Though it’s never been proved, ergotism has long been suspected as a cause (or partial cause) of one of the strangest phenomena ever recorded in Europe: dancing mania. One of its first documented instances was recorded in the French town of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1374. There, for some reason, a crowd of people began dancing ecstatically in the streets, flailing their limbs, shouting in strange tongues, proclaiming strange visions and foaming at the mouth. They kept on this way until they collapsed on the cobblestones from exhaustion, writhing and contorting their bodies hideously.
From there dancing mania caught on like, er…wildfire. In cities and towns all over France and the region we now know as Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany, ecstatic dancers, their “helpers” and musicians gathered. They tore off their clothes, flailed about, shouted, made obscene gestures, copulated, and rolled in the dirt and mud for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Exactly why has never been fully explained, even though the whole thing bears an uncanny resemblance to modern day music festivals. Given how widespread ergotism was at the time, it’s almost certain that at least some of the dancers were suffering from the disease (indeed many of the symptoms correlate). Yet the sheer size of the crowds suggests some other dynamic was at work.
Mass hysteria is the most common explanation advanced by psychologists. Stresses of the times, from crop failures to wars to the plague, culminated in the bizarre displays. Others believe the dances were early forms of civil disobedience, with people masking political protest as mass insanity. Yet to my mind the most convincing theories attribute dancing mania to subversive pagan/Christian religious sects who were known to travel from city to city in particularly tumultuous times, gathering adherents and seeking divine intercession.
Dancing mania is widely thought to have reached its peak in the early 1400’s, when a particularly fevered bout of dancing shut down the city of Strasbourg. Yet the dance went on episodically for hundreds of years after that, especially in Italy, where it became known as the Tarantella, and continued well into the 20th century.