This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Was This a Disease?
The term “Dance Mania” may bring to mind rock concerts or else pentacostal religeous services and behaviors therein. As Dr. Hecker describes the Medieval outbreak below, people lost control and were unable to stop. Moreover, the word “dance” only loosely described the behaviors. So, what was going on?
This selection is from Epidemics of the Middle Ages by J. F. C. Hecker published in 1832. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Justus (J.F.C.) Hecker was a physician and medical historian who wrote about disease in history. He founded the study of the history of disease.
The black death, which originated in Central China about 1333, appeared on the Mediterranean littoral in 1347, ravaged the island of Cyprus, made the circuit of the Mediterranean countries, spread throughout Europe northward as far as Iceland, and in 1357 appeared in Russia, where it seems to have been checked by the barrier of the Caucasus.
Scarce had its effects subsided, and the graves of its 25,000,000 victims were hardly closed, when it was followed by an epidemic of the dance of St. John, or St. Vitus, which like a demoniacal plague appeared in Germany in 1347, and spread over the whole empire and throughout the neighboring countries. The dance was characterized by wild leaping, furious screaming, and foaming at the mouth, which gave to the individuals affected all the appearance of insanity.
The epidemic was not confined to particular localities, but was propagated by the sight of the sufferers, and for over two centuries excited the astonishment of contemporaries. The Netherlands and France were equally affected; in Italy the disease became known as tarantism, it being supposed to proceed from the bite of the tarantula, a venomous spider. Like the St. Vitus’ dance in Germany, tarantism spread by sympathy, increasing in severity as it took a wider range; the chief cure was music, which seemed to furnish magical means for exorcising the malady of the patients.
The epidemic subsided in Central Europe in the seventeenth century, but diseases approximating to the original dancing mania have occurred at various periods in many parts of Europe, Africa, and the United States. Nathaniel Pearce, an eye-witness, who resided nine years in Abyssinia early in the nineteenth century, gives a graphic account of a similar epidemic there, called tigretier, from the Tigré district, in which it was most prevalent. In France, from 1727 to 1790, an epidemic prevailed among the Convulsionnaires, who received relief from brethren in the faith known as Secourists, very much after the rough methods administered to the St. John’s dancers and to the tarantati. About the same period nervous epidemics of a similar character, largely propagated by sympathy, were very prevalent in the Shetland Islands and in various parts of Scotland, but were for the most part eradicated by cold-water immersion.
An epidemic of chorea sancti Viti, recorded by Felix Robertson of Tennessee (Philadelphia, 1805), found vent in an unparalleled blaze of enthusiastic religion, which spread with lightning-like rapidity in almost every part of Tennessee and Kentucky, and in various parts of Virginia, in 1800, being distinguished by uncontrollable and infectious muscular contractions, gesticulations, crying, laughing, shouting, and singing. To similar epidemics are attributed the uncontrollable acts which, till late in the nineteenth century, were a feature of North American camp meetings for divine service in the open air, and which exhibited the same form of mental disturbance as did the St. Vitus’ dance in medieval Europe.
[The above paragraph should be ascribed to the author’s ignorance of pentacostal religeous principles and practices. Also, since this was written before the age of rock and roll, the author is silent on that scene. The author confuses legitimate mental and physical illnesses with appropriate human behavior that he is not familiar with. That said, consider the legitimate points he makes. – JL]
So early as the year 1374, assemblages of men and women were seen at Aix-la-Chapelle who had come out of Germany, and who, united by one common delusion, exhibited to the public both in the streets and in the churches the following strange spectacle. They formed circles hand in hand, and, appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack. This practice of swathing was resorted to on account of the tympany which followed these spasmodic ravings, but the bystanders frequently relieved patients in a less artificial manner, by thumping and trampling upon the parts affected. While dancing they neither saw nor heard, being insensible to external impressions through the senses, but were haunted by visions, their fancies conjuring up spirits whose names they shrieked out; and some of them afterward asserted that they felt as if they had been immersed in a stream of blood, which obliged them to leap so high. Others, during the paroxysm, saw the heavens open and the Savior enthroned with the Virgin Mary, according as the religious notions of the age were strangely and variously reflected in their imaginations.
Where the disease was completely developed, the attack commenced with epileptic convulsions. Those affected fell to the ground senseless, panting and laboring for breath. They foamed at the mouth, and suddenly springing up began their dance amid strange contortions. Yet the malady doubtless made its appearance very variously, and was modified by temporary or local circumstances, whereof non-medical contemporaries but imperfectly noted the essential particulars, accustomed as they were to confound their observation of natural events with their notions of the world of spirits.
It was but a few months ere this demoniacal disease had spread from Aix-la-Chapelle, where it appeared in July, over the neighboring Netherlands. In Liège, Utrecht, Tongres, and many other towns of Belgium the dancers appeared with garlands in their hair, and their waists girt with cloths, that they might, as soon as the paroxysm was over, receive immediate relief on the attack of the tympany. This bandage was, by the insertion of a stick, easily twisted tight. Many, however, obtained more relief from kicks and blows, which they found numbers of persons ready to administer; for, wherever the dancers appeared, the people assembled in crowds to gratify their curiosity with the frightful spectacle. At length the increasing number of the affected excited no less anxiety than the attention that was paid to them. In towns and villages they took possession of the religious houses; processions were everywhere instituted on their account and masses were said and hymns were sung, while the disease itself, of the demoniacal origin of which no one entertained the least doubt, excited everywhere astonishment and horror. In Liège the priests had recourse to exorcisms, and endeavored, by every means in their power, to allay an evil which threatened so much danger to themselves; for the possessed, assembling in multitudes, frequently poured forth imprecations against them and menaced their destruction. They intimidated the people also to such a degree that there was an express ordinance issued that no one should make any but square-toed shoes, because these fanatics had manifested a morbid dislike to the pointed shoes which had come into fashion immediately after the “great mortality,” in 1350. They were still more irritated at the sight of red colors, the influence of which on the disordered nerves might lead us to imagine an extraordinary accordance between this spasmodic malady and the condition of infuriated animals; but in the St. John’s dancers this excitement was probably connected with apparitions consequent upon their convulsions. There were likewise some of them who were unable to endure the sight of persons weeping.