5 Facts about Medieval ‘Dancing Mania’

5 Facts about Medieval ‘Dancing Mania’

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Have you ever got so drunk that you couldn’t stop dancing and eventually fell over? Most likely yes. But have you ever danced in a frenzy whilst completely sober until you collapsed or died of exhaustion, all the time surrounded by hundreds of others doing exactly the same? Probably not.

This extraordinary phenomenon of uncontrollable dancing mania striking a city was recorded numerous times in the Middle Ages. Though an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing sounds rather comical and like something you might see on a night out in Newcastle, it was anything but.

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1. It is often referred to as the ‘forgotten plague’

Some historians refer to these outbreaks as the ‘forgotten plague’ and it has been diagnosed as an almost inexplicable disease by scientists. It appears to have been contagious, and could last for as long as several months – in which time it could easily prove fatal.

Those “infected” with dancing mania would exhibit behaviours that would be seen as shocking in public today, let alone at a time when the church dominated society.

It is unknown exactly how spontaneous the outbreaks were, but we can be certain that the dancing was out of control and unconscious.

2. Behaviours exhibited by sufferers were extraordinary

In an age of strict church domination, some of the unwilling revelers would strip naked, threaten those who didn’t join in, and even have sex in the street. It was also been noted by contemporaries that sufferers couldn’t perceive, or had a violent reaction to the colour red.

Others would hop around grunting like animals and many broke their ribs due to the aggressive jerkiness of their dancing, or collapse on the ground foaming at the mouth until they were able to get up and resume.

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3. The most famous outbreak happened in Aachen.

Though all of the outbreaks of dancing mania that took place between the 7th and 17th centuries involved these symptoms, the most famous outbreak occurred on 24 June 1374 in Aachen, a prosperous city of the Holy Roman Empire (today in Germany).

From Aachen, the mania spread across modern Germany and into Italy, “infecting” tens of thousands of people. Understandably, the authorities were deeply concerned and at a loss as to how to control the outbreak.

4. The authorities’ attempts to cope were often just as mad

As the outbreak took place just a few decades after the Black Death, the received wisdom was to deal with it in the same way – by quarantining and isolating sufferers. When there were tens of thousands of aggressive, hysterical and possibly violent people gathered together, however, other ways of dealing with had to be found.

One such way – which turned out to be just as mad as the disease – was to play music to the dancers. The music was played in wild patterns that matched the dancers’ movements, before getting slower in the hope that the dancers would follow suit. Often, however, the music only encouraged more people to join in.

Music couldn’t save those infected with dancing mania.

5. Historians and scientists still don’t know the cause for certain

After the Aachen outbreak eventually died down, others followed until they suddenly and abruptly stopped in the 17th century. Ever since, scientists and historians have grappled with the question of what might have caused this extraordinary phenomenon.

Some have taken a more historic approach, arguing that it was an organised form of manic religious worship and that the proponents of this worship pretended it was caused by madness in order to disguise deliberate heresy. Given the fatalities and remarkable behaviour involved, however, it appears that there was more to it than that.

As a result, many medical theories have also been given, including that the mania was caused by ergot poisoning, which came from a fungus that could affect rye and barley in damp weather. Though such poisoning causes hallucinations and convulsions, it does not explain all of the behaviours exhibited by those with dancing mania.

Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that dancing mania was in fact the first known outbreak of mass hysteria, whereby one person cracking under the strain of medieval life (the outbreaks normally took place after or during times of hardship) would gradually infect thousands of others who were likewise suffering.

The reality is, however, that historians and scientists may never know for sure just what gave rise to this mad phenomenon.

Dancing plague of 1518

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Dancing plague of 1518, event in which hundreds of citizens of Strasbourg (then a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, now in France) danced uncontrollably and apparently unwillingly for days on end the mania lasted for about two months before ending as mysteriously as it began.

In July 1518, a woman whose name was given as Frau (Mrs.) Troffea (or Trauffea) stepped into the street and began dancing. She seemed unable to stop, and she kept dancing until she collapsed from exhaustion. After resting, she resumed the compulsive frenzied activity. She continued this way for days, and within a week more than 30 other people were similarly afflicted. They kept going long past the point of injury. City authorities were alarmed by the ever-increasing number of dancers. The civic and religious leaders theorized that more dancing was the solution, and so they arranged for guildhalls for the dancers to gather in, musicians to accompany the dancing, and professional dancers to help the afflicted to continue dancing. This only exacerbated the contagion, and as many as 400 people were eventually consumed by the dancing compulsion. A number of them died from their exertions. In early September the mania began to abate.

The 1518 event was the most thoroughly documented and probably the last of several such outbreaks in Europe, which took place largely between the 10th and 16th centuries. The otherwise best known of these took place in 1374 that eruption spread to several towns along the Rhine River.

Contemporary explanations for the dancing plague included demonic possession and overheated blood. Investigators in the 20th century suggested that the afflicted might have consumed bread made from rye flour contaminated with the fungal disease ergot, which is known to produce convulsions. American sociologist Robert Bartholomew posited that the dancers were adherents of heretical sects, dancing to attract divine favour. The most widely accepted theory was that of American medical historian John Waller, who laid out in several papers his reasons for believing that the dancing plague was a form of mass psychogenic disorder. Such outbreaks take place under circumstances of extreme stress and generally take form based on local fears. In the case of the dancing plague of 1518, Waller cited a series of famines and the presence of such diseases as smallpox and syphilis as the overwhelming stressors affecting residents of Strasbourg. He further maintained that there was a local belief that those who failed to propitiate St. Vitus, patron saint of epileptics and of dancers, would be cursed by being forced to dance.

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Dancing plagues and mass hysteria

The year was 1374. In dozens of medieval towns scattered along the valley of the River Rhine hundreds of people were seized by an agonising compulsion to dance. Scarcely pausing to rest or eat, they danced for hours or even days in succession. They were victims of one of the strangest afflictions in Western history. Within weeks the mania had engulfed large areas of north-eastern France and the Netherlands, and only after several months did the epidemic subside. In the following century there were only a few isolated outbreaks of compulsive dancing. Then it reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths (Waller, 2008).

