Interestingly, this tactic seems to have worked and the Dancing Plague vanished from Strasbourg as suddenly as it had arrived, although other outbreaks were recorded throughout the century. But what could have made these people dance until they collapsed? Over the years, many different theories have been proposed by historians. Some have argued that the answer lies in what they were eating. Ergot poisoning, a condition caused by eating a fungus that grows on rye could explain many of the symptoms. Ergot produces alkaloids that can lead to hallucinations and convulsions.
But most historians dismiss this argument. Many of the dancing mania outbreaks didn’t occur in the fall when autumn rains tend to lead to the growth of ergot. And the symptoms of ergot poisoning usually involve intense seizures that would make coordinated dancing difficult. If we are to accept that the events took place exactly as they are described, which of course is always a dicey proposition with medieval accounts, then the answer probably has more to do with psychology than with any physical condition. And when you consider the Dancing Plague as a function of psychology, two possible explanations emerge.
The first thing that one must consider when examining these episodes is the psychology of the medieval mind. Life in the Middle Ages was often brutal and short. Starvation and disease were constant threats, particularly for peasants, as was the threat of a violent death. And the horrific events of the Black Death that struck Europe in the 14th century were a cataclysmic reminder that mortality was always just around the corner. For medieval peasants, daily life was a constant source of anxiety and stress. And this stress created the perfect conditions for something called “mass hysteria.”
Mass hysteria is a condition where an entire group of people begins to exhibit similar symptoms of a psychological condition. There have been examples of episodes of mass hysteria throughout human history, often manifesting themselves as whole groups of people spontaneously developing physical symptoms such as seizures or fainting. The human mind is very susceptible to suggestion, particularly when one sees large groups of their friends or people in their community developing a similar group of symptoms. It’s easy to imagine how groups of medieval peasants, already dealing with the psychological stress of daily life, would suddenly fall victim to an episode of mass hysteria like the Dancing Plague.
Others have argued that the event was actually religious in nature. Groups of pilgrims, often gripped with religious fervor that manifested itself in dance, often traveled the countryside in the Middle Ages. These groups could have served to spread this religious dancing to the communities they came into contact with, which could explain why the dancing outbreaks behaved almost like a virus. But whatever the cause, the Dancing Plague serves as a reminder of the power that suggestion has over people. And it’s worth asking ourselves if we are really so immune to it today.