“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it” – Robin Williams
Is madness contagious? Well, one in five Americans believe the Apocalypse will happen in their lifetime and Robin Thicke’s insufferable “Blurred Lines” has been downloaded over 6 million times. I rest my case. Not really, since I firmly believe there’s no reason to say in twenty-six words that which you can mock in three thousand or more. I find it therapeutic. It is an established historical fact that people do weird shit, frequently in groups. As patron philosopher of wack jobs Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” The hard part is often determining whether people are crazy or if they’re just ahead of the social curve. Okay, sometimes it’s easier than others, but often, just like recreational drug use, context is important. With knowledge that the internet exists, a “flash mob” is performance art. Without it, it’s pretty much lunacy. Maybe it’s still lunacy, but not the committable kind. Medieval European physicians, scholars, and priests were fairly freaked out by the sporadic appearance of “dancing plagues” (which we more commonly know as “St. Vitus’ Dance”) from the 7th-17th Century A.D. (the largest occurrences were between the 14-17th Centuries), essentially involving large crowds of peasants dancing about the continental European countryside until they dropped from exhaustion, died, or were cured (cures at the time mainly involving praying to some divine personage or other). Contemporary medical professionals fell back on theological explanations, but of course they also still thought drilling holes in peoples’ heads constituted an effective treatment for all manner of ailments, which may be true, but only in so far as you consider continued consciousness to be an incurable illness.
The explanations for the outbreaks of debilitating dancing that emerged in the 7th Century and had disappeared completely by the 17th Century are a litany of guesswork ranging from a punishment levied by St. Vitus (one of the treatments was to make a pilgrimage to a place dedicated to St. Vitus and pray for relief) or St. John the Baptist, to demonic possession, to a primitive version of stress relief, to mass psychogenic illness, to collective hysterical disorder, to chorea (an involuntary movement disorder), to epilepsy, to ergot poisoning (a rye fungus with hallucinogenic properties), to spider bites, but none of these fully account for many of the strange features of the epidemic, and consequently none of them are particularly satisfying. Where the thinkers of the Dark Ages were likely to demonize odd behavior, us modern types are more apt to medicalize them. Nonetheless, the cause of the dancing plagues remains a mystery, unless of course we consider the suggestion of 19th Century physician Justus Hecker, who made a career of studying disease in relation to human social history, and posited that the “Dancing Mania” was neither a disease or madness, rather the ongoing re-enactment of a well established religious ritual that the Church had banned beginning in the 7th Century A.D. called “The Kindling of the NodFyr”. Accounts of instances of dancing plague are more puzzling than informative, as they vacillate between describing an organized performance and a mob of madmen.
A.D. 1418, Strasburgh was visited by the ‘Dancing Plague,’ and the same infatuation existed amongst the people there, as in the towns of Belgium and the Lower Rhine A.D. 1374; many who were seized on seeing the affected, excited attention at first by their confused and absurd behaviour, and then by their constantly following the swarms of dancers. These were seen day and night passing through the streets, accompanied by musicians playing on bagpipes, and by innumerable spectators attracted by curiosity, to whom were added anxious parents and relations who came to look after those among the misguided multitude who belonged to their respective families. Imposture and profligacy played their part in this city also, but the morbid delusion itself seems to have predominated. On this account religion could only bring provisional aid, and therefore the Town Council benevolently took an interest in the afflicted: they divided them into separate parties, to each of which they appointed responsible superintendents, to protect them from harm, and perhaps also to restrain their turbulence. They were thus conducted on foot and in carriages to the chapels of St. Vitus, near Zabern, and Rotestein, where priests were in attendance to influence their misguided minds by masses and other religious ceremonies. After divine worship was completed, they were led in solemn procession to the altar, where they made some small offering of alms, and where, it is probable, many, through the influence of devotion and the sanctity of the place, were cured of this lamentable aberration (Bascome, 1851, p.63).
