Notes on the dancing craze that struck the Low Countries and the Rhineland in 1374.
People in late medieval and early modern Europe were occasionally given to bouts of furious, contagious dancing. This happened most typically in the summer and autumn, often around the summer solstice or adjacent religious feasts. A few people would start, and then more would join them, and before long nobody could stop. The manic dancers often engaged in grotesque bodily contortions, sang crazy songs and issued diabolical incantations. Some claimed it was primarily young women who fell victim to these crazes, but in principle the mania afflicted all ages and genders. Often the dancers had to be physically restrained, lest they dance themselves to death. The mania could spread like a contagion, waxing and waning over the course of months.
These periodic dancing epidemics have left an imprint in European folklore, for example in the legends surrounding the Pied Piper from Hamelin. Since the nineteenth century it’s also attracted the interest of historians. In German, it’s known as Tanzwut, or dancing craze; another modern term is choreomania.
Those are obligatory links to Wikipedia, and you should beware of them. As far as I can tell, most of our medieval and early modern forbears didn’t recognise choreomania as a unified thing. Chroniclers don’t say things like “In the year of our Lord 1503 the choreomaniacs came back. God I hate these guys.” Instead, they talk about specific episodes in isolation, as unique and remarkable events. Thus a lot of the discussion of choreomania suffers from the typical tail-chasing to which academics of all kinds are subject: By deciding which events to gather under the umbrella of choreomania, you can build almost any kind of historical problem you want, and support any number of theses. You can make choreomania start in the seventh century or in the fourteenth; you can make it about hysteria, or epilepsy, or spider bites, or popular piety; you can make it a real thing; you can make it a myth that clerics developed to express their disgust for the peasantry.
I want to get away from all that, and talk not about the modern, learned construct of choreomania, but about specific choreomanic episodes as past chroniclers reported them. For this, what I hope to be the first of several posts on this subject, I’ll introduce you to the dancing craze that struck the Low Countries and the Rhineland in the summer of 1374.
What follows are some of our earliest and most iconic reports of choreomania in Europe, and it’s important that your first encounter with these texts lack every learned gloss and explanation.
First, we have the report of the notary, cleric and chronicler Tilemann Elhen von Wolfhagen (d. 1402), writing in his Limburg Chronicle:1
In the year 1374, at midsummer, there arose on earth a strange thing, especially in Germany, on the Rhine and the Mosel, such that people began to race and to dance, and stood in pairs facing each other and danced in one place half the day; and in the dancing they often fell to the ground and let themselves be trampled; they said that this did them good. And they ran from one city and from one church to another, and took money from the people wherever they could. And it so happened that there were more than five hundred dancers in Cologne. It was thought to be deceitfulness and heresy, done for the sake of money, so that the women and men could live unchaste lives. And it was found that in Cologne there were more than a hundred women and maidens without husbands, who conceived children in the midst of all that dancing. And when they danced, they bound and tied themselves hard around the body, so that they seemed smaller. Some learned men, especially the good physicians, say that some of the dancers had hot natures and other frailties (illnesses). For few proved to be susceptible to this. Those learned in holy scripture summoned some dancers, who believed they were possessed by the devil. In this way the whole matter came to a fraudulent end. It lasted sixteen weeks in these lands, or thereabouts. Also the aforementioned dancers, both men and women, acted as if they could not stand the sight of red robes. And it was all deception, and in my view a premonition of the Antichrist.