The year was 1374. In dozens of medieval towns scattered along the valley of the River Rhine hundreds of people were seized by an agonising compulsion to dance. Scarcely pausing to rest or eat, they danced for hours or even days in succession. They were victims of one of the strangest afflictions in Western history. Within weeks the mania had engulfed large areas of north-eastern France and the Netherlands, and only after several months did the epidemic subside. In the following century there were only a few isolated outbreaks of compulsive dancing. Then it reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths (Waller, 2008).

Not long before the Strasbourg dancing epidemic, an equally strange compulsion had gripped a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1491 several nuns were ‘possessed’ by devilish familiars which impelled them to race around like dogs, jump out of trees in imitation of birds or miaow and claw their way up tree trunks in the manner of cats. Such possession epidemics were by no means confined to nunneries, but nuns were disproportionately affected (Newman, 1998). Over the next 200 years, in nunneries everywhere from Rome to Paris, hundreds were plunged into states of frantic delirium during which they foamed, screamed and convulsed, sexually propositioned exorcists and priests, and confessed to having carnal relations with devils or Christ.

These events may sound wildly improbable, but there is clear documentary evidence that they did in fact happen. The dancing plagues were independently described by scores of physicians, chroniclers, monks and priests, and for the 1518 outbreak we can even read the panicky municipal orders written by the Strasbourg authorities at the time of the epidemic (Midelfort, 1999 Waller, 2008). Similarly, trial documents and the archives of the inquisition provide copious, in-depth accounts of nuns doing and saying the strangest of things (Sluhovsky, 2002).

Writers then and now have offered various interpretations of these strange and sometimes deadly crises. It has been suggested that the dancing maniacs of 1374 and 1518 were members of a heretical dancing cult. Contemporary observers, however, made clear their view that the dancing was a sickness. Nor did the Church, at a time when heresies were quickly suppressed, believe the dancers to be anything but victims of a terrible affliction, natural or divine. In recent decades a vogue for simple biological explanations has inspired the view that epidemic madnesses of the past were caused by the ingestion of ergot, a mould containing psychotropic chemicals (Backman, 1952 Matossian, 1989).

But scholarship in the fields of psychology, history and anthropology provides compelling evidence that the dancing plagues and the possession epidemics of Europe’s nunneries were in fact classic instances of a very different phenomenon: mass psychogenic illness.

Altered states
An important clue to the cause of these bizarre outbreaks lies in the fact that they appear to have involved dissociative trance, a condition involving (among other things) a dramatic loss of self-control. It is hard to imagine people dancing for several days, with bruised and bloodied feet, except in an altered state of consciousness. But we also have eyewitness evidence that they were not fully conscious. Onlookers spoke of the dancing maniacs of 1374 as wild, frenzied and seeing visions. One noted that while ‘they danced their minds were no longer clear’ and another spoke of how, having wearied themselves through dancing and jumping, they went ‘raging like beasts over the land’ (Backman, 1952). The hundreds of possessed nuns described in chronicles, legal records, theological texts or the archives of the Catholic Inquisition were equally subject to dissociative trance (Newman, 1998 Rosen, 1968). Some may have simulated the behaviour of the demoniac as a means of eliciting positive attention (Walker, 1981), but the detailed descriptions of astute and cautious inquisitors leave little doubt that most were genuinely entranced.

How might we explain these epidemics of dissociation? Ergot could have induced hallucinations and convulsions in nuns who ate bread made from contaminated flour, but it is highly unlikely that ergotism would cause remorseless bouts of dancing (Berger, 1931). Nor is there any evidence that what the victims of mass possession ate or drank made any difference. Rather, as explained below, there are very strong indications that fearful and depressed communities were unusually prone to epidemic possession. And given that there is a well-established link between psychological stress and dissociation, this correlation is immediately suggestive of mass psychogenic illness.

Fear and loathing
The years preceding the dancing epidemics were exceptional in their harshness. The 1374 outbreak maps on to the areas most severely affected, earlier in the same year, by one of the worst floods of the century. Chronicles tell of the waters of the Rhine rising 34 feet, of flood waters pouring over town walls, of homes and market places submerged, and of decomposing horses bobbing along watery streets (Backman, 1952). In the decade before the dancing plague of 1518, famine, sickness and terrible cold caused widespread despair in Strasbourg and its environs (Rapp, 1974). Bread prices reached their highest levels for a generation, thousands of starving farmers and vine growers arrived at the city gates, and old killers like leprosy and the plague were joined by a terrifying new affliction named syphilis.

These were intensely traumatic times. Nuns were protected from many of the indignities of daily life, but nunneries could also become toxic psychological environments. Even in well-managed communities, some nuns were inevitably unhappy. Sisters were often consigned to lives of quiet contemplation in accordance with the wishes of their parents rather than any conspicuous piety on their own part. Once inside the cloisters it was very hard for them to get out. But those who keenly embraced the spiritual life were often the most desperate. Tormented by a feeling of falling short of the exacting standards of holiness imposed by their orders, plenty reflected with terrible fear on the fiery destiny awaiting those impure in mind or deed.

A notable example is that of Jeanne des Anges, Mother Superior of the Loudun nunnery in southern France, who became infatuated with a local priest, Father Grandier, in the year 1627. ‘When I did not see him’, she later confessed, ‘I burned with desire for him.’ In consequence, Jeanne felt overwhelming worthlessness and guilt. After weeks of painful penance and introspection, she fell into a dissociative state during which she repeatedly accused Grandier of plotting with Satan to make her lust after him. Within days, several more nuns had followed suit, all deliriously pointing the finger at the hapless priest. After an investigation by the Inquisition, Grandier was burnt alive (de Certeau, 2000). As in the case of the Loudun nunnery, a deep, guilty longing for human intimacy could trigger collective breakdowns. This is in part why, during their possession attacks, dissociating nuns often behaved with alarming lewdness: lifting their habits, simulating copulation, and giving their demons names such as Dog’s Dick, Fornication, even Ash-Coloured Pussy. Guilt and desire could drive a nun to distraction (Sluhovsky, 2002).