What if the dancing plagues were not physical or mental illness, rather the death throes of a deeply-rooted Teutonic paganism that was contending against the rising centrality of Christianity to state and society, a combination of religious revivalism and political protest? The timing of the emergence, seemingly from nowhere, of the dancing plagues beginning in the 7th Century A.D. suspiciously corresponds with increased legal state action to suppress heathenism (understood as anything not Christian), and by the time Christianity of one form or another had several hundred years to firmly ensconce itself throughout Europe, the dancing plagues simply vanished, never to be seen again (except for a brief resurgence during the Disco era, but like they say, cocaine is a hell of a drug). One such pagan practice that was actively discouraged was the Kindling of the Nodfyr (“Need-Fire”). Keep in mind that the 7th-17th Centuries was the heyday of the Black Plague, when disease was rampant and largely unchecked. Ecstatic leaping and dancing over a fire was closely associated with folk remedies for sickness, but was often also a ritual practiced on a set schedule in order to ensure health for the rest of the year or simply to ward off misfortune. Hecker points out that the initial appearance of the dancing mania is inextricably linked with the transfer of the custom of Kindling the NodFyr to St. John’s Day (June 24th), commenting “the first appearance of the dancing maniacs in Aix-la-Chapelle in July, soon after the festival of the Baptist, with the fact of their uttering in their exclamations the name of St. John, the conjecture is probable that the wild revels of St. John’s Day gave rise to this mental plague, which thenceforth has visited so many thousands with incurable aberration of intellect and disgusting distortions of body” (Madden, 1857, p408).
It is a wide-spread custom in Germany to kindle bonfires on certain days, viz. at Easter and St. John’s (Mid-summer) day, less usually at Christmas and Michaelmas. In Lower Germany the Easter-fires are the most usual, which are generally lighted on hills; while in the south of Germany the St. John’s fires are the commonest, and were formerly kindled in the market-places, or before the gates of the town. The ceremonies connected with these fires are more and more forgotten. In former times old and young, high and low regarded the kindling of them as a great festival. These customs had apparently an
agrarian object, as it is still believed that so far as the flame of the Easter-fire spreads its light will the earth be fertile and the corn thrive for that year. These fires, too, were, according to the old belief, beneficial for the preservation of life and health to those who came in contact with the flame. On which account the people danced round the St. John’s fire, or sprang over it, and drove their domestic animals through it. The coal and ashes of the Easter-fire were carefully collected and preserved as a remedy for diseases of the cattle. For a similar reason it was a custom to drive the cattle when sick over particular fires called need-fires (Notfeuer), which, with certain ceremonies, were kindled by friction; on which account the St. John’s fire is strictly to be regarded as a need-fire kindled at a fixed period (Thorpe, 1851, p284-285).
The banning of the Kindling of the Nodfyr by St. Boniface in 743 A.D. corresponded to a cattle-plague, the sort of which the Nodfyr was particularly intended to ward against, and thus the attempt by the Christian Church to eradicate vestiges of pagan observance at the same time (and specifically calling out the Nodfyr), no doubt saw a revival in traditional attempts to combat the spreading plague among the bovine set.
