A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, the Sicilian martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing. One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.
In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237. A distance of nearly thirteen miles.
In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until it collapsed. The survivors were taken to a nearby Chapel of St. Vitus, the Patron Saint of epileptics. Many would not be fully restored to health, until September.
There was a major outbreak of St. Vitus’ Dance on June 23, 1374. The population writhed through the streets of Aachen, screaming about visions and hallucinations, until they collapsed. There they continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.
Most outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship, involving between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.
The dancing mania quickly spread throughout Europe, spreading to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.
One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in within the week. Within the month there were 400 more. Many of these people actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.
Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from St. Vitus’ Dance were possessed by the devil. Others hired bands, to play along. Some even built dance floors to contain the phenomenon.
There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840. Even today there is little consensus about what caused it.
Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, the toxic and psychoactive fungus Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, often ingested with infected rye bread. Symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.
Others believe such outbreaks to be evidence of Sydenham’s chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet and closely associated with a medical history of Rheumatic fever. Particularly in children.
A third theory describes the phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by starvation. disease and the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague.
Today such episodes seem quaint, even amusing. These people were dealt a pandemic about which they understood nothing, a calamity which killed an estimated 75 to 100 million, at a time the total world population was some 450 million.