How Medieval People Tried To Dance Away The Plague

How Medieval People Tried To Dance Away The Plague

It was a warm June day in 1374 in the medieval town of Aix-Ia-Chapelle, present-day Aachen, Germany, when the dancing started. It was the holy feast of St. John the Baptist, which aligns with the pagan celebration of Midsummer during the summer solstice. Traditionally, St. John’s Day was a day of rest and worship for the quiet town of Aachen.

This was not to be the case in 1374. It began with a small group, maybe a dozen or so people. All at once, they began to flail their limbs. Some screamed or hooted. Others moved about as if in a trance.

More and more townspeople joined in the erratic dance. Serfs, nobles, men, women, old and young—all took part in the “dancing plague” of Aachen. Some took up instruments like the stringed vielle, pipes or drums. As sociologist Robert Bartholomew notes, the afflicted sometimes even employed musicians to play. Other times music was played in the hopes of curing victims from their dancing hell. As Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker describes in his book, The Black Death and the Dancing Mania, the victims would take hands forming giant undulating circles, spinning round and round in ever-quickening loops. They’d yell, calling out to God or Satan or both. Their movements were haphazard, even epileptic. For hours and hours, the townspeople danced without rest or food or water.

Then, when the sky finally darkened, they dispersed or collapsed. As Historian H. C. Erik Midelfort notes in his book, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany, some never would rise again—dying from broken ribs or heart attacks. But, when the sun shined the next day, they took up their dance again. The dancing mania continued for several weeks.

Then, all at once, the dancing plague disappeared from Aachen. People returned to their homes, to their lives. Until, that is, the dancing plague spread to towns beyond Aachen, like that of Liege and Tongres in Belgium, to Utrecht in the Netherlands, to Strasbourg and Cologne in Germany. All along the Rhine, the dancing plague tormented unsuspecting townsfolk.

17th century engraving of the dancing plague (Image: Commons)

In his book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, about the 1518 dancing plague in Strasbourg, France, historian John Waller cites everything from doctors’ notes to city council documents to sermons, all of which unequivocally refer to the dancing of the plague’s victims. They did not appear to be suffering from epilepsy or another convulsion-associated illness. The victims’ movements were, as Waller asserts in his book, rhythmic and very much dancing.

One of the prevailing theories around the dancing plagues has to do with their timing. When the dancing plague struck Aachen, the devastation of the Black Death was still very fresh in peoples’ minds. During the 14th century, the Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population. The bacterium Yersinia pestis caused the illnesses associated with the Black Death. The septicaemic plague, the pneumonic plague, and most commonly the bubonic plague all resulted from exposure to Y. pestis. Aside from death, symptoms of the plagues included everything from purple skin to vomiting blood and fever, among other much more grotesque symptoms.

As you might imagine, the people who lived through the horror of the Black Death were questioning their reality and experiencing psychological distress. Death surrounded them. Entire families were decimated overnight. The dead lined the streets and were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. Indeed, there were many extreme reactions to the Black Death.

Pierart dou Tielt’s miniature depicting people burying victims of the Black Death. (Image: Commons)

The Italian writer and chronicler Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Black Death as it ravaged Florence, Italy, writes of such reactions among his neighbours. Some chose to “live temperately and avoid all excess…band[ing] together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, form[ing] communities in houses where there were no sick.” In other words, they isolated themselves from others in their homes in a medieval version of shelter-in-place. Many resorted to intense prayer and fasting in an effort to appease God. But Boccaccio also writes of people who did the opposite, people who would “drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event.

While these two reactions seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, both can be linked to the religious fervor of the age, which the Black Death only exasperated. Religion often does quite well during hard times.

Monks and commoners alike considered the Black Death to be divine punishment for their sins. A Franciscan chronicler from Lubeck wrote of the Black Death being God’s retribution for the evil of humans and indicative of the end of times. The Arabic chronicler as-Sulak and the Swiss Franciscan monk John of Winterthur supported the Lubeck Franciscan’s ideas in their own writings during the period. God was unhappy with humanity, so he decided to flex a bit and show that he was the all-powerful one.

Depiction of Death from 1490s French Book of Hours. (Image: Commons)

The belief that God sent down the Black Death as punishment begins to explain the range of reactions noted by Boccaccio, and even the dancing plague of Aachen in 1374. Because the Last Judgment was thought to be so imminent, people tended to have one of the two reactions Boccaccio lays out: (1) They became hyper-religious and repentant for their sins, or, (2) they figured they had far too many sins to count and might as well live it up. As the Greek historian and general Thucydides of Athens summed it up in his Plague of Athens, “before [the plague] fell it was only reasonable to get some enjoyment out of life.” So went the thinking of the medievals who decided to go on a spree of imbibing and carousing. During a 1625 bout of the plague in London, poet George Wither echoed Boccaccio’s observation of peoples’ two extreme reactions writing:

Some streets had Churches full of people, weeping;
Some others, Tavernes had, rude-revell keeping:
Within some houses Psalmes and Hymnes were sung;
With raylings and loud scouldings others rung.

This wave of religiosity turned some people to blaming Satan and, by extension, satanic worship for the Black Death. There was a rise of witchcraft accusations and anti-Semitism during the period, as people looked to place blame on others for the plague’s devastation.