The fortitude of many a nun was most severely tested during the evangelical reform movement that swept their communities from the early 1400s. Striving to restore the harsh spiritual codes of earlier centuries, reformers instructed the nuns to consume only the blandest fare, to spurn all vanity, to adopt exacting regimes of abstinence and self-abasement, and to meditate routinely on the evils of Satan and the flames of Hell. Often the younger daughters of nobles or rich burghers, many nuns did not adjust well to tasteless meals, pillow-less beds and evenings bereft of music and conversation. Hence the arrival of reformist Mother Superiors precipitated a significant number of mass possessions. Take, for example, the Ursuline nuns of Auxonne in eastern France who experienced a possession crisis in 1658 after the appointment of the evangelical Barbe Buvée to their nunnery. For several years, distressed and dissociating nuns accused her of being a witch, of killing babies and of being a lesbian. Barbe Buvée was exonerated but judiciously assigned to an alternative nunnery. The possession crisis petered out (Sluhovsky, 2002).

Mass possession also affected secular communities, and here too the role of stress is abundantly clear. The girls whose ‘grievous fits’ and ‘hideous clamors and screeching’ set off the Salem witch panic in New England in 1692 were the members of a community rent by factional strife (Demos, 1983). They were also terrified of attacks by the Native American tribes which had already slaughtered the parents and relatives of several of those at the heart of the witchcraft accusations (Norton, 2003).

Fear and anguish were the common denominators of dancing plagues and possession crises. But this is only part of the story.

Rude devils and cursing saints
Studies of possession cults in hundreds of modern cultures, from Haiti to the Arctic, reveal that people are more likely to experience dissociative trance if they already believe in the possibility of spirit possession (Rouget, 1985). Minds can be prepared, by learning or passive exposure, to shift into altered states. The anthropologist Erika Bourguignon (1991) speaks of an ‘environment of belief’, the set of accepted ideas about the spirit world that members of communities absorb, thus preparing them later to achieve the possession state. It is not necessary, however, to be formally trained. The dancers of 1374 and 1518 occupied an environment of belief that accepted the threat of divine curse, possession or bewitchment. They didn’t intend to enter trance-like states, but their metaphysical beliefs made it possible for them to do so.

Similarly, it is only by taking cultural context seriously that we can explain the striking epidemiological facts that possession crises so often struck religious houses and that men were far less often the victims of mass diabolical possession. The daily lives of nuns were saturated in a mystical supernaturalism, their imaginations vivid with devils, demons, Satanic familiars and wrathful saints. They believed implicitly in the possibility of possession and so made themselves susceptible to it. Evangelical Mother Superiors often made them more vulnerable by encouraging trance and ecstasy mind-altering forms of worship prepared them for later entering involuntary possession states. Moreover, early modern women were imbued with the idea that as the tainted heirs of Eve they were more liable to succumb to Satan, a misogynistic trope that often heightened their suggestibility.

So when one especially distressed nun began to faint, foam, convulse and speak in strange tongues, there was always a chance that the more suggestible of her sisters would begin to experience the same kind of dissociation, convinced that Satan was stalking their cloisters in search of impure souls.

Modern anthropology and psychology also reveal how beliefs and expectations can shape the individual’s experience of dissociation. In societies where people are encouraged to enter trance states so as to make contact with a spirit world, they typically behave in ways prescribed by their cultures (Katz, 1982 Sharp, 1993). We have every reason to think that the victims of dancing plagues and possession epidemics were also acting in accordance with the rich theology of their worlds.

That the dancing plagues were reliant on cultural belief-systems is apparent from the fact that they were concentrated in just those communities where we know there to have been a pre-existing belief in the possibility of dancing curses being sent down from Heaven or Hell. In 1374 the dancers believed that Satan had unleashed an irresistible dance, hence they not only danced interminably, but also begged for divine intercession, hurried to holy sites, and submitted gladly to exorcism (Backman, 1952). The people of Strasbourg in 1518 were convinced that a saint called Vitus had unleashed a dancing curse (Martin, 1914 Waller, 2008). And so, having entered the possession state, it seems that they acted according to the conventions of the St Vitus myth: dancing for days on end. The dance turned epidemic, as it had in 1374, because each new victim lent further credibility to the belief in supernatural agency. Indeed, the Strasbourg epidemic exemplifies the awesome power of suggestion: the city authorities ensured that the outbreak got out of control by having the dancers gathered together and left to dance in some of the most public spaces in the city (Waller, 2008).

Theological conventions also conditioned the behaviour of demoniac nuns. This is apparent from the fact that nearly all possession epidemics occurred within a single 300-year period, from around 1400 to the early 1700s. The reason is that only during this period did religious writers insist that such events were possible (Newman 1998). Theologians, inquisitors and exorcists established the rules of mass demonic possession to which dissociating nuns then unconsciously conformed: writhing, foaming, convulsing, dancing, laughing, speaking in tongues and making obscene gestures and propositions. These were shocking but entirely stereotypical performances based on deep-seated beliefs about Satan’s depravity drawn from religious writings and from accounts of previous possessions. For centuries, then, distress and pious fear worked in concert to produce epidemics of dancing and possession.

Body and mind
In 1749 a German nunnery in Würzburg experienced an epidemic of screaming, squirming and trance which led to the beheading of a suspected witch. By this period, however, the dancing plagues had disappeared and possession crises were rarities. The incidence of possession declined with the rise of modern rationalism (Bartholomew, 2001). Thereafter, mass outbreaks of dissociation tended to be confined to harshly managed settings such as factories and schools, and to be triggered by groundless fears of poisoning or exposure to toxic chemicals (see box opposite). For a variety of reasons, even these outbreaks are now uncommon in the Western world.
But the dancing plagues and the experiences of demoniac nuns still have something to tell us about human responses to stress. For these events place in bold relief the extraordinary power of context to shape how anguish and fear are expressed. What the historian Edward Shorter calls the ‘symptom pool’ for psychosomatic illness has varied significantly over time and between cultures (Shorter, 1992), and the changing incidences of conversion disorder, somatoform disorder and dissociative trance are all attributable, at least in part, to shifting norms and expectations (Nandi et al., 1992). Madnesses of the past of course tell us much about the worlds that sustained them. But wild epidemics of dancing and possession can also serve as powerful reminders of the instability of many psychiatric conditions.

