Dancing plagues and mass hysteria

Dancing plagues and mass hysteria

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Dancing plagues and mass hysteria

By John Waller

The Psychologist, Vol.22:7 (2009)

Introduction: The year was 1374. In dozens of medieval towns scattered along the valley of the River Rhine hundreds of people were seized by an agonising compulsion to dance. Scarcely pausing to rest or eat, they danced for hours or even days in succession. They were victims of one of the strangest afflictions in Western history. Within weeks the mania had engulfed large areas of north-eastern France and the Netherlands, and only after several months did the epidemic subside. In the following century there were only a few isolated outbreaks of compulsive dancing. Then it reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths.

Not long before the Strasbourg dancing epidemic, an equally strange compulsion had gripped a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1491 several nuns were ‘possessed’ by devilish familiars which impelled them to race around like dogs, jump out of trees in imitation of birds or miaow and claw their way up tree trunks in the manner of cats. Such possession epidemics were by no means confined to nunneries, but nuns were disproportionately affected. Over the next 200 years, in nunneries everywhere from Rome to Paris, hundreds were plunged into states of frantic delirium during which they foamed, screamed and convulsed, sexually propositioned exorcists and priests, and confessed to having carnal relations with devils or Christ.

These events may sound wildly improbable, but there is clear documentary evidence that they did in fact happen. The dancing plagues were independently described by scores of physicians, chroniclers, monks and priests, and for the 1518 outbreak we can even read the panicky municipal orders written by the Strasbourg authorities at the time of the epidemic. Similarly, trial documents and the archives of the inquisition provide copious, in-depth accounts of nuns doing and saying the strangest of things.

Writers then and now have offered various interpretations of these strange and sometimes deadly crises. It has been suggested that the dancing maniacs of 1374 and 1518 were members of a heretical dancing cult. Contemporary observers, however, made clear their view that the dancing was a sickness. Nor did the Church, at a time when heresies were quickly suppressed, believe the dancers to be anything but victims of a terrible affliction, natural or divine. In recent decades a vogue for simple biological explanations has inspired the view that epidemic madnesses of the past were caused by the ingestion of ergot, a mould containing psychotropic chemicals.

But scholarship in the fields of psychology, history and anthropology provides compelling evidence that the dancing plagues and the possession epidemics of Europe’s nunneries were in fact classic instances of a very different phenomenon: mass psychogenic illness.

See also In a spin: the mysterious dancing epidemic of 1518

Watch the video: Mass Hysteria And The Dancing Plague Of 1518 (August 2022).