June 24th in German History: The Dancing Plague

File:Dance at Molenbeek.jpg

One of the more puzzling phenomenons in European History is the so-called dancing plague. This “plague” caused spontaneous outbreaks of mass dancing, ending only when the afflicted collapsed from exhaustion. The first recorded outbreak occurred in the 7th century, but one of the earliest major outbreaks began on June 24th, 1374, in the city of Aachen, Germany.

Without any apparent cause, thousands of people in Aachen, at the time a city of the Holy Roman Empire, began to dance uncontrollably. The incident spread to neighboring cities such as Cologne, Metz, and Strasbourg and dancing was also reported in Luxembourg and Italy. The following year there were outbreaks in France and the Netherlands. Accounts of the nature of the dancing and its causes vary. Some sources say that the dancers traveled between towns, and that outbreaks were usually caused by foreigners. Others dispute this. Most sources agree that dancers often collapsed of exhaustion, broke bones, and even died. Some say that dancers demanded onlookers join them. Interestingly, several accounts mention the dancers either being unable to see red, or else becoming enraged at the sight of it. In reaction to the Aachen outbreak, dancers were isolated from the population and often exorcisms were performed on them. As with most unexplained events in medieval Europe, the masses sought religious explanations and solutions.

We will probably never know what caused the outbreaks of dancing mania. Theories range from a population wanting to escape the drudgery of peasant life to various diseases to the idea that all the outbreaks were staged. Whatever the cause, the outbreaks of the dancing plague are fascinating for their nature and the mystery that surrounds them.

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