Many of us will be familiar with the image of the Danse Macabre: scenes depicting dancing skeletons, and the living dancing with the dead. In the work of Herefordshire chronicler Walter Map he describes a knight who rescues his dead wife from a dance of the dead.
What’s less well known is that for a disquieting length of time – from the 13th to 17th centuries – the Medieval European might be able to see a live enactment of the Danse Macabre as bands of strangers, friends and neighbours dancing themselves to exhaustion, or even death. This was the dancing plague: St. Vitus’ Dance, The Dancers of St. John, Tarantism.
The Earliest Dancing Plague
The record often cited as the ‘earliest’ mention of a dancing plague is almost certainly pure folklore. Around 1021-1027, at some indeterminate location, eighteen peasants began dancing and whooping in a churchyard on Christmas Eve. Their carrying on was sufficiently loud to disturb the Christmas mass. The parish priest rushed out, catching the miscreants in the act and cursing them so that they would dance and scream for an entire year. The curse held good, and stories tell us that when the curse ended, they fell into a deep sleep that lasted three days, with four of the company dying before they regained consciousness.
Another early mention is from 1237 in Erfurt, where over a hundred children were seized with an uncontrollable compulsion to dance and jump in procession all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt (about 20-25 km). Of those who were returned to their parents, many died, and the survivors suffered a tremor for the rest of their lives.
The Dancing Plague in Germany
In 1374, with Europe physically and culturally scarred by the 1315-22 famine, the start of the Little Ice Age, and the Black Death of 1348, Aix-la-Chapelle, also known as Achen, was visited suddenly by a plague of dancers. These men and women, some from Achen, but many coming from far and wide, shrieked the name of St. John the Baptist, whose name had been associated with a summer festival of frenetic dancing, and claimed that they were beset with visions. Sufferers claimed that while dancing their sense were dimmed to the world around them and they saw wild religious phantasmagoria: visions of the heavens opening to show them Christ enthroned with the Virgin Mary, rivers of blood that washed over them and completely immersed them, and darker images still featuring demons and spirits whose names they cried aloud as they danced.
The dancers presented a similar figure to those of the Flagellants who had appeared in the wake of the Black Death. Processions and celebrations were held for them, and towns banded together to provide them food and shelter. They displayed a similar element of self-persecution and the theatre of punishment as Flagellants. When the plague spread from Achen to Liege, Utrecht and Tongres, the dancers started appearing with cloth girdles around the waists, which they would implore spectators to tighten by inserting a stick and twisting. Other dancers would urge their audience to stamp on and kick certain body parts, ostensibly to relive the colic-like retention of gasses that their dancing would cause.
In fact, the social disturbance was as much that of annoying itinerant entertainers as it was a religious portent. When the dancers would appear apprentices would vanish and children would neglect their chores to watch the spectacle. The dancers were said to have been able to dance for days without fatigue (some lasting weeks or a month). Out of compassion for the dancers, and to speed the passing of the disturbance, some municipalities began hiring musicians to speed the pace of the dance, sometimes engaging athletes to join the revels and exhaust the dancers as quickly as possible.
Most dancers who reached exhaustion seem to have been relieved of their affliction after a deep sleep, but not all were so fortunate. Some died of strokes and heart attacks, while others collapsed into pseudoepileptic seizures, foaming at the mouth. Others even became so frenzied and unaware of their surroundings that they died from accidentally jumping into rivers, walking under moving wagons, ramming into heavy objects or stepping off high places. Combined with the disruptive nature of their spectacle, and their demonic visions, various priests declared that the dancers were possessed and came out to their gatherings, with the Achen dancers being rounded up and taken to the shrines of St. Vitus at Zabern and Rotesue.
The Dancing Plague in Italy
The Italian iteration of the dancing plague had a slightly different character to that of the German plague. While the German affliction was mysterious and sourceless, Italian medics believed they had found the exact cause of the problem: the bite of the Tarantula. The medical writer Perrotti tells us that the spider bite caused the subject to become melancholy and withdrawn, their senses dim.
Unlike the German dancer, for whom the dancing was an affliction, the Tarantist’s dance was more a treatment: upon hearing music the sufferer would fly into a dancing frenzy, continuing until they collapsed utterly exhausted. Alexander ab Alexandro writes of one Tarantist seized by his fit in the presences of a drummer. As the drummer increased the pace, the boy picked up the pace of his dancing, and when the music was abruptly stopped, he collapsed like a marionette until it was resumed. Onlookers described the abject relief on the faces of the dancers as the music took effect (in fact the musical form known as the tarantella was developed specifically for the purpose of treating those with Tarantism).
A final difference between Italian Tarantists and Germans with St. Vitus’ Dance was their reaction to the colour red. While German sufferers were said to have become ‘like wild beasts’ in the presence of the colour, Tarantists were greatly soothed by it and entered into ecstasies.
What was the Dancing Plague?
Without a time machine and a fully equipped laboratory (staffed by a staggering variety of medical and psychological professionals) it would be impossible to ever really know what caused the dancing plagues. The psychological nature of the Italian plague can be proved: as accurate knowledge of the true symptoms and effects of Tarantula venom spread, we see Tarantism die out in Italy.
As to the German St. Vitus’ Dance? The climate had chanced and over half of the population of Europe had been killed by the double-blow of famine and plague. The very language of experience melded vision with thought, dream and imagination, and reports of mass apocalyptic visions were a commonplace precursor to public misfortunes. Apocalyptic visionaries were ten a penny, and would remain so into the seventeenth century. In such trying times, it is hardly surprising that the troubled, starving citizen would retreat into what Gower called ‘artificial ecstasies’.