unsolved mystery: the history of st vitus’ dance

I’ve been back to reading about the dancing plague and how we still don’t know too well about it. I’m not even sure how many people out there know about this, but I’ve been intrigued since I learnt about it.

Doing no justice to the phenomena and in brief, the dancing plague was a situation where groups of people danced uncontrollably down the streets, sometimes for days, likely in a trance of hallucinations or unconsciousness, and forms a social influence which results in larger throngs of people following suit. Apparently the dancing plague was later attributed to Sydenham chorea, or of mass hysteria.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this, and in no way am I challenging scientific reasoning; I merely wish to seek an explanation from anyone who might know more about this – if chorea does not spread by air, how did one’s suffering of it result in groups of people doing just the same?

One explanation was that music was played when an outbreak occurred and those unaffected would join the procession as per a usual dance. Possible, indeed… or some have suggested a stress-relieving process for the masses that danced, but which overdid it and resulted in hallucinations. I’m not so convinced with this, though. More scientifically, some have theorized ergotism, tarantism and more, causing mass hallucinations. Possible too…

I chanced upon the concept of dancing mania when I was reading about mass hysteria and it has caught my attention all this while. Confined to the earlier centuries, this form of epidemic hysteria may have passed over, but the very concept should be emphasized – the power of words, starting from idea generation, should not be underestimated. How words & ideas have shaped mindsets & identities, even spurred nations at war, this seemingly intangible epidemic should be given due attention nonetheless. Are we looking into all these plausible epidemics that we have neglected for centuries? Has our constant development resulted in our neglect of the basics?

We have been asking constantly how to move on, yet sometimes we lose sight of the what and whys of our persistent thirst for more…

We could keep going, with Tourette syndrome,  Tanganyika laughter epidemic, fainting epidemics, idea-seeding and more, but let’s just keep it to this for now.

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3 thoughts on “unsolved mystery: the history of st vitus’ dance

  1. I have read about the term, St Vitus dance before. And have to wonder (seeing as I am from Africa) if it could be the same as the religous or tribal dancing and its effects I witnessed growing up on a remote farm., taking place amongst the native workers.

    Much the same as with Voodoo, some of the overtly christian natives on the farm would dance at spesific times of the year. It would be a mixture of tribal dancing and worshipping christian-based idols and paraphanelia. It would start with a few and soon the rest, young and old would follow. They would be in a transelike state till they collapse from exhaustion, and the drums would be played the whole weekend..relentlessly.

    As for the descriptions of the St Vitus dance itself, why does ity make me think immieadiatelly of the old fable of the Ratcatcher of Hameln..?? 😉

    • Hi forestfae,
      Good to hear from you on this – I’m definitely learning something new and I’ll take a plunge to read about that you’ve mentioned here. By the way, have you been to Rothenburg, Bavaria (Germany)? It’s interesting – I’ll put up a post about the Nightwatchman and his mysterious adventures some time soon 🙂
      Have a great week!

      • Good morning, Rustic Recluse 🙂

        Nope, I have never been to Germany even though its just a short ‘hop’ across the pond. Now I’m really interested in this mysterious Nightwatchman and his adventures, do write about him soon please? I just love folklore/legends etc.

        Have a great week too.

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