Was this a religious phenomenon? Pentecostal Churches today see wild convulsions and excited behavior but pastors of those churches are careful to teach about Biblical behavior and to control behavior outside of that.
Continuing Medieval Dancing Mania,
our selection 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. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Medieval Dancing Mania.
The clergy seemed to become daily more and more confirmed in their belief that those who were affected were a kind of sectarians, and on this account they hastened their exorcisms as much as possible, in order that the evil might not spread among the higher classes, for hitherto scarcely any but the poor had been attacked, and the few people of respectability among the laity and clergy who were to be found among them were persons whose natural frivolity was unable to withstand the excitement of novelty, even though it proceeded from a demoniacal influence. Some of the affected had indeed themselves declared, when under the influence of priestly forms of exorcism, that, if the demons had been allowed only a few weeks more time, they would have entered the bodies of the nobility and princes, and through these have destroyed the clergy. Assertions of this sort, which those possessed uttered while in a state which may be compared with that of magnetic sleep, obtained general belief, and passed from mouth to mouth with wonderful additions. The priesthood were on this account, so much the more zealous in their endeavors to anticipate every dangerous excitement of the people, as if the existing order of things could have been seriously threatened by such incoherent ravings. Their exertions were effectual, for exorcism was a powerful remedy in the fourteenth century; or it might perhaps be that this wild infatuation terminated in consequence of the exhaustion which naturally ensued from it; at all events, in the course of ten or eleven months the St. John’s dancers were no longer to be found in any of the cities of Belgium. The evil, however, was too deeply rooted to give way altogether to such feeble attacks.
A few months after this dancing malady had made its appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle, it broke out at Cologne, where the number of those possessed amounted to more than five hundred, and about the same time at Metz, the streets of which place are said to have been filled with eleven hundred dancers. Peasants left their ploughs, mechanics their workshops, housewives their domestic duties, to join the wild revels, and this rich commercial city became the scene of the most ruinous disorder. Secret desires were excited, and but too often found opportunities for wild enjoyment; and numerous beggars, stimulated by vice and misery, availed themselves of this new complaint to gain a temporary livelihood. Girls and boys quitted their parents, and servants their masters, to amuse themselves at the dances of those possessed, and greedily imbibed the poison of mental infection. Gangs of idle vagabonds, who understood how to imitate to the life the gestures and convulsions of those really affected, roved from place to place seeking maintenance and adventures, and thus, wherever they went, spreading this disgusting spasmodic disease like a plague; for in maladies of this kind the susceptible are infected as easily by the appearance as by the reality. At last it was found necessary to drive away these mischievous guests, who were equally inaccessible to the exorcisms of the priests and the remedies of the physicians. It was not, however, until after four months that the Rhenish cities were able to suppress these impostors, which had so alarmingly increased the original evil. In the meantime, when once called into existence, the plague crept on, and found abundant food in the tone of thought which prevailed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even, though in a minor degree, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth, causing a permanent disorder of the mind, and exhibiting, in those cities to whose inhabitants it was a novelty, scenes as strange as they were detestable.
Strasburg was visited by the dancing plague, or St. Vitus’ dance, * in the year 1418, and the same infatuation existed among the people there as in the towns of Belgium and the Lower Rhine. Many who were seized at the sight of those affected, excited attention at first by their confused and absurd behavior, and then by their constantly following the swarms of dancers. These were seen day and night passing through the streets, accompanied by musicians playing on bagpipes, and by innumerable spectators attracted by curiosity, to which were added anxious parents and relations, who came to look after those among the misguided multitude who belonged to their respective families. Imposture and profligacy played their part in this city also, but the morbid delusion itself seems to have predominated. On this account religion could only bring provisional aid, and therefore the town council benevolently took an interest in the afflicted. They divided them into separate parties, to each of which they appointed responsible superintendents to protect them from harm and perhaps also to restrain their turbulence. They were thus conducted on foot and in carriages to the chapels of St. Vitus, near Zabern and Rotestein, where priests were in attendance to work upon their misguided minds by masses and other religious ceremonies. After divine worship was completed, they were led in solemn procession to the altar, where they made some small offering of alms, and where it is probable that many were, through the influence of devotion and the sanctity of the place, cured of this lamentable aberration. It is worthy of observation, at all events, that the dancing mania did not recommence at the altars of the saint, and that from him alone assistance was implored, and through his miraculous interposition a cure was expected, which was beyond the reach of human skill.
[* “Chorus Sancti Viti, or St. Vitus’ dance; the lascivious dance, Paracelsus calls it, because they that are taken with it can do nothing but dance till they be dead or cured. It is so called for that the parties so troubled were won’t to go to St. Vitus for help; and, after they had danced there awhile, they were certainly freed. ‘Tis strange to hear how long they will dance, and in what manner, over stools, forms, and tables. One in red clothes they cannot abide. Musick above all things they love; and therefore magistrates in Germany will hire musicians to play to them, and some lusty, sturdy companions to dance with them. This disease hath been very common in Germany, as appears by those relations of Schenkius, and Paracelsus in his book of madness, who brags how many several persons he hath cured of it. Felix Platerus (de Mentis Alienat. cap. 3) reports of a woman in Basel whom he saw, that danced a whole month together. The Arabians call it a kind of palsie. Bodine, in his fifth book, speaks of this infirmity; Monavius, in his last epistle to Scoltizius, and in another to Dudithus, where you may read more of it.” — Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.]
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