Dancing mania (also known as dancing plague, choreomania, St John’s Dance and, historically, St. Vitus’ Dance) was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, Germany, in 1374, and it quickly spread throughout Europe; one particularly notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518.
Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, dancing mania was not an isolated event, and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork. Generally, musicians accompanied dancers, to help ward off the mania, but this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging more to join in. There is no consensus among modern-day scholars as to the cause of dancing mania.
The several theories proposed range from religious cults being behind the processions to people dancing to relieve themselves of stress and put the poverty of the period out of their minds. It is, however, thought to be as a mass psychogenic illness in which the occurrence of similar physical symptoms, with no known physical cause, affect a large group of people as a form of social influence.
“Dancing mania” is derived from the term “choreomania”, from the Greek choros (dance) and mania (madness), and is also known as “dancing plague”. The term was coined by Paracelsus, and the condition was initially considered a curse sent by a saint, usually St John the Baptist or St Vitus, and was therefore known as “St Vitus’ Dance” or “St John’s Dance”. Victims of dancing mania often ended their processions at places dedicated to that saint, who was prayed to in an effort to end the dancing; incidents often broke out around the time of the feast of St Vitus.
St Vitus’ Dance was diagnosed, in the 17th century, as Sydenham chorea. Dancing mania has also been known as epidemic chorea and epidemic dancing. A disease of the nervous system, chorea is characterized by symptoms resembling those of dancing mania, which has also rather unconvincingly been considered a form of epilepsy. Scientists have described dancing mania as a “collective mental disorder”, “collective hysterical disorder”, and “mass madness”.
The earliest known outbreak of dancing mania occurred in the 7th century, and it reappeared many times across Europe until about the 17th century, when it stopped abruptly. One of the earliest known incidents occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, where 18 peasants began singing and dancing around a church, disturbing a Christmas Eve service.
Further outbreaks occurred during the 13th century, including one in 1237 in which a large group of children traveled from Erfurt to Arnstadt, jumping and dancing all the way, in marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Another incident, in 1278, involved about 200 people dancing on a bridge over the River Meuse in Germany, resulting in its collapse. Many of the survivors were restored to full health at a nearby chapel dedicated to St Vitus. The first major outbreak of the mania occurred between 1373 and 1374, with incidents reported in England, Germany and the Netherlands.
On 24 June 1374, one of the biggest outbreaks began in Aix-la-Chapelle, Aachen (Germany), before spreading to other places such as Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren, Utrecht, and to countries such as Italy and Luxembourg. Further episodes occurred in 1375 and 1376, with incidents in France, Germany and Holland, and in 1381 there was an outbreak in Augsburg. Further incidents occurred in 1418 in Strasbourg, where people fasted for days and the outbreak was possibly caused by exhaustion. In another outbreak, in 1428 in Schaffhausen, a monk danced to death and, in the same year, a group of women in Zurich were reportedly in a dancing frenzy.
One of the biggest outbreaks occurred in July 1518, in Strasbourg (see Dancing Plague of 1518), where a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street; within four days she had been joined by 33 others, and within a month there were 400, many of whom suffered heart attacks and died. Further incidents occurred during the 16th century, when the mania was at its peak: in 1536 in Basel, involving a group of children; and in 1551 in Anhalt, involving just one man. In the 17th century, incidents of recurrent dancing were recorded by professor of medicine Gregor Horst, who noted:
Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance madly all day and all night until they collapse in ecstasy. In this way they come to themselves again and feel little or nothing until the next May, when they are again… forced around St. Vitus’ Day to betake themselves to that place… [o]ne of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.
Dancing mania appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century. According to John Waller, although numerous incidents were recorded, the best documented cases are the outbreaks of 1374 and 1518, for which there is abundant contemporary evidence.