We all do peculiar things from time to time. It is to be expected; and people of bygone ages are certainly not exempt. A cursory squint at the footnotes of history reveals numerous things that make ones eyebrows stretch heavenwards. Yet, my dear reader, there is one historical oddity which reaches out its knobbly fingers through time to absolutely snatch the biscuit as far as peculiar behaviours are concerned. I am referring, of course, to that extremely novel habit Medieval citizens had of involuntary dancing; known in those days as St Vitus’ dance.
It was all the rage in the Middle Age Europe by all accounts. Between the 9th and 16th Centuries, chroniclers tell us that common folk, going about minding their business, were suddenly gripped with an irresistible urge to break out and boogie.
It could happen at most inappropriate times too, like the 18 peasants who thoroughly disrupted a Christmas Eve Church service with their capers. Despite the fact the priest poured mighty imprecations upon them, they simply couldn’t stop. “I hear you Father Abbot” came the reply, “ but I just can’t control my feet.” One cannot begin to imagine the damage this affliction could do to ones career prospects.
However, the thing that caused most concern was the viral nature of this Dancing Mania. Whole groups it seems could be seized simultaneously with the desire to bop. Take the 200 souls crossing the Meuse river. They figured that all that their day was missing was some vigorous moshing. This they did and brought down the bridge, causing traffic delays for months.
The most entertaining incident has to be the great hokey-cokey of 1374. It all began in the town of Aix-la-Chappelle. It was July and the town did that slumbering thing that poets knowledgeably tell us they do. Then, quite unexpectedly, a group of men and women from German parts who were evidently holidaying in the region, started doing a ring-o-roses routine slap in the middle of the square.
One supposes that the locals in the cafes looked on beneficently at this quaint Germanic custom and then went back to munching their baguettes. However, when it became apparent that the performers couldn’t stop, quite a crowd began to assemble. Round and round they went for hours on end stopping only to have a fit. The dancers pleaded bystanders to stamp on their feet as they throbbed awfully.
Things were got particularly exciting when everyone started shrieking and leaping gustily. Before long, the local populace inexplicably got sucked into the queer antics. One gentleman, explaining his energetic horse impressions to the press after the affair, claimed he thought he was in a stream of hot blood and leapt as high as he could to get out of it.
By the end of four months, involuntary disco fever had gripped Utrecht, Liege and Tongres, where hordes were salsa-ing and leaping through the streets. It was mainly the peasantry but some higher ranking chaps got in on the act. These were people who, as one historian so capably put it, were “persons whose natural frivolity was unable to withstand the excitement of novelty.” One could barely move about the Dutch provinces for fear of being mown down by a passing American Smooth or getting Rumba-ed to death.
Something had to be done. Complaints were rolling into the town halls. The dancers were getting threatening; menacing destruction to priests and coercing passersby into joining the rave against their will. Some councils thought it might be beneficial to hire musicians to play music for the afflicted. At least this way they wouldn’t look so silly doing the cha-cha in silence. Presently they were just looking ridiculous and making the borough a laughing stock. Others opened the town hall as a sort of zumba club to keep the embarrassment off the streets. Interestingly, one town expressly forbade the making of pointy toed shoes, as these had been noted to produce rather violent reactions to the possessed.
Eventually, after much exorcising at the chapels of St Vitus and bashing of peoples limbs, order was restored and the nobles could sleep easy once again. However, until the 17th century, they would live under the constant fear that at any moment the whole nation could take to the streets in fits of break-dancing, which just wouldn’t do at all.
Excellent further reading