On the 24th June 1374, people in Aachen in Germany suddenly and mysteriously began dancing in the streets and didn’t stop for many weeks. Known variously as St John’s Dance, St. Vitus’ Dance, or the ‘dancing plague’, the occurrence in Aachen was neither the first nor the last – but is one of the best documented.

Many hundreds of people were affected by the dance mania, which involved erratic movements and often involuntary shouts and screams. Of those afflicted many would continue to dance until they dropped to the floor of exhaustion, foaming at the mouth and twitching their limbs until they had recovered sufficiently to resume the dance again. Others died of cardiac arrest or from injuries sustained during the dance.

It’s understandable that people at the time were concerned about the mania and that various theories were suggested about its cause. Religion, and punishment from saints John or Vitus, were closely associated with both the cause and the cure. It’s been suggested that the virtual disappearance of outbreaks by the 17th Century coincided with the spread of Protestantism and its rejection of the veneration of saints.

More recent theories point towards the fact that the first dancers were people on pilgrimage, not citizens of the town in which the dancing happened. The suggestion is therefore that the dancers were members of cults performing highly-planned rituals that would have seen them executed for heresy if not for the excuse that it was a mass outbreak of dancing plague. Others commentators simply suggest that the dancing was a form of mass hysteria.

 

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© Scott Allsop