Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
So hey, there’s this pandemic sweeping the world right now. On the one hand, this new coronavirus is one of those things that’s too big to ignore—no one’s life has been untouched by it, to the point that it would be weird if I didn’t mention it—but on the other hand, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. You’re probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, “Man, I wish that funny guy who writes for Christ and Pop Culture would help me forget my troubles by making me think about literally anything other than that novel corona-thingy!”
And, y’know, I agree. We talked about the toilet paper thing last time; we should do something else this time around. So, how about another type of pandemic? Maybe one where the treatment is a little more interesting than “Just stay home and watch Netflix all day”? One where the treatment was “Get together with your friends, hire a band, throw a party, and then dance until you pass out from exhaustion”?
Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t!
Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, various regions in Europe were gripped by a phenomenon referred to as “dancing mania.” People would just randomly start dancing, often in the middle of the street, and more and more would join in until the whole thing erupted into a spontaneous rave in a puddle of horse filth. They would dance for days, unable to stop, until they collapsed—or in some (admittedly less reliable) accounts, died.Modern historians remain baffled by these random epidemics of the need to boogie, not least of all because Europe’s primary export has long been people who are terrible at dancing.
Many of these accounts are, no doubt, grossly exaggerated, but there are several that are extraordinarily well-documented, particularly one that occurred in 1518 in Strasbourg (currently part of France; part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time). It began with a lone woman, referred to in at least some accounts as “Frau Troffea,” who began dancing uncontrollably in the street. At first, passersby just assumed she was working on her audition for The Holy Roman Empire’s Got Talent, but several days later, she was still dancing, and didn’t seem to be enjoying it very much. By the end of the week, thirty-some other people had joined in; by the end of the month, it’s estimated there were as many as 400.
At that point, things had gotten out of hand enough to attract the attention of the local magistrate, who called in a team of physicians to assess the situation. The doctors, applying the time-tested medical principle of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” prescribed that a dance floor should be built and a team of musicians hired to accompany the hysteria. (The popular perception of medieval science as benighted and backward is regarded as generally untenable by historians, but…it was mostly true of medieval medicine.) If anything, this just made things worse, by encouraging even more people to join the involuntary party.
This particular instance of dancing mania lasted nearly two months, from mid-July to early September, and—depending on the account you believe—may have even killed a few people (though I’m guessing they were elderly and had compromised immune systems, and I’m sure the Dow Jones appreciated their sacrifice). Apparently, it only subsided when its victims were carted from the dancefloor to a religious shrine and prayed to St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, which…more on that in a moment.
And while Strasbourg is the most famous and well-documented example of this medieval Saturday night fever, it’s far from the only example. Accounts of unstoppable, contagious dancing fools date as far back as the seventh century, and hail from nearly all parts of Europe, including one instance where a group of children danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt—about twelve miles—which will no doubt be shocking to anyone who’s never actually met a child. Modern historians remain baffled by these random epidemics of the need to boogie, not least of all because Europe’s primary export has long been people who are terrible at dancing.
At the time, many blamed third-century Sicilian martyr St. Vitus—hence the prayers offered at his shrine—which I guess made sense to them, but I don’t know if I buy “sitting around and randomly zapping people with silly plagues” as a favorite activity of martyred saints. Then again, praying to him seemed to fix things, so who knows. In more recent years, certain scholars have suggested that the dancers were under the influence of ergot—a fungus that grows on rye and has similar effects to LSD. Casting doubt on that explanation are the facts that (1) modern historians blame pretty much everything on ergot, and (2) while ergot has been known to cause hallucinations, it’s never been shown to make people dance—in fact, it tends to impair coordination by cutting off blood flow to extremities.
It’s also been suggested that the “plague” was actually a convenient excuse for a heretical or pagan sect that needed to perform some sort of dancing ritual (since any such sect would have been banned by law at the time). Honestly, though, that explanation sounds even more farfetched than the “bored saint flinging curses around” theory, for a couple of reasons: first, because the participants, when they could catch their breath enough to speak, seemed genuinely terrified and miserable; and second, because it’s just not that hard to find a private place to dance, particularly if you live in provincial Europe.
By far, though, the most popular explanation among modern historians is “mass hysteria,” which is a smart-sounding way of saying “Everyone just started acting crazy for a while, until they stopped.” In some ways, it’s sort of the placebo effect’s uglier, meaner cousin: If people expect to experience symptoms, they’ll start experiencing them, whether there’s an identifiable cause or not. That doesn’t quite explain how the whole thing started, but it does explain why so many would join in, even seemingly against their will. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that life straight-up sucked in 1518 Strasbourg, which had been ravaged by famines and plagues of syphilis and smallpox. If you make people desperate and miserable enough, they’ll latch onto almost anything—and sometimes thinking you’re wholly at the mercy of mysterious forces is preferable to facing the mundane cruelty of life.
In that sense, medieval dance mania wasn’t all that different from the “dance marathon” craze that swept the U.S. during the Great Depression. Those were planned spectator events, and participants joined mainly to compete for cash prizes (often just to make rent or buy groceries), but the sentiment may not have been all that different: Nothing left to live for; might as well dance ourselves into a stupor, just to feel something. What made these marathons quintessentially American was that they were motivated by money instead of religious piety.
So! Vengeful saints, drugs, religious cults, general craziness, or financial desperation? All very good reasons to dance till you pass out, to be sure. You guys can argue about it in the comments; I’m gonna go play some Just Dance, which I have no good excuse for.