- John Waller is in the Department of History at Michigan State University, and is the author of A Time to Dance, a Time to Die [email protected]

BOX: Modern hysterias

Even if dancing plagues are things of the past, mass psychogenic illness (MPI) remains a part of the human condition. MPI has been defined as the ‘collective occurrence of physical symptoms and related beliefs among two or more persons in the absence of an identifiable pathogen’ (Colligan & Murphy, 1982). Simon Wessely (1987) has usefully separated outbreaks of MPI into two different kinds: ‘mass anxiety hysteria’ and ‘mass motor hysteria’.

Mass anxiety hysteria usually involves the sudden expression of intense anxiety in response to a false threat. In Western settings, plausible fears of poisoning or exposure to toxic chemicals have been known to trigger classic stress-reactions such as fainting, nausea, weakness and hyperventilation. In a school in Blackburn in 1965, for instance, as many as 141 pupils were affected by psychogenic dizziness, nausea, spasms and shortness of breath after several girls had publicly fainted (Bartholomew & Wessely, 2002). Unless the initial fear is given credibility by the media or authorities, cases of mass anxiety hysteria seldom last more than a few days.

Mass motor hysteria, in contrast, typically requires a prolonged build-up of psychological tension which then manifests itself in dissociative states, conversion symptoms and other psychomotor abnormalities. These can persist for weeks or months. Such outbreaks are often shaped by the kinds of supernaturalist beliefs that were responsible for the dancing mania and the possession crises of European nunneries. In modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, for example, factory workers are often drawn from rural communities steeped in beliefs about the spirit world. Those who find it hard to adjust to the regimentation of factory life sometimes enter a dissociative state in which they behave in a manner shaped by their culture’s understanding of spirit possession. MPI may arise where fellow-workers share the same beliefs and are also experiencing severe psychological strain. These outbreaks are often brought to an end with a religious ritual involving the slaughter of a goat (Phoon, 1982).
In both Western and non-Western settings, mass motor hysteria usually occurs in schools. In 1962, for example, several girls at a mission school near Lake Tanganyika developed a compulsion to laugh and cry by turns. The affliction soon spread to neighbouring populations (Rankin & Philip, 1963). Similar outbreaks of laughing have been recorded in both Zambia and Uganda. In fact, schools in central Africa are especially prone to outbreaks of mass motor hysteria. Late in 2008 several girls in a Tanzanian school responded to the pressure of taking important exams by dissociating: some fainted, while other sobbed, yelled or ran around the school.

In other cases, conversion symptoms predominate. Thus in 2006 around 600 students in an emotionally austere all-girls school in Mexico City developed paralysis and nausea lasting days or weeks. Analogous forms of MPI have been described in European and North American schools. In a school in North Carolina in 2002 a dozen pupils experienced seizures or other paroxysmal episodes over the course of four months (Roach and Langley, 2004). In many such cases, the victims receive extensive medical treatment before a failure to identify a pathogenic cause leads to a diagnosis of MPI.

More properly described as ‘mass hysteria’ are cases in which groups of people act upon beliefs which gain exaggerated credence in times of social and economic distress. For example, parts of south-east Asia are periodically struck by epidemics of a fear among men and women that their genitals are shrinking into their bodies. ‘Koro’ is fuelled by a belief in the existence of an evil spirit that causes genital retraction. Death is said to ensue once the penis, nipples or vulva have fully disappeared into the body: hence men have been known to drive pegs through their penises in the attempt to prevent complete retraction (Bartholomew, 2001). A similar phenomenon has been recorded in parts of western Africa where men claim their penises to have been shrunk or stolen through evil magic. Individuals accused of stealing or shrinking genitals are sometimes beaten to death or lynched: at least 14 suspected penis-thieves were killed in Nigeria in 2001 (Dzokoto & Adams, 2005).

Mass anxiety hysteria and mass motor hysteria can be hard to distinguish from the effects of actual exposure to environmental hazards. Experts have therefore identified several features that are indicative of a psychogenic origin for a sudden outbreak of illness symptoms in a group of people. These include the lack of a plausible organic basis, their occurrence in a relatively closed group, and the prior existence of high levels of stress. It is always necessary, however, to test fully for potential toxic or pathogenic exposures. This point is underscored by a case in 1990 when several children at a London primary school fell sick with typical symptoms of MPI: nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and over-breathing. It looked like a classic case of hysteria. However, it turned out that they were actually suffering from poisoning from pesticides used on cucumbers (Bartholomew, 2001).

How Medieval People Tried to Dance Away the Plague

It was a warm June day in 1374 in the medieval town of Aix-Ia-Chapelle, present-day Aachen, Germany, when the dancing started. It was the holy feast of St. John the Baptist, which aligns with the pagan celebration of Midsummer during the summer solstice. Traditionally, St. John’s Day was a day of rest and worship for the quiet town of Aache n.

This was not to be the case in 1374. It began with a small group, maybe a dozen or so people. All at once, they began to flail their limbs. Some screamed or hooted. Others moved about as if in a trance.

More and more townspeople joined in the erratic dance. Serfs, nobles, men, women, old and young—all took part in the “dancing plague” of Aachen. Some took up instruments like the stringed vielle, pipes or drums . As sociologist Robert Bartholomew notes , the afflicted sometimes even employed musicians to play. Other times music was played in the hopes of curing victims from their dancing hell. As Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker describes in his book, The Black Death and the Dancing Mania , the victims would take hands forming giant undulating circles, spinning round and round in ever-quickening loops. They’d yell, calling out to God or Satan or both. Their movements were haphazard, even epileptic. For hours and hours, the townspeople danced without rest or food or water.

Then, when the sky finally darkened, they dispersed or collapsed. As Historian H. C. Erik Midelfort notes in his book, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany , some never would rise again—dying from broken ribs or heart attacks. But, when the sun shined the next day, they took up their dance again. The dancing mania continued for several weeks.

