Medieval Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism

Medieval Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism
Medieval Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism

Intro

Medieval Europe was a ridden-rat era, swamped with floods, famines, droughts, and natural disasters. It was in this context that a strange dancing phenomenon developed across central and south Europe, commonly known as Medieval Dance Mania, in which people just danced themselves to exhaustion.

Medieval Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism are often confused and named as the same event, but in reality, they were different outbreaks of the crazed plague that swept Europe at different periods of time and in different locations.

Nevertheless, the symptoms were the same. The deadly plague grappled adults and children alike, making them dance non-stop for days or weeks until they passed out from exhaustion. Hundreds of people died during these events, unable to stop themselves from the madness that took hold over their bodies and minds.

Many hypotheses have been put forth as to what caused the strange dancing madness, ranging from a social contagion phenomenon such as Mass Hysteria to brain damage to fungus poisoning and, even demonic or Satanic possession.  None of which can account for all the symptoms displayed at the time. To this day, the cause of this mysterious dance, which killed hundreds, is still unknown.

Medieval Dance Mania

The Dancing Mania was a phenomenon in which large groups of people in Europe began to dance uncontrollably for days at a time. This phenomenon lasted until the 17th century, with outbreaks occurring every few years. Symptoms included an irresistible urge to dance, often for days at a time, with people dancing in public streets, halls, and churches. People would often shout and sing and move in a trance-like state.

Dancing Mania derives its name from the word Choreomania, from the Greek choros (dance) and mania (madness). Other names given to the prancing phenomenon are Dancing Mania, St. John’s Dance and St. Vitu’s Dance. The last two names come because originally, and with help of the Church, people believed that Dancing Mania was a curse sent by either of those saints in order to punish the people for their wrongdoings.

The first documented instance of dancing mania occurred in the 7th century in the Rhineland area of Germany. The outbreak involved a group of 18 people dancing for days and singing, disturbing the Christmas Eve church service.

Those affected were said to have a trance-like state and were unable to control their movements. Some believed it to be a sign of divine punishment for sins, while others interpreted it as a sign of supernatural possession.

The cause of this outbreak remains unknown, though some theories suggest it may have been the result of a combination of physical and psychological factors, such as mass hysteria or a form of epilepsy.

Music was typically played during outbreaks of dancing mania, as it was thought to remedy the problem. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father
Music was typically played during outbreaks of Choreomania, as it was thought to remedy the problem. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father

Further outbreaks occurred during the 13th century. One, in particular, occurred in Erfurt, Germany in 1237. Participants were mostly women and children, dancing uncontrollably in the streets and in the churches. They are said to have travelled 20 km from Erfurt to Arnstadt, much in a similar way to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which originated at around the same time.

Witnesses described the dancers as having an “unnatural gaiety,” “leaping,” and “shouting.” Some people even claimed that the dancers had been possessed by the devil. The dancing mania persisted for several days, with some participants fainting or even dying as a result of their exertions. The cause of the dancing mania is still a mystery, but some historians have suggested possible explanations such as mass hysteria, epilepsy, or ergot poisoning.

Another Choreomania outbreak occurred in 1278, which involved about 200 people dancing simultaneously over the River Meuse, resulting in its collapse.

Further outbreaks were reported between 1373 west of Cologne, and it quickly spread to other areas of Germany. Over the next three years, the Dancing Plague spread over to Luxemburg and Italy, as well as continuing with outbreaks in Germany, England and Netherlands.

After only a handful of years of relative peace, another Choreomania outbreak occurred once again in Germany in 1381, followed by another one in 1418 (Germany), where it is said that people fasted for days, and, a further one in 1428 (also in Germany), where it was reported that a group of several women danced in frenzy and that a monk danced himself to death.

Tarantism

Tarantism is a phenomenon that has been observed in various parts of Europe and the Mediterranean since ancient times. It is a trance-like state that is allegedly induced by a bite from the Lycosa tarantula, a wolf spider native to the region. Although a more likely candidate is the Latrodectus tredecimguttatus spider.

The bite leads to physical symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and trembling. It is often accompanied by intense emotional reactions such as uncontrollable weeping, laughing, and singing. The afflicted individuals would then be subjected to a ritualistic treatment referred to as tarantism.

