Trivia Time: The Danse Macabre

I always thought the Danse Macabre was simply saying. Wikipedia describes the Danse Macabre as a medieval motif about the ever presence of death, one that arose in the years following the black death.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

While researching the black death, I came across something very interesting. I found an old book by a medical historian Justice Friedrich Karl Hecker; The Black Death and The Dancing Mania. In it I discovered that the Danse Macabre was actually an event that occurred in the decades following the black death.

Dancing mania is an ancient disease that afflicted medieval peasants. Some modern historians have written off descriptions of the dancing mania as a form of epileptic seizure, but actual descriptions of dancing mania show it to be something quite different and unique.

A peasant afflicted with dancing mania would begin to dance and gyrate around wildly, often screaming or howling. A dancing fit could last for many hours or even days until the afflicted collapsed of exhaustion. According to the book, “their fury and extravagance of demeanor so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.”

that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.

And to make matters worse the dancing mania was not an individual affliction but a form of mass hysteria. Upon seeing somebody begin dancing other susceptible peasants would join in, sometimes in the hundreds. They would dance in the streets and courtyards of villages and towns. This would bring a large crowd of spectators out. Musicians would often come and begin to play for the dancers.

When the people collapsed onlookers would sometimes bind them about the waist with a cloth, pulling it as tight as they could. This would revive the dancer. In other times and places they would affect a much simpler and more brutal cure by kicking and pummeling the fallen dancers until they regain their senses.

Some of the dancers would recover normally and return back to their workday lives. Some would die from heart attacks or exhaustion. Others would be left with permanent maladies, tremors, epileptic seizures and other indications of some sort of neurological problem.

Learned men of the time believe the dancing was caused by demonic possession. For most of the Middle Ages doctors would not treat the dancing mania but rather left that up to the priests. The priests often tried exorcism, beating the Devil out of the afflicted and other brutal cures.

The Black death, a particularly virulent and deadly form of Yersinia pestis,  the bubonic plague, swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353. It destroyed nearly half of Europe’s population in that time and tore the fabric of society apart in ways that are hard to comprehend today.  People were so afraid of the plague that when it appeared in their town many would flee, leaving behind jobs, social roles and even families. So great was the fear, that mothers abandon sick children to die and fled into the surrounding countryside.

The danse macabre arose in Germany in 1374 nearly two decades later. The earliest reports were from Aix-la-Chapelle in western Germany.  Large groups of men and women would come together, “they form circles hand-in-hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continue dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.”

This new mania swept over Germany spread by the sight of the sufferers and even by the word of the epidemic. In a matter of months the Danse Macabre had spread to Cologne where it possessed more than 500 dancers. In the city of Metz there were said to be 1100 dancers.

Of the more bizarre symptoms of this mania, the afflicted were often triggered by the sight of the color red or by pointy shoes (which had become the fashion shortly after the black death). As the number of dancers grew, some areas of Germany attempted to halt the spread by outlawing pointy shoes.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

As the mania spread it also took on a more organized appearance. Men, women and children would abandon their homes and lives to join traveling troupes of dancers going from town to town. They would bring their own minstrels and the dancing became a show for locals, who would throw coins to keep the dancers going.

Dancers would also often take over religious halls or dance in courtyards in front of churches while services were going on. The priesthood became more and more convinced that the dancers were charlatans or religious fanatics similar to the flagellants that had existed during the plague. As a result, they used harsher and harsher methods to stop the dancing, including accusing the leaders of the movement of being in league with the devil or heretics. Either accusation led almost invariably to torture and death. The draconian measures used by the priests eventually put a stop to the dancing by the century’s end.

But it wasn’t the end of dancing mania. In Strasburg Germany in 1418 a new dancing plague emerged called St. Vitus dance or sometimes called St. John’s dance. That plague was associated with the feast day for St. Vitus and quickly became an annual event. The dance continued until as late as the 17th century but grew less severe with each passing year and eventually disappeared altogether.

The upheavals of the later centuries, the Protestant Reformation in particular, wiped out many of the clergy records of medieval Germany.  That plus the fact that physicians rarely treated or commented on the mania has caused the outbreaks to fade from cultural memory. Few history buffs today even remember that they happened.

So what was the Danse Macabre? Was it a form of mass hysteria? A group of charlatans looking to entertain a crowd? A protest movement against the church?

Quite likely it was a bit of all of these, depending on the dancer. The Black death had tore the social fabric apart and 20 years later many regions of Europe were still trying to weave that fabric back together.

Peasants who had fled from farms or villages may not have been able to go back even if they wanted to. The penalty for disobeying a lord could easily be death. For others, they didn’t want to go back and face the traumas that they had left behind. European forests of the day were often filled with these people, giving rise to the later folk tales and myths of outlaws in the woods. They scraped by and possibly the dance macabre gave them some tiny legitimate way to earn some much needed cash.

In the years of the plague, debauchery was common. Faced with the imminence of death people drank, fornicated, robbed and killed each other. No doubt many of the peasants felt remorse and regret for the things they did. Like the flagellants, the dance macabre provided a way to atone.

Human nature being what it is, for everyone feeling remorse there were probably others who miss the good old days. For them the dancing was may be a way to recapture some of the wildness of those days.

The medieval church was the cornerstone of social order and during the plague years it had largely failed the peasants. Priests often fled their churches or holed themselves up inside and refused to see anyone for fear of catching the plague. It is very likely that the peasants felt a deep sense of betrayal and anger at the church in the years following. It was in anger they could not express. Speaking out against the church could easily lead to an accusation of heresy, followed quickly by torture and death. The Danse Macabre provided the perfect outlet to disrupt and get back at the church and later claim you had no control.

Whatever the reasons for dancing the Danse Macabre provides a unique glimpse into the lives of a group whose story is almost never told, the medieval peasant.

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