More Ancient Dancing Plagues

By Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker

The Dancing Mania of the year 1374 was, in fact, no new disease, but a phenomenon well known in the Middle Ages, of which many wondrous stories were traditionally current among the people.

In the year 1237 upwards of a hundred children were said to have been suddenly seized with this disease at Erfurt, and to have proceeded dancing and jumping along the road to Arnstadt. When they arrived at that place they fell exhausted to the ground, and, according to an account of an old chronicle, many of them, after they were taken home by their parents, died, and the rest remained affected, to the end of their lives, with a permanent tremor.

Another occurrence was related to have taken place on the Moselle Bridge at Utrecht, on the 17th day of June, a.d. 1278, when two hundred fanatics began to dance, and would not desist until a priest passed, who was carrying the Host to a person that was sick, upon which, as if in punishment of their crime, the bridge gave way, and they were all drowned. A similar event also occurred so early as the year 1027, near the convent church of Kolbig, not far from Bornburg. According to an oft-repeated tradition, eighteen peasants, some of whose names are still preserved, are said to have disturbed divine service on Christmas Eve by dancing and brawling in the churchyard, whereupon the priest, Ruprecht, inflicted a curse upon them, that they should dance and scream for a whole year without ceasing.

This curse is stated to have been completely fulfilled, so that the unfortunate sufferers at length sank knee-deep into the earth, and remained the whole time without nourishment, until they were finally released by the intercession of two pious bishops. It is said that, upon this, they fell into a deep sleep, which lasted three days, and that four of them died: the rest continuing to suffer all their lives from a trembling of their limbs.

It is not worth while to separate what may have been true, and what the addition of crafty priests, in this strangely distorted story. It is sufficient that it was believed, and related with astonishment and horror, throughout the Middle Ages; so that when there was any exciting cause for this delirious raving and wild rage for dancing, it failed not to produce its effects upon men whose thoughts were given up to a belief in wonders and apparitions.

This disposition of mind, altogether so peculiar to the Middle Ages, and which, happily for mankind, has yielded to an improved state of civilisation and the diffusion of popular instruction, accounts for the origin and long duration of this extraordinary mental disorder. The good sense of the people recoiled with horror and aversion from this heavy plague, which, whenever malevolent persons wished to curse their bitterest enemies and adversaries, was long after used as a malediction. The indignation also that was felt by the people at large against the immorality of the age, was proved by their ascribing this frightful affliction to the inefficacy of baptism by unchaste priests, as if innocent children were doomed to atone, in after-years, for this desecration of the sacrament administered by unholy hands.

We have already mentioned what perils the priests in the Netherlands incurred from this belief. They now, indeed, endeavoured to hasten their reconciliation with the irritated, and, at that time, very degenerate people, by exorcisms, which, with some, procured them greater respect than ever, because they thus visibly restored thousands of those who were affected. In general, however, there prevailed a want of confidence in their efficacy, and then the sacred rites had as little power in arresting the progress of this deeply-rooted malady as the prayers and holy services subsequently had at the altars of the greatly-revered martyr St. Vitus.

We may therefore ascribe it to accident merely, and to a certain aversion to this demoniacal disease, which seemed to lie beyond the reach of human skill, that we meet with but few and imperfect notices of the St. Vitus’s dance in the second half of the fifteenth century. The highly-coloured descriptions of the sixteenth century contradict the notion that this mental plague had in any degree diminished in its severity, and not a single fact is to be found which supports the opinion that any one of the essential symptoms of the disease, not even excepting the tympany, had disappeared, or that the disorder itself had become milder in its attacks.

The physicians never, as it seems, throughout the whole of the fifteenth century, undertook the treatment of the Dancing Mania, which, according to the prevailing notions, appertained exclusively to the servants of the Church. Against demoniacal disorders they had no remedies, and though some at first did promulgate the opinion that the malady had its origin in natural circumstances, such as a hot temperament, and other causes named in the phraseology of the schools, yet these opinions were the less examined as it did not appear worth while to divide with a jealous priesthood the care of a host of fanatical vagabonds and beggars.

From The Black Death and the Dancing Mania, by J. F. C. Hecker
London, Paris, New York & Melbourne: Cassel and Company, Limited, 1888.

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