Medieval — Plague Doctor

The Dancing Plague Of The Middle Ages

We all heard of the Bubonic Plague, Black Plague, the Plague, or the Black Death, all synonyms for the same illness that killed a third of the world’s population. But do you know about the Dancing Plague?

But First, The Black Plague!

Europe in the Middle Ages suffered from many illnesses and diseases as they developed in various societies. The popularity of trading ports expanded the horizons of kingdoms but also had them face new pathogens, bacteria and germs their lives did not accustom them to. 

Nothing prepared their immune system for the possibility of contagion. Their limited knowledge of medicine also led them to die in great numbers. The Church spread it was either God punishing them for their sinful ways or Satan spreading its diseases. Either way, the morale was down. 

Romania — Transylvania — Fortress Castle
Romania — Transylvania — Fortress Castle

The black plague took over Europe in the fourteenth century and resulted from a trading system. It spread fast through a specific type of flea that took a ride on rats going to Europe. The plague devastated kingdom after kingdom, and there was no chance of recovering from the illness.

Something occurred when the black plague dissipated and died down in modern-day Germany, in Achen—Holy Roman Empire of mainland Europe. The year was 1374, twenty-one years after the plague’s significant outbreak, a phenomenon like no other, the dancing plague.

Whatever Do You Mean, Dancing Plague?

Like the bubonic plague, the dancing plague has many names, such as Dancing Mania, Choreomania, St. John‘s Dance, Tarantism, and St. Vitus‘ Dance. 

But we’ll keep Dancing Plague as the official name for this article.

The dancing plague occurred in mainland Europe. One of the most notable outbreaks occurred in Strasbourg in the sixteenth century and in the Holy Roman Empire, modern-day France. 

The Bible
The Bible

The dancing plague spread throughout Europe just like its predecessor and was quite disturbing to the inhabitants of those particular towns.

As its name implies, the dancing plague had adults, like children, dancing sporadically. The number of affected ”dancers” could get to thousands at a time. 

The ”dance” would go on, leaving the patients restless and continuing until they collapsed under extreme exhaustion or fatal injuries. Sometimes, the patients would dance until death ensued.

What Did People Think Of The Dance Plague?

The word ”choreomania” is the combination of two separate Greek words. ”Choros” meaning dance and ”mania” meaning madness, gives ”dance madness.” Reading it makes you wonder how it happened.

In the Middle Ages, documenting was necessary. That is how we know the Church had some ideas. Initially, the Church believed it to be a curse from a saint. 

“Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance all day and all night madly 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… one of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.

The Church

They would mention St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus. The reason is that most patients ended their dance near one of those saints’ dedicated places. As a result, people would pray for the curse to break. 

In the fourteenth century, medicine was ”accelerated death” at best if done by religious people. Most healers were heathens or pagans who knew the properties of herbs and plants. However, this illness was an enigma.

Was The Dancing Plague An Isolated Mania?

No, the dancing plague strangely occurred when another illness would either spread or die off. The dancing plague goes as far back as the seventh century. Over the years, the documentation around the 1374 outburst had scholars study the matter.

Sadly, the dancing plague remained a mystery to them, and nobody could find remedies. Despite naming it Sydenham chorea, categorising it as an epidemic of dancing didn’t give them treatment. All it did was make the illness a nervous system disease.

Dancing Plague
Merian, Tanzepidemie Kolbeck bei Magdebu – Merian, dance epidemic in Meulebeeck

Eventually, scientists referred to the dancing plague as a mass hysteria or a collective mental disorder. Hysterical or not, there was no official diagnosis. After all, why would people embark on the madness to dance until their death? 

Musicians would follow the patients when the dancing plague was spreading, thinking it might break the cycle. But all it did was increase the number of ”dancers,” and the musicians removed themselves from the crowds. The main guess as to what started the outbreak was people were trying to relieve themselves from stress and reality.

What Do We Know About The Dancing Plague?

The dancing epidemic dates back to when people were trying to gain control over territories and spread their ideas. In other words, centuries of warfare. In the Middle Ages, the outburst of the dancing plague was in line with particular times of poverty, famine, lack of drinkable water, and sickness. 