The history of the need-fire can be traced back to the early Middle Ages; for in the reign of Pippin, King of the Franks, the practice of kindling need-fires was denounced as a heathen superstition by a synod of prelates and nobles held under the presidency of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz. Not long afterwards the custom was again forbidden, along with many more relics of expiring paganism, in an “Index of Superstitions and Heathenish Observances,” which has been usually referred to the year 743 A.D., though some scholars assign it a later date under the reign of Charlemagne. In Germany the need-fires would seem to have been popular down to the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus, in the year 1598, when a fatal cattle-plague was raging at Neustadt, near Marburg, a wise man of the name of Joh. Kohler induced the authorities of the town to adopt the following remedy. A new wagon-wheel was taken and twirled round an axle, which had never been used before, until the friction elicited fire. With this fire a bonfire was next kindled between the gates of the town, and all the cattle were driven through the smoke and flames. Moreover, every householder had to rekindle the fire on his hearth by means of a light taken from the bonfire. Strange to say, this salutary measure had no effect whatever in staying the cattle – plague, and seven years later the sapient Joh. Kohler himself was burnt as a witch. The farmers, whose pigs and cows had derived no benefit from the need-fire, perhaps assisted as spectators at the burning, and, while they shook their heads, agreed among themselves that it served Joh. Kohler perfectly right. According to a writer who published his book about nine years afterwards, some of the Germans, especially in the Wassgaw mountains, confidently believed that a cattle-plague could be stayed by driving the animals through a need-fire which had been kindled by the violent friction of a pole on a quantity of dry oak wood ; but it was a necessary condition of success that all fires in the village should previously be extinguished with water, and any householder who failed to put out his fire was heavily fined (Frazer, 1935, p270-271).
The original bacchanalian character of St. John’s Day lent itself to a reinterpretation of the Kindling of the Nodfyr, but as Christianity became more institutional and embedded in the social hierarchy, it also got a whole lot more solemn and looked askance at orgiastic rituals of dancing as the work of the devil, which has always puzzled me, as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of literature suggesting the devil has a penchant for dancing, or any dancing skills whatsoever. Fiddling, yes. Dancing, no.
The connection which John the Baptist had with the dancing mania of the fourteenth century, was of a totally different character. He was originally far from being a protecting saint to those who were attacked, or one who would be likely to give them relief from a malady considered as the work of the devil. On the contrary, the manner in which he was worshiped afforded an important and very evident cause for its development. From the remotest period, perhaps even so far back as the fourth century, St. John’s day was solemnized with all sorts of strange and rude customs, of which the originally mystical meaning was variously disﬁgured among different nations by superadded relics of heathenism. Thus the Germans transferred to the festival of St. John’s day an ancient heathen usage, the kindling of the “Nodfyr,” which was forbidden them by St. Boniface, and the belief subsists even to the present day that people and animals that have leaped through these flames, or their smoke, are protected for a whole year from fevers and other diseases, as if by a kind of baptism by ﬁre. Bacchanalian dances, which have originated in similar causes among all the rude nations of the earth, and the wild extravagancies of a heated imagination, were the constant accompaniments of this half-heathen, half-christian festival. At the period of which we are treating, however, the Germans were not the only people who gave way to the ebullitions of fanaticism in keeping the festival of St. John, the Baptist (Hecker, 1885, p62).
So during the period of time when Europe was being depopulated by the bubonic plague and Christianity was actively trying to stomp out the last remnants of paganism with extreme prejudice, a rash of dancing mania occurred over the course of several hundred years, that to the medieval literary set would have appeared to be the pinnacle of weirdness, whereas European commoners would have immediately recognized an ancient tradition. Perhaps even joined in. Since most anybody who would have been writing at the time likely had a theological angle biased towards Christianity, the dancing manias of the Middle Ages come down to us historically as a sort of mass insanity or bizarre medical condition, rather than the result of religious practices colliding in a time of crisis. Or maybe it was just jealousy. Everybody knows monks can’t dance, and for better or worse, as Moliere noted, “All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.”
Bascome, Edward. A History of Epidemic Pestilences From the Earliest Ages: 1495 Years Before the Birth of Our Saviour to 1848; With Researches Into Their Nature, Causes, And Prophylaxis. London: Churchill, 1851.
Frazer, James George, Sir, 1854-1941. The Golden Bough: a Study In Magic And Religion. 3d ed. … [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935.
Hecker, J. F. C. 1795-1850. The Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. New York: Humboldt, 1885.
Madden, Richard Robert, 1798-1886. Phantasmata: Or, Illusions And Fanaticisms of Protean Forms Productive of Great Evils. London: T.C. Newby, 1857.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870. Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions And Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, And the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley, 1851.