Some scholars believe this same religious zeal sparked the dancing plagues, including the weekslong disco in 1374 Aachen. Scholars Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro, in their book Ideas of Difference, refer to the “shared stress” of the Black Death and wars of the time. They theorise that it was this communal stress that caused the dancing plagues. Other scholars, like sociologist Robert Bartholomew, speculate that the dancing plagues were a sort of ecstatic ritual of a heretical religious sect. The historian John Waller believed the plagues were a “mass psychogenic illness,” a mass hysteria caused by the psychic distress of the Black Death.

Waller, along with psychopathologist Jan Dirk Bloom and Bartholomew, all have discussed the theory that a biological agent may have been responsible for the dancing plagues. Namely, that victims of the various dancing plagues may have suffered from ergot poisoning. Ergot, a fungus that can affect rye during wet periods, can cause spasms and hallucination when ingested. But, as Waller and Bartholomew both point out, ergot poisoning cannot explain why victims danced, or why the dancing plagues were so widespread. Whatever the cause, many scholars agree that the Black Death and the dancing plagues are inextricably linked.

The charnel house in Paris’s Cemetery of the Holy Innocents with one of the earliest frescos of the Dance of Death, 1424. (Image: Commons via Atlas Obscura)

But the dancing plagues aren’t the only form of dance the Black Death inspired. Following the devastation of the Black Death, art and allegorical literature took up the theme of dance as well. As early as 1424, we find artistic renderings of the Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death. In the Danse Macabre, Death, depicted as a dancing skeleton, leads people from all walks of life in a final, fatal dance to the grave. Despite one’s wealth or power or lack of either, all must join in the Danse Macabre.

The earliest known depiction of the Danse Macabre is, very fittingly, in a cemetery. It was a fresco in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents’s charnel house in Paris. It wouldn’t have been a very quiet cemetery with only clergy and mourners within its walls. The cemetery was in a busy part of the city, neighbouring a market. The Cemetery of the Holy Innocents would’ve been a place to gather, maybe even chomp down on a baguette. Many people, from all walks of life, would’ve recognised the allegorical fresco as a satirical reminder that you only live once.

Two woodcuts from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. On the left, Adam and Eve are cast out from Eden. On the right is the Last Judgment. (Image: Commons via Atlas Obscura)

Art historian Elina Gertsman has documented the popularity of the Danse Macabre as depictions of the allegory spread throughout Europe. From France, the Dance of Death made its way into cemeteries, churches, and various facades across Switzerland, England, Germany, Italy, and throughout Eastern Europe. The famed artist Hans Holbein the Younger made a series of prints on the subject in the 1520s, and the dancing skeletons of the Danse Macabre can still be found today on everything from Saturday Night Live to off-Broadway stages.

In addition to the Danse Macabre and the dancing plagues, the Black Death also influenced another dance form to rise in popularity: the ritualistic dances of the flagellants. As medieval historian David Herlihy explains in his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, during the Black Death, bands of people would march into town behind a leader. When they’d reach the town’s central square, their leader would preach about repentance to anyone who would listen. The marchers would sing hymns while performing a “ritual dance.” Then, at the height of the performance, they’d strike a pose representing some form of sin—murder, adultery, perjury, etc.—after which, they’d strip to the waist and beat themselves with whips in repentance. Right there, in the middle of town, in front of a bunch of strangers. Then, they’d put their clothes back on and march to the next town to repeat their performance.

Woodcut of flagellants from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. (Image: Commons)

These public flagellation shows became so widespread that in 1348 Pope Clement VI tried to prohibit them. Unfortunately for Clement, the movement had already taken off. As Robert Lerner references in his article, “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities”, the flagellants performed their ritual to inspire others to repent before the end of the world came with the Last Judgment. Many believed that the Black Death was indicative of the end of days. Soon enough, God would be sitting on his throne deciding who was going to be allowed to hang out in his home in the clouds. The flagellants believed they were harbingers of the new era that would follow the Black Death. In a way, they were right.

Michelangelo’s 1541 fresco of The Last Judgment. (Image: Commons)

The dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants were all reactions to the massive upheaval caused by the Black Death. With as much as half of Europe’s population wiped out, a shift was inevitable. Herlihy, in his book, calls the Black Death “the great watershed” in the history of Western Europe. The British historian Denys Hays even ties the devastation of the Black Death to the birth of the Italian Renaissance in his book, The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background. After the Black Death, many of the systems medieval Europe relied upon were totally and completely upended.

Take feudalism. Because so many people, especially poorer serfs who worked the land, had died during the plague, those who remained could negotiate better pay. They figured their work was worth more than the military protection traditionally provided to them by their lord. They were right. As environmental historian Jason W. Moore writes in his article, “The Crisis of Feudalism,” the Black Death didn’t only spell the end of feudalism, but also ushered in a new era of capitalism.

The massive restructuring of society that followed the Black Death has become known more generally as the Renaissance. To this day, the Renaissance is seen as the turning point between the “past” and the beginning of our modern world. But, before the innovation and ingenuity of the Renaissance would’ve been possible, the people of the 14th century needed to process the atrocities of the Black Death.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants. We don’t ultimately know for certain why the people of Aachen danced in 1374. We aren’t entirely sure how images of the Danse Macabre spread like wildfire throughout Europe in the 15th century. We can’t tell what went through the minds of the flagellants as they walked town to town to perform their ritual dance and then beat themselves with whips. We can assume that they needed some way to embody their pain. They needed to dance, beat, and paint it. And, as they did so, perhaps they could begin to process the horrors they had survived. Perhaps they could begin to heal.

Sarah Durn is a freelance writer, actor, and medievalist based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her upcoming book, The Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy, will be released on May 5.