The Psychologist, 07-2009
Looking Back: Dancing plagues and mass hysteria
John Waller on how distress and pious fear have led to bizarre outbreaks
across the ages
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.
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
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
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 Buvee
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 Buvee 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,
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
Body and mind
In 1749 a German nunnery in Wurzburg 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
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About the Author
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Psychological Society, The Psychologist, vol 22
no 7, july 2009 Pages: 644-647