The ritual consisted of a three-day period of isolation in which the afflicted person was encouraged to reflect on the cause of their malaise, usually interpreted as either a physical or psychological ailment. During this period, the afflicted individual was encouraged to express their emotions through music, song and dance, known as the Tarantella. This period of reflection was followed by a period of healing, during which the afflicted would be treated with music, herbs, and other remedies.

Antidotum tarantulae, a curative musical score from Athanasius Kircher (c. 1673) - music for treatment of tarantism or tarantula envenomation
Antidotum tarantulae, a curative musical score from Athanasius Kircher (c. 1673) – music for treatment of tarantism or tarantula envenomation

The region in which tarantism was most prevalent was southern Italy, particularly the Apulian region. It was especially popular in the towns of Galatina and Lecce, where it was believed to be the result of a “tarantula bite”. The phenomenon was observed in the early 11th century and persisted until the 17th century.

The phenomenon of tarantism is closely associated with the music of the region, particularly a type of folk music known as tarantella. This music was believed to have the power to cure the afflicted person. It was typically performed by a troupe of musicians, who would play the tarantella while the afflicted individual danced. The music was often accompanied by singing, in which the afflicted person would express their emotions and experiences.

The phenomenon of tarantism was also closely associated with the cult of Saint Paul of Galatina, an Italian saint who was believed to have been bitten by a tarantula and cured with the help of music. It was believed that those who followed the cult of Saint Paul of Galatina were particularly susceptible to the effects of tarantism.

Tarantism had a significant impact on European culture, particularly in the areas of music and the development of folk music throughout Europe, literature, and medicine, with authors such as Shakespeare, Molière, and Boccaccio writing works that featured characters afflicted with the condition. These works helped to popularize the phenomenon and spread awareness of it throughout Europe.

The phenomenon also had an influence on the development of modern medicine, as the medical profession began to recognize the potential of music to help those afflicted with physical and psychological ailments. It was also seen as a form of psychological therapy, as the afflicted individual was encouraged to express their emotions through music and dancing.

In the same way as Dancing Mania, people would begin to suddenly dance, believing the venom from old bites was suddenly reactivated by the sound of music. As with Medieval Dance Mania, sufferers had similar symptoms such as headaches, trembling, twitching and visions, as well as a strong aversion to the colour black.

Women were reported to be the most affected by Tarantism. A study by Italian anthropologist and historian Ernesto de Martino revealed that most cases of tarantism were probably unrelated to spider bites but people believed they were infected by someone who had been, or that they had simply touched a spider.

It has been proposed that ancient Bacchanalian rites that were suppressed by the Roman Senate in 186BC went underground, reappearing under the guise of emergency therapy for bite victims.  Others argue that tarantism is consistent with Mass Psychogenic Illness (see Common Hypothesis below).

In summary, tarantism was a phenomenon that occurred in southern Italy in the early 11th century and persisted until the 17th century, with small outbreaks as late as 1959. It was believed to be induced by a bite from the Lycosa tarantula and was treated with music, herbs, and other remedies. It had a significant impact on European culture, particularly in the areas of music, literature, and medicine, and is still remembered today as an important cultural phenomenon.

The Dancing Plague

The most severe outbreak of the Medieval Dance Mania occurred in the German city of Strasburg in 1518. This particular event has been dubbed The Dancing Plague or the Dance Epidemic of 1518.

While Strasburg was considered a wealthy city under the Holy Roman Empire, the reality that the common people experienced was very different from what the ruling classes enjoyed. Hunger, famine and widespread diseases like smallpox and syphilis were part of everyday life. Some scholars believe that it was these conditions, coupled with superstitious and religious beliefs were the causes of mass hysteria behind the Dancing Plague of 1518. 

The Dancing Plague -Strasbourg
The Dancing Plague -Strasbourg

A single woman began to dance, and shortly she was joined by a group of people. The crowd is said to have been somewhere between 50 and 400 people, including children. The exact number is unclear. This particular outbreak of the Dancing Plague lasted 3 months, between July and September of 1518.

Much like its counterpart Tarantism, The Dancing Plague was believed to be caused by a spider (a tarantula), whose venom made the original dancer, and the subsequent group that joined her, twitch and dance convulsively. The only cure for the bite was to ‘let it ride’ to the right sort of music and dance until the effect had passed.

Ultimately, council officials, physicians and bishops intervened, sending the afflicted to a hospital.

Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portraying three people affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel.
Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portraying three people affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel.

Further dancing plague events occurred in 1536 and 1551, both in Germany. It is believed that Choreomania completely died out by the mid-17th century, with small outbreaks persisting in Italy until as late as 1959.

Common Hypothesis

It is worth noting that while all the plagues had dancing as the commonality between them, not all plagues were the same. Some included singing, laughing, crying, rude gestures, dancing naked, acting like animals, hopping around, sexual intercourse, aversion to the colour black or being unable to perceive the colour red, convulsions, hyperventilation, epileptic fits, chest pains and visions.

Medieval Dance Mania, the Dance Plague and Tarantism came and went like a wild dream, leaving people in shock afterwards. Many hypotheses have been put forth as possible explanations for this strange phenomenon.

Sydenham’s chorea

In the 17th century, Medieval Dance Mania and the Dancing Plague had been diagnosed as Sydenham’s chorea.

Sydenham’s chorea, also known as chorea minor and rheumatic chorea, is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, rapid, jerky movements of the face, arms, and legs. It is caused by an autoimmune reaction to a streptococcal infection. Symptoms usually appear several weeks after the infection and can last for months or longer. Treatment includes antibiotics to treat the infection, as well as medications to control the movements.

Brain Inflammation and Bacterial Infection

These hypotheses suggest that the behaviour is not due to psychological or spiritual causes, but rather due to a physical cause such as an infectious agent.

Infectious agents can trigger an inflammatory response in the brain, leading to changes in behaviour and an increase in movements, such as in the cases of typhus, encephalitis and epilepsy.

These hypotheses have been supported by evidence that suggests that infectious agents such as viruses can cause changes in behaviour and increased movement. Additionally, studies have shown that patients with brain inflammation have a higher risk of developing movement disorders, such as Dancing Mania and Dancing Plague.

However, these conditions cannot account for all the symptoms.

Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI)

The exact cause of Medieval Choreomania is unknown, but it has been suggested that the mass hysteria was caused by a combination of environmental and psychological factors. Environmental factors such as crop failure, famine, and war may have created a sense of desperation that caused people to turn to religion, superstition, and dancing as a way to cope. Psychological factors such as fear, anxiety, and the belief in demons and witches may have also played a role in the mass hysteria. Additionally, the Church’s influence over the population may have been a factor in the spreading of the mania.

The effects of Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), or Mass Hysteria, show symptoms of rapid spread of a collective mass delusion between a cohesive group of people, probably derived from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss or alteration of function.

Mass Psychogenic Illness is not a well-understood phenomenon, but it often includes propagation in a segregated group during times of extraordinary anxiety and has a preponderance of female participants. The result of Mass Hysteria often translates into an array of physical symptoms, ranging from headaches to vomiting to loss of consciousness.

Fungus and LSD

The most popular theory for the cause of the dance mania is that it was caused by ergot poisoning. This theory suggests that the mania was caused by the ingestion of bread made from rye, which was infected with ergot, a fungus that contains a number of powerful hallucinogenic alkaloids. Ergotamine is the main psychoactive product of ergot fungi; it is structurally related to the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) and is the substance from which LSD-25 was originally synthesized.

These alkaloids can cause a range of symptoms, including delirium, fever, hallucinations and seizures, which could explain the wild dancing and other bizarre behaviour associated with the mania.

Underground Religious Cults

Another theory that is not discussed enough, is that The Medieval Dance Mania, Dancing Plague and Tarantism outbreaks were staged and they were part of underground religious cults that had survived from Greek and Roman rituals that had been banned by the Church.

Supporters of this theory point to possible evidence of links between the outbreaks and cults dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, or Cybele, the goddess of fertility. They also point to evidence of secretive, night-time rituals that included music, dancing and trance-like states. These rituals were believed to have been used to induce ecstatic states and to summon spirits or deities. Some even believe that the dancers were possessed by demons or spirits or were communing with deities during the outbreaks.

However, there is no conclusive evidence to support any of these theories, and the origins of the Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism still remain a mystery today.

1 thought on “Medieval Dance Mania, the Dancing Plague and Tarantism: 7th to 17th Century European Outbreaks

  1. Thank you so much to share such things about history. Before reading this article never thought that any disease named ‘Dancing Plague’ ever exist in our world. It’s very disheartening to know about severity of dancing plague.

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