Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dance Mania

"The most flamboyant form of what might be called 'ecstatic dissent'," writes Barbara, "was the dance manias that rocked parts of northern Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Italy a century later. The first outbreak sounds like another cautionary tale about the perils of dancing: in Utrecht in the summer of 1278, two hundred people started dancing on the bridge over the Mosel and would not stop until it collapsed, at which point all the dancers drowned. A hundred years later, in the wake of the Black Death, a much larger outbreak of dance mania again struck Germany and spilled out into Belgium: "Peasants left their plows, mechanics their workshops, house-wives their domestic duties, to join the wild revels." Arriving in Aix-la-Chapelle (now the German town of Aachen), "they formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the by-standers, for hours together in wild delirium, until they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion."(13) . We have, unfortunately, no testimonies from the dancers themselves, but contemporary observers saw them in a condition ethnographers would now describe as a possession trance.

"While dancing they neither saw nor heard, being insensible to external impressions [with the exception, one might guess, of the music they danced to] .... but were haunted by visions, their fancies conjuring up spirits whose names they shrieked out... Others, during the paroxysm, saw the heavens open and the Saviour enthroned with the Virgin Mary."(14)

"Hence the Church authorities' worry that the "manias" represented a new form or heresy: Nothing is more threatening to a hierarchical religion than the possibility of ordinary laypeople finding their own way into the presence of the gods."

picture source

See also Wikipedia. I particularly like the descriptions of Strasbourg's Dancing Plague of 1518, where local authorities hired musicians to play alongside the dancers and keep them dancing until the dance was danced out of them. The less fun parts are the reports of dancers dancing themselves to exhaustion and death.

In a similar vein, there are some reports of epidemics of laughter.

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