When Medieval Europeans danced until they died
In 1278, a group of nearly 200 dancing Germans stomped, stamped and jostled the Maas bridge to pieces. There were deaths, injuries, and some full recoveries at the nearby chapel, dedicated to St. Vitus. The incident and aftermath helped earn such frenzied dance mobs as St. Vitus Dance, which was very appropriate not only for the proximity to the accident on the bridge, but also because the Vitus is the saint of both dancing and epileptics. While some people thought that perhaps the saint had actually cursed people to the wild gyrations that seemed to occupy the space between rhythmic and uncontrollable spasms, Vitus may be the one explanation that we can most easily rule out. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, Europe saw a number of outbreaks of manic dancing, but one single explanation has yet to be found for all of them.
Dance all night, and all day, and all week, and…
One of the most pronounced episodes of choreomania, or dancing mania, was in Strasbourg in July, 1518. Supposedly starting with a one Mrs. Troffea, who was seen dancing in the street for days on end. As one might expect, she attracted attention, and dance partners. Within a week, 34 other people were dancing continuously, although that number eventually grew to 400. After days without rest or nourishment, participants were suffering from injuries and exhaustion that lead to death in more than one instance. Reporting of the events seems sketchy, with strange details like dancers being enraged by the color red. Or sometimes black. Or acting like animals, or running naked. Or… well, the list goes on, especially if you start looking at similar outbreaks.
Diagnosis for dancing
It obviously warranted the interest of town authorities, who first ruled out supernatural causes (sorry, St. Vitus.) With doctors convinced it was some kind of physical malady, like “hot blood,” they thought the best course of action would be to actually keep the dancers going, possibly to get it out of their system. As such, musicians were hired to keep the beat, even if this sometimes meant more people would start dancing.
As Europe saw a number of outbreaks of dance mania, there have been enough variety in the details from each event that it’s hard to tie them all together. One likely cause of such outbreaks was fungus on grain causing ergot poisoning. While that might account for some of the symptoms, it wouldn’t cover everything the dancers supposedly did. Other options include that these events were connected to religious cults, spurred by the tension left by the Black plague in the 14th century. The fervor sparked by piety may have grown out of control, especially once exhaustion set in on possible worshipers. Beyond that, mental illness can’t be ruled out, either on a personal basis or as a form of mass hysteria. Or, of course, there’s always the option for a mix of causes bringing people together, some for fun, some for a sense of belonging and some suffering from an emotional or physiological malady.
Source: The Mysterious Case of Medieval Dance Mania by Ḏḥwty, Ancient Origins