Then, all at once, the dancing plague disappeared from Aachen. People returned to their homes, to their lives. Until, that is, the dancing plague spread to towns beyond Aachen, like that of Liege and Tongres in Belgium, to Utrecht in the Netherlands, to Strasbourg and Cologne in Germany. All along the Rhine, the dancing plague tormented unsuspecting townsfolk.

In his book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 , about the 1518 dancing plague in Strasbourg, France, historian John Waller cites everything from doctors’ notes to city council documents to sermons, all of which unequivocally refer to the dancing of the plague’s victims. They did not appear to be suffering from epilepsy or another convulsion-associated illness. The victims’ movements were, as Waller asserts in his book, rhythmic and very much dancing.

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One of the prevailing theories around the dancing plagues has to do with their timing. When the dancing plague struck Aachen, the devastation of the Black Death was still very fresh in peoples’ minds. During the 14th century, the Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population . The bacterium Yersinia pestis caused the illnesses associated with the Black Death. The septicaemic plague, the pneumonic plague, and most commonly the bubonic plague all resulted from exposure to Y. pestis. Aside from death, symptoms of the plagues included everything from purple skin to vomiting blood and fever, among other much more grotesque symptoms.

As you might imagine, the people who lived through the horror of the Black Death were questioning their reality and experiencing psychological distress. Death surrounded them. Entire families were decimated overnight. The dead lined the streets and were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. Indeed, there were many extreme reactions to the Black Death.

The Italian writer and chronicler Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Black Death as it ravaged Florence, Italy, writes of such reactions among his neighbors. Some chose to “live temperately and avoid all excess…band[ing] together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, form[ing] communities in houses where there were no sick.” In other words, they isolated themselves from others in their homes in a medieval version of shelter-in-place. Many resorted to intense prayer and fasting in an effort to appease God. But Boccaccio also writes of people who did the opposite, people who would “ drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event. ”

While these two reactions seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, both can be linked to the religious fervor of the age, which the Black Death only exasperated. Religion often does quite well during hard times.

Monks and commoners alike considered the Black Death to be divine punishment for their sins. A Franciscan chronicler from Lubeck wrote of the Black Death being God’s retribution for the evil of humans and indicative of the end of times. The Arabic chronicler as-Sulak and the Swiss Franciscan monk John of Winterthur supported the Lubeck Franciscan’s ideas in their own writings during the period. God was unhappy with humanity, so he decided to flex a bit and show that he was the all-powerful one.

The belief that God sent down the Black Death as punishment begins to explain the range of reactions noted by Boccaccio, and even the dancing plague of Aachen in 1374. Because the Last Judgment was thought to be so imminent, people tended to have one of the two reactions Boccaccio lays out: (1) They became hyper-religious and repentant for their sins, or, (2) they figured they had far too many sins to count and might as well live it up. As the Greek historian and general Thucydides of Athens summed it up in his Plague of Athens, “ before [the plague] fell it was only reasonable to get some enjoyment out of life.” So went the thinking of the medievals who decided to go on a spree of imbibing and carousing. During a 1625 bout of the plague in London, poet George Wither echoed Boccaccio’s observation of peoples’ two extreme reactions writing:

Some streets had Churches full of people, weeping
Some others, Tavernes had, rude-revell keeping:
Within some houses Psalmes and Hymnes were sung
With raylings and loud scouldings others rung.

This wave of religiosity turned some people to blaming Satan and, by extension, satanic worship for the Black Death. There was a rise of witchcraft accusations and anti-Semitism during the period, as people looked to place blame on others for the plague’s devastation.

Some scholars believe this same religious zeal sparked the dancing plagues, including the weekslong disco in 1374 Aachen. Scholars Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro, in their book Ideas of Difference , refer to the “shared stress” of the Black Death and wars of the time. They theorize that it was this communal stress that caused the dancing plagues. Other scholars, like sociologist Robert Bartholomew, speculate that the dancing plagues were a sort of ecstatic ritual of a heretical religious sect. The historian John Waller believed the plagues were a “ mass psychogenic illness ,” a mass hysteria caused by the psychic distress of the Black Death.

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Waller, along with psychopathologist Jan Dirk Bloom and Bartholomew, all have discussed the theory that a biological agent may have been responsible for the dancing plagues. Namely, that victims of the various dancing plagues may have suffered from ergot poisoning. Ergot, a fungus that can affect rye during wet periods, can cause spasms and hallucination when ingested. But, as Waller and Bartholomew both point out, ergot poisoning cannot explain why victims danced, or why the dancing plagues were so widespread . Whatever the cause, many scholars agree that the Black Death and the dancing plagues are inextricably linked.

But the dancing plagues aren’t the only form of dance the Black Death inspired. Following the devastation of the Black Death, art and allegorical literature took up the theme of dance as well. As early as 1424, we find artistic renderings of the Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death. In the Danse Macabre, Death, depicted as a dancing skeleton, leads people from all walks of life in a final, fatal dance to the grave. Despite one’s wealth or power or lack of either, all must join in the Danse Macabre.

The earliest known depiction of the Danse Macabre is, very fittingly, in a cemetery. It was a fresco in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents’s charnel house in Paris. It wouldn’t have been a very quiet cemetery with only clergy and mourners within its walls. The cemetery was in a busy part of the city, neighboring a market. The Cemetery of the Holy Innocents would’ve been a place to gather, maybe even chomp down on a baguette. Many people, from all walks of life, would’ve recognized the allegorical fresco as a satirical reminder that you only live once.

Art historian Elina Gertsman has documented the popularity of the Danse Macabre as depictions of the allegory spread throughout Europe. From France, the Dance of Death made its way into cemeteries, churches, and various facades across Switzerland, England, Germany, Italy, and throughout Eastern Europe. The famed artist Hans Holbein the Younger made a series of prints on the subject in the 1520s, and the dancing skeletons of the Danse Macabre can still be found today on everything from Saturday Night Live to off-Broadway stages.

