There is good ground for supposing that the frantic celebration of the festival of St. John, A.D. 1374, only served to bring to a crisis a malady which had been long impending.
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 personal history of St. Vitus is by no means unimportant in this matter. He was a Sicilian youth, who, together with Modestus and Crescentia, suffered martyrdom at the time of the persecution of the Christians, under Diocletian, in the year 303. The legends respecting him are obscure, and he would certainly have been passed over without notice among the innumerable apocryphal martyrs of the first centuries, had not the transfer of his body to St. Denis, and thence, in the year 836, to Corvey, raised him to a higher rank. From this time forth, it may be supposed that many miracles were manifested at his new sepulcher, which were of essential service in confirming the Roman faith among the Germans, and St. Vitus was soon ranked among the fourteen saintly helpers (Nothhelfer or Apotheker). His altars were multiplied, and the people had recourse to them in all kinds of distresses, and revered him as a powerful intercessor. As the worship of these saints was, however, at that time stripped of all historical connections, which were purposely obliterated by the priesthood, a legend was invented at the beginning of the fifteenth century, or perhaps even so early as the fourteenth, that St. Vitus had, just before he bent his neck to the sword, prayed to God that he might protect from the dancing mania all those who should solemnize the day of his commemoration, and fast upon its eve, and that thereupon a voice from heaven was heard, saying, “Vitus, thy prayer is accepted.” Thus St. Vitus became the patron saint of those afflicted with the dancing plague, as St. Martin of Tours was at one time the succorer of persons in smallpox.
The connection which John the Baptist had with the dancing mania of the fourteenth century was of a totally different character. He was originally far from being a protecting saint to those who were attacked, or one who would be likely to give them relief from a malady considered as the work of the devil. On the contrary, the manner in which he was worshipped afforded an important and very evident cause for its development. From the remotest period, perhaps even so far back as the fourth century, St. John’s Day was solemnized with all sorts of strange and rude customs, of which the originally mystical meaning was variously disfigured among different nations by super-added relics of heathenism. Thus, the Germans transferred to the festival of St. John’s Day an ancient heathen usage, the kindling of the Nodfyr, which was forbidden them by St. Boniface, and the belief subsists even to the present day that people and animals that have leaped through these flames, or their smoke, are protected for a whole year from fevers and other diseases, as if by a kind of baptism by fire. Bacchanalian dances, which have originated in similar causes among all the rude nations of the earth, and the wild extravagancies of a heated imagination, were the constant accompaniments of this half-heathen, half-Christian festival. At the period of which we are treating, however, the Germans were not the only people who gave way to the ebullitions of fanaticism in keeping the festival of St. John the Baptist. Similar customs were also to be found among the nations of Southern Europe and of Asia, * and it is more than probable that the Greeks transferred to the festival of John the Baptist, who is also held in high esteem among the Mohammedans, a part of their Bacchanalian mysteries, an absurdity of a kind which it but too frequently met with in human affairs. How far a remembrance of the history of St. John’s death may have had an influence on this occasion we would leave learned theologians to decide. It is of importance here to add only that in Abyssinia, a country entirely separated from Europe, where Christianity has maintained itself in its primeval simplicity against Islam, John is to this day worshipped as protecting saint of those who are attacked with the dancing malady. In these fragments of the dominion of mysticism and superstition, historical connection is not to be found.
[* The Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria states that, at the festival of St. John, large fires were annually kindled in several towns, through which men, women, and children jumped; and that young children were carried through by their mothers. He considered this custom as an ancient Asiatic ceremony of purification, similar to that recorded of Ahaz, in II Kings, xvi. 3. Zonaras, Balsamon, and Photius speak of the St. John’s fires in Constantinople, and the first looks upon them as the remains of an old Grecian custom. Even in modern times fires are still lighted on St. John’s Day in Brittany and other remote parts of Continental Europe, through the smoke of which the cattle are driven in the belief that they will thus be protected from contagious and other diseases, and in these practices protective fumigation originated. That such different nations should have had the same idea of fixing the purification by fire on St. John’s Day is a remarkable coincidence, which perhaps can be accounted for only by its analogy to baptism.]
When we observe, however, that the first dancers in Aix-la-Chapelle appeared in July with St. John’s name in their mouths, the conjecture is probable that the wild revels of St. John’s Day, A.D. 1374, gave rise to this mental plague, which thenceforth has visited so many thousands with incurable aberration of mind and disgusting distortions of body.
This is rendered so much the more probable because some months previously the districts in the neighborhood of the Rhine and the Maine had met with great disasters. So early as February both these rivers had overflowed their banks to a great extent; the walls of the town of Cologne, on the side next the Rhine, had fallen down, and a great many villages had been reduced to the utmost distress. To this was added the miserable condition of Western and Southern Germany. Neither law nor edict could suppress the incessant feuds of the barons, and in Franconia especially the ancient times of club law appeared to be revived. Security of property there was none; arbitrary will everywhere prevailed; corruption of morals and rude power rarely met with even a feeble opposition; whence it arose that the cruel, but lucrative, persecutions of the Jews were in many places still practiced, through the whole of this century, with their wonted ferocity. Thus, throughout the western parts of Germany, and especially in the districts bordering on the Rhine, there was a wretched and oppressed populace; and if we take into consideration that among their numerous bands many wandered about whose consciences were tormented with the recollection of the crimes which they had committed during the prevalence of the black plague, we shall comprehend how their despair sought relief in the intoxication of an artificial delirium. There is hence good ground for supposing that the frantic celebration of the festival of St. John, A.D. 1374, only served to bring to a crisis a malady which had been long impending; and if we would further inquire how a hitherto harmless usage, which like many others had but served to keep up superstition, could degenerate into so serious a disease, we must take into account the unusual excitement of men’s minds and the consequences of wretchedness and want. The bowels, which in many were debilitated by hunger and bad food, were precisely the parts which in most cases were attacked with excruciating pain, and the tympanitic state of the intestines points out to the intelligent physician an origin of the disorder which is well worth consideration.