The Mania of St John’s Dance

Well now here’s a funny “On this day” fact…

On this day in 1374 one of this largest outbreaks of St John’s Dance occurred in Aachen, Germany. Also known as dancing mania or the dancing plague, it was a social phenomena that sporadically afflicted Europe from the 7th century through to the 17th century.

A kind of mass hysteria would sporadically descend on groups within the population causing men, women and children to dance uncontrollably until they collapsed with exhaustion. The crazy dance moves exhibited would lead to broken ribs, legs and occasional death from heart attack.

Originally thought to be a curse placed on the people by St John the Baptist, physicians were never able to ascertain its real cause but they did find one common factor – cases of dancing mania almost always arose during times of hardship and distress. I guess it was the Middle Ages version of letting off steam. Weirdly, music was often played during outbreaks of dancing mania because it was thought to remedy the problem, and exorcisms were performed on sufferers whose family members suspected they had been possessed by the devil. When in doubt, exorcise it out.

Funny, isn’t it? We read this and think how bizarre it all sounds, but only 50 to 60 years ago rock n’ roll was being called devil music and our parents viewed with suspicion by our grandparents. The Beatles were troublemakers, and dancing the Twist was bound to get you pregnant. Everything new and unknown was a potential threat, not the least of all a procession of townsfolk in a trance jerking and swaying to some inaudible music.

No one ever did solve the riddle of the dancing mania. Was it the workings of some religious cult, or the result of disease in the rye crops? They never found out. All we know is it suddenly ceased in the 17th century without explanation and is yet to reappear.

Except, well, this guy…

Peter Garrett…

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