Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com - We live in a world full of mysteries and we often come across intriguing stories dealing with unexplained phenomena that make us even more curious about the realms we inhabit.
One such baffling event took place during the Medieval period in Europe.
In July of 1374 in Aachen, Germany, dozens of villages along the Rhine River were suddenly swept by a dancing plague called choreomania. For no apparent reason, hundreds of people took to the streets leaping, jerking, and hopping to music.
A strange dancing mani affected hundreds of people in Medieval Europe.
The strange thing was that no-one else could hear the music except for those who danced. How was it possible?
Another odd aspect of this story is that these people didn't want to stop dancing.
They did eat, drink or sleep. All they did was dancing, shouting, and hallucinating for days.
Sometimes, even when they fell, they continued to dance while they were on the ground. Obviously, they couldn't control their movements until finally, their weakened bodies collapsed from exhaustion.
This outbreak of dancing mania spread as far as France and lasted for several years. Almost just as suddenly as it had come, disappeared.
This would be the end of this story, but something similar occurred in Strasbourg, France back in 1518. A woman, named Frau Troffea suddenly started to dance nonstop for days. Within a week, she was joined by 34 people and by the end of the month, the dancing plague had affected an estimated 400 people. Once again, people "danced themselves to death" for no obvious reason.
Dancing mania, also sometimes known as St. Vitus’ dance, was first recorded in the 7th century and reappeared many times across Europe until about the 17th century.
It remains unknown what exactly caused the outbreaks of dancing mania. Some scientists have suggested the cause was mass hysteria. Other researchers explain this odd behavior as a mass psychogenic illness, which is a form of mass hysteria. This happens when a group of people mistakenly believe that are afflicted with a common illness. Yet another possible explanation is ergot poisoning. Ergotism is contracted from a fungus that is able to grow on many grains, such as corn and rye. The symptoms of ergotism are very similar to those of dancing mania. It is possible that this fungus-infected food supplies of the afflicted areas.
Waller explained that historical records documenting the dancing deaths, such as physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the boogying rage, all "are unambiguous on the fact that (victims) danced."
"These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing," he said.
Waller suggested that stress-induced psychosis was behind the dancing mania that struck Medieval Europe. In those days people suffered from famine and many died of starvation. The area was riddled with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis. Waller believes the stress was intolerable, and hence a mass psychological illness resulted.
Waller also points out that superstition was widespread among the people. "Anxiety and false fears gripped the region," Waller said.
One of these fears, originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.
These kinds of epidemics have also happened in more modern times. In 1962, a "laughing epidemic" went on for 18 months in Tanzania. What started as a joke, ended as a disaster. In a tiny rural village in the Bukoba region, three pupils experienced uncontrollable laughing that quickly spread through the school, apparently transmitted by contact with an infected person. The symptoms could last anywhere from a few hours to 16 days.
The school was forced to shut down after more than half the students - 95 out of 159, were affected. Ten days after the school was closed the plague struck a village 55 miles away and affected 217 for two months. The plague also spread through the countryside.
Such epidemics occurred in ancient times and can still happen today. As we have seen there are several theories attempting to solve these mysterious outbreaks. Scientists may never be able to figure out exactly what caused the dancing mania outbreaks in medieval Europe.
The laughing epidemic in Tanzania requires further study and could solve the mystery of the medieval dancing mania. Scientists believe that "in order to interpret this behavior as normal or pathological, a study of the cultural context should be made."
Again, perhaps we shouldn't compare ancient and modern outbreaks because they can have entirely different causes. In any case, despite the proposed theories, it appears that the Medieval Dancing Mania will remain an unexplained phenomenon that we will never be able to truly understand.