Prepare to be transported back in time to the medieval streets of Aachen, Germany, where a peculiar and captivating phenomenon Called the Dancing Plague once took hold. Imagine a scene straight out of a medieval fairy tale, where people danced uncontrollably, moving frantically until exhaustion consumed them. This bewildering occurrence, known as the Aachen Dancing Mania, has left historians and scholars puzzled for centuries.
The Emergence of the Dancing Plague
Picture the year 1374, a time when the quaint town of Aachen buzzed with daily life. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the citizens found themselves ensnared by an inexplicable compulsion to dance involuntarily. What began as isolated cases soon transformed into a contagious frenzy, spreading to neighbouring regions such as the Netherlands and northeastern France. The dancing mania had taken hold, leaving hundreds of people leaping, twirling, and twitching in an uncontrollable dance marathon.
A Cursed Affliction: St. John’s Dance
The Dancing Plague, dubbed by some as St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’ Dance, was an enigmatic affliction that was believed to be a divine curse cast upon the unfortunate souls. Such a notion may sound ludicrous to our modern sensibilities, but back then, the connection between religion and inexplicable phenomena was deeply ingrained in society. With St. John the Baptist’s birth being celebrated by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions, it’s intriguing to ponder whether there was a mystical link to this dance mania.
Chilling Historical Accounts
As we delve deeper into the dance mania of Aachen, we find ourselves grappling with chilling historical accounts. Numerous medieval sources from different towns testify to the events that followed that of 1374, amplifying the credibility of this perplexing phenomenon. Municipal records from Strasbourg, in particular, provide vivid descriptions of the mania that gripped the city, offering a glimpse into the torment endured by those affected.
The bizarre Strasbourg incident took place in the summer of 1518. The event all began when a woman named Frau Troffea initiated an unrelenting dance, captivating onlookers as she twirled and gyrated. As time passed, an ever-growing number of people joined her in this extraordinary dance, reaching a point where the city authorities, probably out of sheer embarrassment and in a desperate attempt to disguise this unprecedented crisis, constructed a stage and hired musicians.
Unravelling the Motives: Possession or Cult Rituals?
Over the centuries, scholars and researchers have put forth various theories in an attempt to unravel the motives behind dance mania. Some believed that the dancers were possessed by malevolent spirits, a notion rooted in the religious beliefs of the time. Others speculated about the existence of a clandestine cult ritual centred around dance, with its origins and purpose shrouded in mystery. Could these theories hold the key to unlocking the secrets of the Aachen Dancing Mania?
Ergot Poisoning: A Tangible Explanation for the Dancing Plague?
Intriguingly, another hypothesis emerged, suggesting a more tangible explanation for the dance mania phenomenon—ergot poisoning. Ergot, a mould that grows on damp rye stalks, has been known to induce hallucinations and tremors. Could the consumption of contaminated rye have played a role in triggering uncontrolled dancing? While this theory may provide a scientific lens through which to view the events, it is essential to consider its limitations and evaluate other contributing factors.
According to Robert E. Bartholomew’s article in the July/August 2000 edition of Skeptical Inquirer, it is worth noting that not all the regions affected by the inexplicable dancing compulsion were inhabited by individuals who consumed rye. Additionally, the outbreaks did not consistently occur during the wet season, which is when the fungus would have proliferated. He writes:
The behaviour of these dancers was described as strange because while exhibiting actions that were part of the Christian tradition, and paying homage to Jesus, Mary, and various saints at chapels and shrines, other elements were foreign. Radulphus de Rivo’s chronicle Decani Tongrensis states that “in their songs, they uttered the names of devils…
The Psychology of Mass Psychogenic Illness
Contemporary researchers present a fresh perspective on dance mania, proposing that it manifests as a mass psychogenic illness triggered by fear and depression. The inhabitants of Aachen and its surrounding regions were no strangers to adversity—devastating famine, crop failures, and the relentless spread of diseases plagued their lives. These dire circumstances, combined with anxiety, guilt, and deep-rooted superstitions, may have rendered the populace vulnerable to succumbing to this peculiar involuntary state.
Another intriguing hypothesis suggests that the outbreaks of the dancing mania were, in fact, meticulously orchestrated performances designed to appear as strange and unfamiliar behaviour. It is speculated that religious cults might have enacted well-coordinated dances, drawing inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman rituals. Despite being prohibited during that era, these rituals could be cleverly disguised as uncontrollable dancing mania.
Justus Hecker, a prominent medical writer from the 19th century, shed light on a particular festival associated with the dancing mania phenomenon. He described a practice known as “the kindling of the Nodfyr,” wherein participants would leap through fire and smoke as a means of safeguarding against diseases. However, as highlighted by Bartholomew, it is worth noting that individuals engaged in this ritual often continued to jump and leap long after the flames had ceased to burn, adding an air of mystery to their prolonged, frenzied movements.
No Sensible Explanation Suitable for the Time!
There have been many attempts to explain the dancing mania phenomenon, and not of them really work. When one considers the numerous outbreaks scattered across multiple countries and the infrequent display of associated signs of illness among the people, ergot poisoning begins to lose its explanatory power. Mass hysteria could work too, but outbreaks have occurred over a thousand years and across many countries. Staged anti-church events are doubtful, too, as religious persecutions were all too common for participants to risk their lives.
The Imperidox Theories for the Dancing Plague
We believe that there are only two possible causes – drugs (not ergot in its raw form) or disease. There is considerable evidence that religions have used drugs and intoxicants to simulate religious fervour and ecstasy. The ancient Greek Oracles are said to have eaten mysterious herbs and inhaled volcanic vapours. Practitioners of pagan rituals were known to have used various fungi, including the notorious magic mushroom. Shamans would smoke ayahuasca and tobacco. It is entirely plausible that the people afflicted with dancing mania had unwittingly been given a drug, perhaps similar to MDMA, via a communal water source.
The second possibility is the existence of an unknown disease. The recent Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted how a disease can appear suddenly and radically alter our cultural perspectives. Among the two possibilities, it is more probable that drugs were administered by underground pagan activists as an act of rebellion and revenge against the dominating Christian church of the time.
Lessons From History
As we reflect upon the Aachen Dancing Mania, we find ourselves confronted with valuable lessons from history. This bizarre phenomenon reminds us of the resilience and vulnerabilities of humanity, even in the face of the most bewildering trials. It encourages us to delve deeper into the complexities of the human mind, seeking to understand the psychological and sociocultural factors that shape our behaviour.
The dance mania of Aachen remains an enigma, a tantalising glimpse into a bygone era filled with mysticism and uncertainty. While we may never fully unlock its secrets, the historical accounts, theories, and analyses surrounding this phenomenon offer intriguing perspectives. From religious beliefs and possession to cult rituals, ergot poisoning, deliberate introduction of drugs, and mass psychogenic illness, the explanations vary, painting a complex tapestry of the human experience. The dancing mania of Aachen serves as a reminder that history’s mysteries continue to captivate us, urging us to explore the depths of the past in our quest for knowledge and understanding.