What Was The ‘Dancing Plague’ In Medieval Europe?

It’s not just the name of an apocalyptic Florence + The Machine song. There was a real phenomenon in a medieval French town in which hundreds of people spontaneously broke out to dance in an affliction known at the time as “choreomania”.

Although it is debatable whether some of the stories from this era in European history are based on fact or outright fiction, John Walker, associate professor of medical history at Michigan State University, written in 2009 that not only was it real, but that it happened more than once and in more than one permutation.

Writing for the British Psychological Society (BPS), Walker reported that there is no doubt that in 1374 and 1518 there were outbreaks of what became known as the “dancing plague”, but more accurately referred to as episodes of mass psychogenic illness (MPI).

The condition can be characterized as an outbreak of physical symptoms in people who are part of a cohesive group – symptoms that are not accompanied by an underlying pathogen.

The first outbreak of choreomania took place in 1374, in villages along the Rhine, where “hundreds of people were seized with an agonizing compulsion to dance”, according to BPS. The mania exploded across Western Europe, afflicting people in France and the Netherlands before waning.

Then again in 1518 it “reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. The chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths”.

Just under three decades before the onset of the Dance Affliction of 1518, BPS reported, a number of nuns at a convent in the Netherlands were said to have been “possessed” and began behaving extremely bizarre, tree-climbing and meowing, a “frenzied delirium” that would be seen in various convents in Europe over the next 200 years.

Some had speculated that these bizarre mass behavioral abnormalities were the result of eating ergot, a type of mold that can have mind-altering effects. But according to Walker, “there is a well-established link between psychological stress and dissociation,” and “this correlation is immediately suggestive of mass psychogenic disease.”

And the period immediately preceding the dance epidemics was fraught with psychological stress – namely the catastrophic flood of the Rhine in 1374, and the decade before the epidemic of 1518 saw famine, freezing temperatures and epidemics of leprosy. , plague and syphilis. .

“Fear and angst were the common denominators of dancing plagues and possession crises”, but they could not have happened without another cultural factor, namely the people who were prepared for such episodes by living in societies that conditioned them to believe in supernatural possession.

A mass psychogenic disease such as the “dancing plague” is too easily relegated to an earlier stage in history when people lived in difficult circumstances associated with religious beliefs that included the prospect of possession, laying the foundations for a collective distress.

But a very recent case of what was probably a mass psychogenic illness suggests it’s not just a thing of the past. In 2021, German researchers reported that they had observed the first reported case of IPD caused by social media, calling it a “social media-induced mass disease”.

The researchers said that in 2019, people started presenting medical facilities in various countries with tics. The influx of patients exhibited identical “Tourette-like” behaviors – including shouting certain German words in a deep voice, as well as “bizarre and complex behaviors such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home”. house, and smash eggs in the kitchen” – which the researchers traced to a popular German YouTuber who had a young and highly stressed and anxious fan base.

Sources:

Walker, John. “Dancing plagues and mass hysteria. “The British Psychological Society, July 18, 2009, https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/dancing-plagues-and-mass-hysteria.

Vitelli, Romeo. “Is social media causing a mass psychogenic epidemic? Psychology Today, September 16, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/202109/is-social-media-causing-mass-psychogenic-epidemic.