Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dancing mania

Sometime in mid-July 1518 a woman stepped into one of Strasbourg’s streets and began dancing. Within a week another thirty four had joined her. By end of August, it is said that 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing uncontrollably around the city.

Local physicians were consulted. They excluded astrological and supernatural causes, declaring it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’; treatment: more dancing. In an echo of the raves that would prove so popular five hundred years later, two guildhalls and an outdoor grain market were cleared so the afflicted could dance freely and uninterrupted. Musicians were provided.

When dancers began to die the governors rethought their strategy. A new diagnosis was made; the dancing was now attributed to a curse sent down by an angry saint. In contrition gambling, gaming and prostitution were banned and the dissolute banished. When this proved ineffective the dancers were despatched to a mountaintop shrine and divine intervention was requested. In the following weeks the epidemic finally abated.

The first major outbreak of dancing mania is thought to have taken place in Aachen, Germany on June 24 1374 after which it spread quickly through France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Outbreaks virtually always struck close to earlier similarly effected sites. Maastricht, Trier, Zurich and Strasbourg each experienced two or more episodes. Thousands of people danced in agony for days or weeks, screaming of terrible visions and imploring religious leaders to save their souls.

It seems unbelievable today, but there is no question that these epidemics did occur. Dozens of reliable chronicles from several towns and cities describe the events of 1374.

No consensus exists as to the condition’s aetiology. One theory is that sufferers had ingested ergot, a mould that grows on stalks of ripening rye and can cause hallucinations, spasms, and tremors. Epidemics of ergotism are known to have occurred in mediaeval Europe when people ate contaminated flour. But it is unlikely that those poisoned by ergot could have danced for days at a time and nor would so many people have reacted to its psychotropic chemicals in the same way. ...

via Dancing mania | Frontier Psychiatrist.

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