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In addition to the Danse Macabre and the dancing plagues, the Black Death also influenced another dance form to rise in popularity: the ritualistic dances of the flagellants. As medieval historian David Herlihy explains in his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West , during the Black Death, bands of people would march into town behind a leader. When they’d reach the town’s central square, their leader would preach about repentance to anyone who would listen. The marchers would sing hymns while performing a “ritual dance.” Then, at the height of the performance, they’d strike a pose representing some form of sin—murder, adultery, perjury, etc.—after which, they’d strip to the waist and beat themselves with whips in repentance. Right there, in the middle of town, in front of a bunch of strangers. Then, they’d put their clothes back on and march to the next town to repeat their performance.

These public flagellation shows became so widespread that in 1348 Pope Clement VI tried to prohibit them. Unfortunately for Clement, the movement had already taken off. As Robert Lerner references in his article, “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities” , the flagellants performed their ritual to inspire others to repent before the end of the world came with the Last Judgment. Many believed that the Black Death was indicative of the end of days. Soon enough, God would be sitting on his throne deciding who was going to be allowed to hang out in his home in the clouds. The flagellants believed they were harbingers of the new era that would follow the Black Death. In a way, they were right.

The dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants were all reactions to the massive upheaval caused by the Black Death. With as much as half of Europe’s population wiped out, a shift was inevitable. Herlihy, in his book , calls the Black Death “the great watershed” in the history of Western Europe. The British historian Denys Hays even ties the devastation of the Black Death to the birth of the Italian Renaissance in his book, The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background . After the Black Death, many of the systems medieval Europe relied upon were totally and completely upended.

Take feudalism. Because so many people, especially poorer serfs who worked the land, had died during the plague, those who remained could negotiate better pay. They figured their work was worth more than the military protection traditionally provided to them by their lord. They were right. As environmental historian Jason W. Moore writes in his article, “ The Crisis of Feudalism ,” the Black Death didn’t only spell the end of feudalism, but also ushered in a new era of capitalism.

The massive restructuring of society that followed the Black Death has become known more generally as the Renaissance. To this day, the Renaissance is seen as the turning point between the “past” and the beginning of our modern world . But, before the innovation and ingenuity of the Renaissance would’ve been possible, the people of the 14th century needed to process the atrocities of the Black Death.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the dancing plagues, the Danse Macabre, and the flagellants. We don’t ultimately know for certain why the people of Aachen danced in 1374. We aren’t entirely sure how images of the Danse Macabre spread like wildfire throughout Europe in the 15th century. We can’t tell what went through the minds of the flagellants as they walked town to town to perform their ritual dance and then beat themselves with whips. We can assume that they needed some way to embody their pain. They needed to dance, beat, and paint it. And, as they did so, perhaps they could begin to process the horrors they had survived. Perhaps they could begin to heal.

Myth Versus Fact

Wikimedia Commons Medieval physician Paracelsus was among those who chronicled the dancing plague of 1518.

In order to investigate the plausibility of the dancing plague of 1518, it’s important to start by sorting through what we know to be historical fact and what we know to be hearsay.

Modern historians say there is enough literature surrounding the phenomenon to corroborate that it did actually happen. Experts first uncovered the dancing plague thanks to contemporaneous local records. Among them is an account written by the medieval physician Paracelsus, who visited Strasbourg eight years after the plague struck and chronicled it in his Opus Paramirum.

What’s more, copious records of the plague appear in the city’s archives. One section of these records describes the scene:

“There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Began dancing.
Which they kept up day and night,
Without interruption,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.”

A chronicle composed by the architect Daniel Specklin that’s still kept in the city archives described the course of events, noting that the city council came to the conclusion that the bizarre urge to dance was the result of “overheated blood” in the brain.

“In their madness people kept up their dancing until they fell unconscious and many died.”

Chronicle of the dancing plague in the Strasbourg archives

In a misguided attempt to cure the townspeople of the plague, the council imposed a counterintuitive solution: They encouraged victims to continue their dancing, perhaps in the hopes that people would inevitably tire out safely.

Wikimedia Commons Residents in the area believed that the painful dancing spell was caused by the wrath of St. Vitus.

The council provided guildhalls for the people to dance in, enlisted musicians to provide accompaniment and, according to some sources, paid “strong men” to keep the dancers upright for as long as possible by lifting their exhausted bodies as they whirled around.

After it became clear that the dancing plague wouldn’t end anytime soon, the council employed the extreme opposite of their initial approach. They decided that infected people had been consumed by holy wrath and so penance was enforced on the town along with the banning of music and dancing in public.

According to city documents, the delirious dancers were eventually taken to a shrine dedicated to St. Vitus located in a grotto on the hills in the nearby town of Saverne. There, the dancers’ bloodied feet were placed into red shoes before they were led around with a wooden figurine of the saint.

Miraculously, the dancing finally came to an end after several weeks. But whether any of these measures helped — and what caused the plague in the first place — remained mysterious.


Cartwright, F.F., Disease and History , Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, 1972.

Haggard, H.H., The Lame, the Halt, and the Blind: The Vital Role of Medicine in the History of Civilization , Harper and Brothers, New York, 1932.

McGrew, R.E., Encyclopedia of Medical History , McGraw-Hill Co., New York, 1985.

Prescott, L.M., J.P. Harley, and D.A. Klein, Microbiology , W.C. Brown, Dubuque, 1990.

Sachs, C., World History of the Dance , W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1937.

5 Historical Manias That Gripped Societies, Then Disappeared

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Charles Mackay may have written those words in 1841 in his social science classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, but what he has to say about mass manias and the behavior of crowds remains absolutely relevant today—as anyone who’s ever gone to a midnight sale of one of the Twilight books could tell you.

Mob mentality also goes some of the way—but not all the way—in explaining these real manias and outbreaks of strange behavior that came on disturbingly fast and disappeared just as rapidly. (Please note, Bieber Fever is not on the list.)

1. The Deadly Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages

In 1374, dozens of villages along the Rhine River were in the grips of a deadly plague—a dancing plague called choreomania. By the hundreds, villagers took to the streets leaping, jerking, and hopping to music no one else could hear. They barely ate or slept, and just danced, sometimes for days on end, until their bloodied feet could support them no more.

