Urban Legends Investigated: The Dancing Mania

Urban Legends Investigated: The Dancing Mania

History is filled with strange, bizarre happenings, but perhaps none is as bizarre as the Dancing Mania. The Dancing Mania appeared at random every few centuries, only to disappear as swiftly as it had appeared, with no cause or reason and most importantly – no apparent cure.

Between the 14th and 17th centuries, entire villages were swept up in the Dancing Mania, as groups of people started dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time.

Whatever this strange sickness was that literally caused people to dance to their deaths, it stopped abruptly in the 17th century.

Earlier outbreaks

In 1237, a large group of children traveled from Erfurt to Arnstadt, a 20km journey, jumping and dancing all the way, which is reminiscent of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a legend that originated around the same time.

In 1278, a group of about 200 people danced on a bridge over the River Meuse, resulting in its collapse.

On 24 June 1374, one of the biggest outbreaks of the Dancing Plague occurred in Aachen, before spreading all across Germany, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and even Italy and Luxembourg. Further episodes followed in 1375 and 1376.

Incidents also occurred some 40  years later, in 1418 in Strasbourg and 1428 in Schaffhausen.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

The most well-known outbreak of the Dancing Plague occurred in July 1518 in Strasbourg. A woman began dancing in the street, and between 50 and 400 people joined her. The outbreak lasted until September 1518, when it began to subside.

It is unknown if people actually died during this outbreak, since there are no official, contemporary sources of the city of Strasbourg that note this, although there certainly are many records held by the city clergy and magistrates concerning the Dancing Plague. The sources all agree that it started with one woman dancing about in the streets and many soon joining her, but no one, not then nor now, knows the cause of why people started dancing.

What caused the Dancing Mania?

Truth is, and this is perhaps the scariest thing about the Dancing Mania – no one knows what exactly caused it. Some scholars believe it was due to food poisoning, likely from the ergot fungi which grows commonly on grains used for baking bread. Others blame stress-induced mass hysteria. Late medieval Europe was no themepark. Death and despair lurked around every corner.

The increased psychological stress over living circumstances (take for example the 1374 outbreak, which occurred shortly after an outbreak of the Black Death), could have well caused a psychosis that spread from one member of the population to the next.

The Verdict

Historical notes are thorough and detailed enough to prove that the Dancing Mania existed and caused havoc all throughout Europe for multiple centuries, so this is not just an urban legend – it is real.

But more unsettling than the fact that, for potentially no reason at all, people randomly started dancing, sometimes until they died, is that now, five centuries later, we still don’t know the cause of it.

In the mood for some dancing, anyone?

Urban Legends Investigated

Previously in this series:

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