Land of a Thousand [plus] Hysterics

St. Vitus’ Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

I’m squandering this glorious autumn Sabbath Sunday up in my drafty garret researching medical maladies.[1] I have discovered, to my great relief, that somehow I avoided coming down with St. Vitus Dance, also known as Sydenham’s chorea, which is a by-product of rheumatic fever, a disease that laid me up for three months when I was five. Sydenham chorea came to be known as St. Vitus Dance because its victims develop spasmodic involuntary herky-jerky movements involving arms, legs, fingers, heads, and tongues. If you want to vicariously feel what it’s like, pull out the ol’ phonograph, un-sleeve your Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits album, turn the speed up to 78 rpm, guide the stylus to the last song on the B-side, “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and let the music guide you.

It seems, however, that during the Middle Ages, a manic compulsion, also known as St. Vitus’s Dance, swept through Europe. To quote John Waller in his A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518:

It started with just a few people dancing outdoors in the summer heat. Arms flailing, bodies swaying and clothes soaked with sweat, they danced through the night and into the next day. Seldom stopping to eat or drink, and seemingly oblivious to mounting fatigue and the pain of bruised feet, they were still going days later. By the time the authorities intervened, hundreds more were dancing in the same frenetic fashion.

So, this is a different type of St. Vitus dance from the post-streptococcus, post-rheumatic-fever variety. Blogger Jen Messier offers a review of theories as to whether it was “a real illness or social phenomenon,” which includes the possibility it may have been a by-product of Ergot poisoning (aka St. Anthony’s Fire), or a freaked-out response of super-stressed people facing the bubonic plague and malnutrition, or, her favorite theory, the dancers were religious cultists feigning illness so they could get around quarantine rules forbidding dancing.

Some of these enthusiasts literally danced themselves to death, especially in what has become known as “the Dancing Plague of 1518,” which took place in Strasbourg. Again, John Waller: “the dancing mania underscores the power of cultural context to shape the way in which psychological suffering is expressed.” 

Mass hysteria, anti-quarantine shenanigans, cultists crashing school board meetings overcome with uncontrollable anger manifesting itself in herky-jerky movements, arms flailing, fingers jabbing, mouths –to borrow Ezra Pound’s memorable phrase – “arse belching.” 

Yes, seems like old times.


[1] By the way, the windows are open, and I can see from my vantage point sun glinting on pine needles and the soft swaying of magnolia boughs just beyond the iMac screen, so I ain’t completely cut off from nature.

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