Today is, as I mentioned yesterday, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist but, as I’ve already mentioned that, lets have a look what happened on this day in 1374 in Aachen, Germany. There was a sudden outbreak of Saint John’s Dance. A Dancing Plague was not an uncommon occurrence, there are many instances between the seventh and seventeenth centuries and their true cause is not known. The outbreak in Aachen was a pretty serious one. People began to dance hysterically and also to experience hallucinations. More and more people were drawn in and over the ensuing days thousands were involved. They danced until they were exhausted. They danced until and fell to the ground twitching and foaming at the mouth. Then, they got up and danced again. The plague spread to nearby towns and onwards across Europe for the next two years. The victims certainly were not enjoying their dancing. They were in pain. They often screamed for help and begged for mercy. Dancing Plagues were seen as a curse from Saint John or from Saint Vitus, but we can only guess at why they happened.
Several explanations have been put forward for the cause of the outbreaks. Ergot poisoning has been suggested. Ergot is a fungus that grows on wheat which would certainly have caused convulsions and hallucinations, but more commonly limbs were affected resulting in gangrene. You’d think if that had happened as well, someone would have mentioned it. It is also quite possible they occurred because people were under a great deal of psychological distress. Europe had been devastated by the Black Death and, in the area around Aachen there had been a terrible flood that washed away all the soil and would have made growing crops very difficult. Similar conditions preceded another outbreak of the Dancing Plague in Strasbourg in 1518. Some people probably just cracked and went crazy and then others followed suit.
No successful cure was really found. Many thought it was caused by demons and tried exorcism. Oddly, some people thought that music could be the cure. Some musicians were engaged to encourage the dancing in the hope that those afflicted would just become exhausted and stop. Others tried to play music to match the pace of the dance, hoping that if they gradually slowed the tune, they could bring the dance to a halt. In the Strasbourg outbreak, a special stage was constructed in the centre of the town in an effort to contain the dance. It didn’t work. Putting the dancers in such a prominent position only encouraged more to join in. Some attempts were made to remove things that seemed to upset the afflicted and make the dancing worse. For example, they seem to have been especially troubled by the sight of anything red. They also had a particular aversion to pointy shoes.
Although the dancing plague in Aachen is pretty well documented, I’ve found it hard to get to the historical accounts as medieval German isn’t one of my strong subjects but I did find a few fragments suggesting that those who started the dancing were not the townsfolk at all. They are described more like a band of travelling pilgrims of a peculiar dancing sect who wore colourful clothes They sought out holy places to perform their rituals. One chronicler notes that ‘in their songs, they uttered the names of devils never before heard’. Another that ‘many dance manias turned into mass orgies.’ It seems to be the Czechs and Bohemians that were regarded as responsible for the plague as they were considered well known for ‘sexual immorality including annual festivals involving the free partaking of sex.’ So it may have been, for some, just a more attractive proposition than praying in church, especially if you could blame it on a plague.
Incidentally, I found out the dancing plague is not the town of Aachen’s only claim to dancing fame. In October 1959 it possibly opened the first discothèque. That is, a dance hall in which records were played instead of having a live band. So it also may have employed the first DJ, a man named Klaus Quinine who called himself DJ Heinrich. I’d love to be able to say he rolled in from Bohemia with a crate of twelve inch remixes under his arm. But I can’t.