In the 16th century, some of the citizens of Strasbourg began to act very strangely. They clasped hands and danced, spinning furiously as though moving to some infectious tune only they could hear.
Many danced like this for hours until struck with exhaustion, they collapsed with heaving chests onto the ground. There they lay until they had to strength to rise, only to begin dancing once again.
Some kept this up for hours and others for days. And some even danced so long that when they finally collapsed, they never rose again- at least, if some of the medieval sources can be believed.
This “Dancing Plague,” as observers began to call it, that struck the citizens of Strasbourg wasn’t the first example of compulsive dancing that affected the people of medieval Europe. Cases had been reported all the way back to the 7th century. But this outbreak was one of the largest.
For centuries, the mania seemed to spread across much of Western and Central Europe, forming what is undoubtedly one of the strangest episodes of mass hysteria in history. But what exactly caused people to begin dancing themselves to death? And what does it tell us about life in medieval Europe?
Incidents of spontaneous dancing outbreaks have happened throughout history. Usually, they were attributed to the influence of saints filling people with the joy of the holy spirit. Thus, medieval people often referred to them as “St. Vitus’s Dance,” or “St. John’s Dance.” These episodes often took place around the time of these saints’ feast days or near shrines dedicated to them. And the dancing procession would usually end at a church or shrine, where people prayed for the saint to cure them of their compulsion to dance. These religious episodes were documented fairly regularly throughout the Middle Ages.
They were also widely spread across Europe. The largest concentrations seem to have been around the Rhine Valley, which followed the mighty river from the Alps of Switzerland to the Netherlands. But there were also episodes in what is now Italy, where people had a different interpretation of what was causing them. There the dancing was called “Tarantism,” and was attributed to the poisonous bites of spiders that struck while people were tending their fields. The venom was supposed to have sent people into fits of ecstatic dancing until they collapsed in death. A popular dance called the “Tarantella” was even said to have been created to mimic these symptoms.
There were cases of spontaneous dancing outbreaks recorded in Bernburg in the 11th century when a group of peasants began to dance around a local cathedral and disturbing the Christmas Eve service. And in the city of Erfurt in 1237, a group of children assembled for a dancing procession that took them all the way to Arnstad. This particular outbreak is interesting because it occurred around the same time that the famous tale of the Pied Piper, a disgruntled rat-catcher who is said to have led the children of the children of the nearby city of Hamelin away with his flute, is supposed to have happened.