Women were the primary participants during dancing plague outbursts for the longest time. That mistake went under correction and cited that men were in larger groups, then women and children would follow. Sometimes there would be tens of thousands of people affected, and they would go on to dance for hours, days, weeks, or months.

Dancing Plague
Dancing Plague

Nobody knows if the dancing plague was an organised protest or spontaneous. However, those affected seemed not self-aware and acted without control over their bodies or were unaware of what they were doing. Some were vulgar and naked, performed sexual acts or acted like animals.

Another interesting fact comes from Robert Bartholomew‘s notes. Those infected didn’t dance where they lived. Many would move from town to town and spread the dancing plague. Many dressed differently than regular Middle Ages people, much more colourful and with wooden sticks and garlands in their hair.

The Strange Behaviours Of The Affected Plague Dancers

In the official documentation, the dancing plague patients hardly stopped their demented ”dance.” Most of those infected would move until their ribs would break, resulting in death. Many of the afflicted would scream, laugh, cry, or sing. Those observing the phenomenon suffered from the patients acting violently toward them.

To the author’s knowledge, Bartholomew noted that red seemed to anger them and trigger a violent reaction from those sick. They also had the same odd reaction toward pointed shoes. They would try to always get more ”dancers” in their hysteria despite moving from village to village.

Nuremberg Chronicles — Dance Of Death CCLXIIIIV
Nuremberg Chronicles — Dance Of Death CCLXIIIIV

Their behaviour would aggravate, not allowing them to rest or stop their erratic dancing. Most people suffer from chest pain, convulsions, hyperventilation, hallucinations, epileptic fits, and visions. They enjoyed being hit in their legs, ankles, and feet. 

Ultimately, the dancing plague would take the lives of those participating in it willingly or by disease. Many of the dancing plague victims would collapse under extreme conditions of exhaustion and not recuperate from it. 

Strangely, some have reports showing they were in an ecstasy mental state. All in all, the dancing plague was contagious but struck smaller groups of people like families or friends.

What Can We Understand From The Dancing Plague?

As a Dark Ages enthusiast, not an expert, but highly passionate about the era, here are my less-than-professional thoughts. There are two viable alternatives to the illness: Contagion in a mass hysteria level or the result of ergot fungi. My bet is on the latter.

The fact that the dancing plague would have outbursts in seasons of famine, diseases, lack of potable water, and poverty makes this theory very applicable. In the Middle Ages, people relied on wheat, rye, plants, and anything grain. 

Schizophrenia - Mental Disorder
Mental Disorder

The ergot fungi are part of the genus Claviceps. This fungus grows on rye and any related plants producing alkaloids resulting in ergotism in all mammals. 

This ergot fungus, once digested, creates convulsive symptoms. Those symptoms include painful seizures, spasms, paresthesias, itching, mental effects including mania or psychosis, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Usually, in most cases, gastrointestinal symptoms precede central nervous system deterioration.

What Is The Conclusion To The Dancing Plague?

Logically, the people living in the Iron Age, Middle Ages and Renaissance confronted many pandemics and seasons of famine and poverty. The reason most of them drank ale and wine had to do with fear of water being contaminated. 

They were no strangers to where diseases could come from. However, mould and fungus are more challenging to spot if not looking for them. It’s rational to believe that such a fungus would be easy to spread and consume in smaller villages or settlements. It would find its way into bread or any dough.

The dancing plague resulted in hallucinations and psychosis and mania. Because people would mostly already be weaker because of famine and hard work, it’s logical to imagine them losing their fragile minds. It would overload their nervous system before collapsing.

Nobody in those times would know what could cause such a deterioration of the mind and body. They had no ”poison control” back then, and understanding medicine or how the anatomy worked was rudimental, if non-existent at best. Healers among heathens and pagans would have become their best bet.

My Last Words

There you go! No witches to blame or curse or evil taking over. The dancing plague afflicting Europe likely came from the ergot fungus that would attach itself to grains and rye.

Cain Son Of The Fallen Angel Statue
The Fallen Angel Statue

People most likely joined the people having spasms and long-lasting episodes, perhaps because they knew they would die. They didn’t want to die alone. They may have left their village so as not to spread the disease. Who knows?

The OCD Vampire

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