The plague swept the countryside and, almost just as suddenly as it had come, disappeared. Until July 1518, in Strasbourg, when a woman called Frau Troffea picked up the tune again and danced for days on end. Within a week, she was joined by 34 people by the end of the month, the crowd had swelled to 400. If they’d been inmates in a Philippine prison, the whole thing would have been choreographed, set to “Thriller” and uploaded to YouTube, but since this was the Middle Ages, they just died. Dozens perished, having literally danced themselves into heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion. And, just as before, it just went away.

So what the hell happened? Historians, psychologists and scientists have tried to forensically get to the bottom of the dancing mystery. For a while, the prevailing theory was that it was a mass psychotic episode sparked by eating bread tainted by ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed, it can cause convulsions, shaking and delirium.

But John Waller, a history professor at Michigan State University, disagrees: According to all contemporary accounts of both outbreaks, the sufferers were dancing, not convulsing (in the mold’s defense, the two can be difficult to distinguish). And as to the other popular theory, that the victims were part of some heretic dancing cult, Waller says there’s nothing to suggest that they wanted to dance.

So Waller has a different theory—that these plagues were mass psychogenic illnesses, sparked by pious fear and depression. Both manias were preceded by periods of devastating famine, crop failures, dramatic floods, and all manner of Biblical catastrophe. Anxiety, fear, depression, and superstition—in particular, the belief that God was sending down plagues to persecute the guilty—made people susceptible to falling into this kind of involuntary trance state. And dancing plagues were the calling card of one St. Vitus, an early Christian martyr venerated with dance parties, meaning that the idea was already in the victims’ heads. All it took was one person to start it, and then everyone else followed.

Strasbourg wasn’t the last time a dancing plague ripped through a population—the most recent appears to be in the 1840s in Madagascar, where people danced as if possessed—but this epidemic appears to be rooted in a particular cultural milieu.

2. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962

It all started with a joke. But after 95 students at a girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were stricken by the laughing plague, forcing the school to shut down for two months, it didn’t really seem funny anymore.

The laughing epidemic began on January 30th, 1962, at the mission-run girls’ school in a tiny rural village in the Bukoba region of Tanganyika, according to a 1963 report Central African Medical Journal. It started with a bout of uncontrollable laughing among three pupils, which turned into a crying jag attended by anxiety, the fear of being chased, and in some cases, violence when restrained. The these symptoms quickly spread through the school, apparently transmitted by contact with an infected person onset was sudden, and could last anywhere from a few hours to 16 days.

The school was forced to shut down in March after more than half the students—95 out of 159—were affected. And then, 10 days after the closure, the disease popped up again, this time in a village 55 miles away. Several of the sick girls had come from the village and, though the medical journal isn’t clear on this point, had probably returned while the school was shuttered. In all, some 217 people were afflicted in April and May in that village. The disease then spread through the countryside each time, the Typhoid Mary was a victim who had either been at the closed girls’ school or had come in contact with them.

But as in the cases of most psychogenic illness, there was nothing physically wrong with the afflicted. They exhibited no fevers or convulsions, and their blood work produced nothing interesting theories that they were victims of some kind of psychotropic mold didn’t hold water when it was clear that they had no other symptoms. And, as the medical journal rather unkindly pointed out, “No literate and relatively sophisticated members of society have been attacked.”

3. Dromomania, or Pathological Tourism

Most people like to take a holiday now and again. Some people, however, just can’t stop. Dromomania refers to the uncontrollable urge to travel, a pathological tourism, and it was all the rage in France between 1886 and 1909. The man who exemplified dromomania for the European medical establishment was a gas-fitter from Bordeaux, one Jean-Albert Dadas. Dadas was admitted to the Saint-Andre Hospital in Bordeaux in 1886, after he had just returned from a truly epic journey. He was exhausted, of course, but also confused, vague and foggy—he couldn’t remember where he’d been and what he’d done.

A doctor at the hospital managed to piece together his story and submit it to a medical journal under the charming name, Les aliénés voyageurs, or The Mad Travellers. Dadas’ compulsive traveling allegedly began after he illegally parted company with the French army near Mons in 1881. From there, he went east to Prague, then Berlin, through what was then East Prussia, finally to Moscow. In Moscow, he was arrested—a czar had just been assassinated and Dadas had the misfortune of being mistaken for a member of the nihilist movement responsible—and forced to march back to exile in Turkey. This may have actually suited his particular mental illness just fine. In Constantinople, he was somehow rescued by the French consulate and put on the road to Vienna, where he again took up work as a gas-fitter.

Dadas’ story inspired several other cases of dromomania in France at the time. And if it wasn’t an actual epidemic, in the sense that a large number of people were actually suffering from it, there seemed to be an epidemic about talking about it amongst medical circles. It seemed to die out by around 1909, right around the time the “alienists” (proto-psychologists) started to actively investigate it.

Dadas’ adventure also seemed to take place at a time when the medical community, some driven by pseudo sciences like eugenics, were interested in parsing out all manner of mental illness into discrete manias. Dadas could have also been dealing with a bit of drapetomania, an obsession with running away from home, though he was definitely not suffering from clinomania, a refusal to leave one’s bed. Of course, his dromomania probably would have been much easier on him if he’d also been suffering from cartacoethes, the compulsion to see maps everywhere.

4. Koro, or Genital Retraction Syndrome

Another “culture-bound syndrome,” koro refers to the irrational fear that one’s genitalia is shrinking or retracting into one’s body. And people have suffered it, usually in mass hysteria epidemics, since around 300 BCE. It’s particularly prevalent in Africa and Asia and is usually attended by severe anxiety (unsurprisingly) and fear of impending death, or loss of sexual ability. One of the most recent outbreaks of koro or, as it’s called in Western medical circles, Genital Retraction Syndrome, was in 1967 in Singapore, when more than 1000 men tried to stave off shrinkage using clamps and pegs.

Women have also been victims of the panic, often manifesting the fear that their breasts or nipples are disappearing. However, koro is more likely to strike men and, according to psychologists, more likely to strike men in societies where their worth is determined by their reproductive ability. Psychologists usually blame cultural circumstance, pointing out that epidemics tend to follow periods of social tension or widespread anxiety Chinese medicine, however, blamed female fox spirits, while in Africa, it was usually considered the result of witchcraft.

