds gathered wherever the dancers were. Religious ceremonies were held in an attempt to exorcise the demons causing the mania. People prayed to St. Vitus for aid, and he soon became the patron saint of the dancers.(2) The mania became an anti-clerical protest when dancers in Liege began cursing the priests of that city. Protesters following this lead took over a few monasteries and towns, but had no real effect.
The mania peaked in 1418 in Straussburg. Dancers filled the steets around the clock, accompanied by musicians. The presence of musicians was not unusual; it was widely believed that the order inherent in music was a cure not only for ailments of the spirit, but of the flesh as well. In the High Middle Ages, the power of music was extended by scholars such as Johannes de Grocheio, Master of Arts in Paris in the early 14th C., to include the ability to restrain the vices typically associated with the various social classes. In other words, music was a cure for the ills of society as well. Thus the dancing mania was treated by the playing of music, to control the wild gyrations of those afflicted, much as epileptic seizures were treated at the time. In Straussburg, so many people had either been afflicted with the dancing mania, or caught up in the dancing, or trying to help, or gawking from the sidelines, that the town was brought at least once to a complete standstill.
In the late 15th C., one particular outbreak in the town of Taranto in Southern Italy gave rise to an actual dance form. Here, it was believed that the manic dancing was caused by the bite of a local spider. Again, music was employed to try to cure the dancers, and a dance that mimicked their actions was developed - possibly out of empathy for those afflicted, or out of subtle protest against the local government, or possibly through the influence of a local cult of Dionysus that may have existed there. The name of the local dancing mania became known as tarantism, after the town of Taranto, and the indigenous spider cauled the tarantula. Like other tarantulas, the Apulian tarantual is not truly poisonous, although it can give a painful bite, and could not have been responsible for the mania. But the dance developed after the outbreak of dancing mania lived on as the tarantella.
This dance is well (if rather patronizingly) described in a later time in J.W. von Goethe's Uber Italien (1789). Goethe mentions the performance of the tarantella in Naples as
"...common amon the girls of the lower and middle classes. At least three of them take part in it. One of them beats on the tambourine and shakes the bells on it from time to time without beating on it, the other two, with castanets in their hands, execute the steps of the dance. As in all cruder dances, the steps are not distinctive of graceful in themselves. Rather the girls keep time with their feet while they trip around for a while in one place, then turn, change places, and so on. Then one of the dancers will exchange her castanets for the tambourine and stand still while the third begins to dance. And thus they may go on amusing themselves by the hour, without being conscious of spectators. This dance is only an amusement for girls; no boy would touch a tambourine."
The dancing mania eventually died out or assumed other forms, leaving others to wonder as to how and why it happened. Several hypotheses exist to explain the dancing manias, although the true cause (or causes) will probably never be known. One hypothesis suggests that the dancing manias arose as a form of mass hysteria. The manic dancers are first described in the late fourteenth century, a time of beautiful art, music, and poetry, but also of tremendous social upheaval, with the spectre of the Black Death invading the normal concerns of mortality. The Black Death struck several times in the second half of the century and completely disrupted all aspects of life, and it can easily be imagined that this would give rise to massive terror and despair, engendering mass hysteria. Like the Flagellant movement, manic dancing may have been an expression of this hysteria.
The dancing mania, especially as described in Aix-la-Chapelle, may have had a physical cause. The descriptions of the symptoms of some of the sufferers leads to another hypothesis, that the manic dancers (at least some of them) were victims of ergot poisoning, or ergotism. Ergotism, which was known in the Middle Ages as "St. Anthony's Fire", is a toxic condition in humans and animals which inadvertently eat rye and other grasses parasitized by Claviceps purpurea (ergot). This small brown fungus produces an amazing array of dangerous chemicals, including one [very similar to] lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Symptoms of ergotism may include psychotic delusions, nervous spasms, spontaneous abortion, convlusions, and gangrene. LSD in particular causes intensely colored hallucinations, perhaps explaining the visions of some of the dancers, like those who claimed to have seen the heavens open up to reveal Christ enthroned with the Virgin Mary. Ergotism is also frequenly fatal, and could have been the cause of the death of the dancers described in the early 17th C. Straussburg Chronicle.
Ironically, the cure employed to cure the manic dancers, music, might have helped extend it. LSH also causes agitation and increased susceptibility to external influences, such as rhythm. Thus music would have had little effect upon the sufferers except to help spread the mania.
Cartwright, F.F., Disease and History, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, 1972.
Haggard, H.H., The Lame, the Halt, and the Blind: The Vital Role of Medicine in the History of Civilization, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1932.
McGrew, R.E., Encyclopedia of Medical History, McGraw-Hill Co., New York, 1985.
Prescott, L.M., J.P. Harley, and D.A. Klein, Microbiology, W.C. Brown, Dubuque, 1990.
Sachs, C., World History of the Dance, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1937.
1 Referenced in Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance.
2 `St. Vitus' Dance' is a name given to a syndrome known as Sydenham's chorea, which is unrelated to manic dancing.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl)