The Dancing Plague, and a raw deal for the Pied Piper

Recently I’ve been reading a book called The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague by Johannes Nohl. I had the good fortune to come across it in the used section of My Back Pages in Balham, a really excellent bookshop to visit if you happen to be in South London. It was first published in 1926, and offers an account of plague from 1348-1720, and does a good job of encompassing various outbreaks through those years in a fairly small book. I couldn’t find out much about Johannes Nohl other than that he lived from 1882 to 1963, and appears to have been a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the governing party of East Germany until (obviously) the Berlin Wall fell in the revolutions of 1989.

The book itself is very interesting and worth reading if you can get hold of copy, but something that particularly interested me was Nohl’s short account of ‘dancing plague’. Historically known as St Vitus’ Dance (St Vitus was a Catholic martyr, supposedly killed in 303 during the persecution of Christians by Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, although there exists no historical documents related to his life, or death, and he was historically venerated in the late middle ages through dancing before his statue), dancing plague was a form of mass hysteria that manifested itself through large groups of people, sometimes thousands, dancing uncontrollably and shouting or singing, and often experiencing hallucinations. Although obviously not related to bubonic plague, as it was a psychological affliction, they are interesting to note nonetheless. Most of these episodes occurred from the 14th to the 17th centuries, and were surprisingly well-documented through local chronicles and physician’s notes.

One of the first documented cases was in the 1020s in Bernburg, in Saxony, where a group of peasants took to dancing around a church in the middle of a Christmas Eve service. An outbreak in 1278 involved around 200 people dancing on a bridge across the River Meuse in Germany, leading to its collapse. In 1428, a monk from Schaffhausen danced himself to death, and outbreaks occurred throughout the next two hundred years, apparently across all of Europe, and one case was even recorded in Madagascar.

One of the most well-documented outbreaks was in Strasbourg in 1518. It began in July when a woman identified as Frau Troffea began dancing maniacally in the street, and by the end of the month had been joined by over 400 others, many of whom died of heart attacks, stroke, and exhaustion. The local nobility, suitably disturbed by these events, consulted physicians, who, surprisingly for medieval medicine, decided against any supernatural causes and declared the hysteria a ‘natural disease’. The cure prescribed was, in fact, more dancing. Wooden stages were erected and musicians paid to keep everyone moving, night and day, in what can only have been a grotesque medieval version of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, only with more death and less shattered Hollywood dreams.

Various explanations have been offered for the existence of the dancing plagues, none of which have been agreed on by historians. One is that sufferers were taking part in heretical rituals, although this explanation has been called in to question for its validity. Another is that the sufferers were afflicted with what is now known as Sydenham’s chorea, a disease characterised by ‘rapid, uncoordinated movements affected primarily the face, feet, and hands’, and is known to result from childhood infection as well as occurring in a large proportion of sufferers of acute rheumatic fever. Chorea can also manifest itself in epileptics, and Catholic legend held that invoking the anger of St Vitus could provoke compulsive dancing, so it is possible that people were brought before a shrine or statue of St Vitus when afflicted with chorea, although this would not explain how so many people were afflicted simultaneously in one locality.

Another explanation attributes the dancing to mass psychosis, caused by major mass psychological distress. In the case of the Strasbourg outbreak, famine had been prevalent in the region for some time, caused by extreme weather and crop frosts during the winter. Mass deaths occurred, as well as outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, leprosy, and the ‘English Sweat’, a mysterious illness which struck Europe in the late middle ages, and apparently disappeared in the 1550s. Some scholars contend that the dancing was merely a response to a ‘shared stress’ to what can only have been a miserable existence.

Possibly the most interesting explanation though, and one that Johannes Nohl seems to have favoured, was ergotism. Ergotism is what results from long-term ergot poisoning, caused by the ingestion of alkaloids produced on fungus (ergot) that can grow on standing corn, rye especially, especially in warm and damp conditions. Rye bread was, at the time, the ‘poor man’s loaf’, and anyone who ingested ergot-laced rye was liable to be afflicted with what was historically known as St Anthony’s Fire, and later became ergotism, the physical symptoms of which are seizures, delirium, violent cramps, mental derangement, and later, gangrene. Ergot poisoning has also been offered as a possible explanation for what was termed ‘bewitchment’, and possibly for the convulsive symptoms of those who were later tried in the Salem Witch Trials.

As was recorded in physician’s notes, dancing seemed in some way to relieve the pain of suffering ergotism, and this is possibly the reason local authorities were prepared to employ musicians to play for sufferers. One outbreak of dancing mania, occurring in 1237, involved a large group of children travelling from Erfurt to Arnstadt, in central Germany, who appeared to have been dancing and jumping uncontrollably all the way. This incident is noted for its marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, where a piper leads the children of the village of Hamelin away, dancing as they go to the sound of his pipe, never to return. If the legend had in some way originated from the phenomenon of dancing mania, far from being the villain of the story, the Pied Piper had possibly been playing to ease the pain of children who had been afflicted with St Anthony’s Fire.

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