5. Motor Hysteria

The Middle Ages were kind of boring, and probably even worse for the sometimes unwilling inhabitants of nunneries. So mewling like cats was one way to pass the time. Historical reports indicate that nunneries were rife with “motor hysteria,” a kind of mass psychogenic illness that had some women exhibiting the signs of demonic possession, others acting out in sexually disturbing ways, and one convent mewling like cats and trying to claw their way up trees.

The period of nuns behaving badly lasted around 300 years, beginning at around 1400, and affected convents across Europe. One of the last was perhaps the most deadly—in 1749, a woman at a convent in Wurzburg, Germany was beheaded on suspicion of being a witch after an episode of mass fainting, foaming at the mouth, and screaming. Usually, however, these episodes ended in someone calling in a priest for some exorcisms.

Waller, he of the investigations into the dancing plagues, also came up with a theory as to what would drive these nuns to distraction: A combination of stress and strong religious tradition of trance and possession.

Women who were sent to nunneries did not always go willingly, and convents, especially starting in the 1400s, were very harsh places. The rigorous devotion to spiritual betterment wasn’t for everyone and the stress and privations these women experienced could sometimes cause them to act out. When they would, it was often with behavior that stereotypically mimicked demonic possession: “They believed implicitly in the possibility of possession and so made themselves susceptible to it,” wrote Waller.

Einstein vs. Bohr, Redux

Two books — one authored by Sean Carroll and published last fall and another published very recently and authored by Carlo Rovelli — perfectly illustrate how current leading physicists still cannot come to terms with the nature of quantum reality. The opposing positions still echo, albeit with many modern twists and experimental updates, the original Einstein-Bohr debate.

I summarized the ongoing dispute in my book The Island of Knowledge: Are the equations of quantum physics a computational tool that we use to make sense of the results of experiments (Bohr), or are they supposed to be a realistic representation of quantum reality (Einstein)? In other words, are the equations of quantum theory the way things really are or just a useful map?

Einstein believed that quantum theory, as it stood in the 1930s and 1940s, was an incomplete description of the world of the very small. There had to be an underlying level of reality, still unknown to us, that made sense of all its weirdness. De Broglie and, later, David Bohm, proposed an extension of the quantum theory known as hidden variable theory that tried to fill in the gap. It was a brilliant attempt to appease the urge Einstein and his followers had for an orderly natural world, predictable and reasonable. The price — and every attempt to deal with the problem of figuring out quantum theory has a price tag — was that the entire universe had to participate in determining the behavior of every single electron and all other quantum particles, implicating the existence of a strange cosmic order.

Later, in the 1960s, physicist John Bell proved a theorem that put such ideas to the test. A series of remarkable experiments starting in the 1970s and still ongoing have essentially disproved the de Broglie-Bohm hypothesis, at least if we restrict their ideas to what one would call "reasonable," that is, theories that have local interactions and causes. Omnipresence — what physicists call nonlocality — is a hard pill to swallow in physics.

Credit: Public domain

Yet, the quantum phenomenon of superposition insists on keeping things weird. Here's one way to picture quantum superposition. In a kind of psychedelic dream state, imagine that you had a magical walk-in closet filled with identical shirts, the only difference between them being their color. What's magical about this closet? Well, as you enter this closet, you split into identical copies of yourself, each wearing a shirt of a different color. There is a you wearing a blue shirt, another a red, another a white, etc., all happily coexisting. But as soon as you step out of the closet or someone or something opens the door, only one you emerges, wearing a single shirt. Inside the closet, you are in a superposition state with your other selves. But in the "real" world, the one where others see you, only one copy of you exists, wearing a single shirt. The question is whether the inside superposition of the many yous is as real as the one you that emerges outside.

The (modern version of the) Einstein team would say yes. The equations of quantum physics must be taken as the real description of what's going on, and if they predict superposition, so be it. The so-called wave function that describes this superposition is an essential part of physical reality. This point is most dramatically exposed by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, espoused in Carroll's book. For this interpretation, reality is even weirder: the closet has many doors, each to a different universe. Once you step out, all of your copies step out together, each into a parallel universe. So, if I happen to see you wearing a blue shirt in this universe, in another, I'll see you wearing a red one. The price tag for the many-worlds interpretation is to accept the existence of an uncountable number of non-communicating parallel universes that enact all possibilities from a superstition state. In a parallel universe, there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Not too comforting.

Bohm's team would say take things as they are. If you stepped out of the closet and someone saw you wearing a shirt of a given color, then this is the one. Period. The weirdness of your many superposing selves remains hidden in the quantum closet. Rovelli defends his version of this worldview, called relational interpretation, in which events are defined by the interactions between the objects involved, be them observers or not. In this example, the color of your shirt is the property at stake, and when I see it, I am entangled with this specific shirt of yours. It could have been another color, but it wasn't. As Rovelli puts it, "Entanglement… is the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual." The price to pay here is to give up the hope of ever truly understanding what goes on in the quantum world. What we measure is what we get and all we can say about it.

The Renaissance

Centuries of technological advance culminated in the 16th and 17th centuries in a number of scientific accomplishments. Educated leaders of the time recognized that the political and economic strength of the state required that the population maintain good health. No national health policies were developed in England or on the Continent, however, because the government lacked the knowledge and administrative machinery to carry out such policies. As a result, public health problems continued to be handled on a local community basis, as they had been in medieval times.

Scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries laid the foundations of anatomy and physiology. Observation and classification made possible the more precise recognition of diseases. The idea that microscopic organisms might cause communicable diseases had begun to take shape.

Among the early pioneers in public health medicine was English statistician John Graunt, who in 1662 published a book of statistics, which had been compiled by parish and municipal councils, that gave numbers for deaths and sometimes suggested their causes. Inevitably the numbers were inaccurate but a start was made in epidemiology.

Watch the video: How Psychology Can Explain the Deadly Medieval Dancing Plagues