Dance rage

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The pilgrimage of epileptics to Meulebeeck , an engraving by Hendrik Hondius after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1564.

The term Tanzwut ( Latin Epilepsia saltatoria ) even dance disease , dance addiction , dance Plage , Tanzpest or Choreomanie called, refers to a particular in the 14th and 15th century occurred epidemic phenomenon which has been described as psychogenic and massenhysterisches phenomenon. Large groups of people (called dansatores , chorisantes or chorisierungses ) danced, often without will, according to Florian Bock, until they collapsed, exhausted or wounded.


Originally, the dance craze was known as St. Vitus' dance , a name that is used today to describe the symptoms of the hereditary disease Huntington's disease (also known as "Great St. Vitus Dance" or "Chorea major"). The name St. Vitus ' dance refers to St. Vitus , one of the fourteen helpers in need . St. Vitus or St. Vitus is, among other things, the patron saint of dancers and is called upon in cases of cramps, epilepsy , rabies and St. Vitus' dance.

Theories about causes and treatment

The causes have not yet been finally clarified; it is likely that there are different phenomena that have been summarized on the basis of the external appearance.

One assumption relates to religious ecstasy , another to the hallucinogenic effects of herbal drugs , for example through nightshade plants such as the angel's trumpet , or symptoms of poisoning from ergot from the grain , which were the cause of these phenomena. Another explanation is the bite of the European black widow , whose venom leads to involuntary neuromuscular discharges and, in addition to severe pain, causes muscle spasms that can last for days if left untreated. Although the symptoms were soon attributed to the bite of a spider, the Apulian tarantula was blamed for it, which has significantly less venom than the nocturnal European black widow, but is much larger than this and is also active during the day. This is where the saying "as if stung by a tarantula" for quick-tempered or uncontrolled behavior comes from.

Tarantella from a medical manual by Samuel Hafenreffer

The therapy methods of that time included sweat cures or treatment with excrement. The patient was perhaps best served by the tarantella : a southern Italian fast folk dance that was played by musicians in the victim's house and contrasted with the involuntary twitching with a rhythmic " antidote " (also the title of the first collection of such pieces by Athanasius Kircher , 1641) has been. Also, this way the poison should be sweated out as quickly as possible. So here the “dance rage” (to the point of complete exhaustion) was not a symptom, but therapy.

In 2012 the Frankfurt historian Gregor Rohmann presented a new interpretation of the background to the dance craze of the 14th to 17th centuries. Accordingly, it is not a form of "hysteria" or the ecstasy induced by hallucinogens, but a concept of illness based on religious ideas: Whoever danced involuntarily, acted out the feeling of being forsaken by God. Rohmann traces the development of this idea since late antique Christianity. Early Christianity had adopted the idea from non-Christian philosophy and natural science that the cosmos was shaped by the ever-harmonious circular movement of the spheres and heavenly powers. In the neo-Platonic inspired cosmology of early medieval Christianity, this became the eternal dance of angels and saints around God, who is reflected in the earthly church. The dance on earth could therefore be read in ancient thought as a reproduction of the heavenly dance. The church fathers and medieval theologians adopted this idea on the one hand. On the other hand, many church people saw in the dance performed every day a diabolical temptation and thus a threat to the salvation of souls. Rohmann shows how this dilemma developed into a Christianized variant of the concept of mania (divinely inspired madness), which was already known in Greek antiquity, from the 6th century . The attempt to gain access to the heavenly dance of the spheres in the earthly dance fails. This failure is shown in the involuntary dance movements, which themselves become a sign of God forsaken. In the late Middle Ages, medical and religious interpretations competed in the treatment of dancers.

Dance rage during the great plague epidemic?

Contrary to what is often claimed in popular representations, the dance craze did not appear in connection with the Black Death in the years 1347-1350 or other plague epidemics of the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The most important outbursts of dance rage took place in 1374, 1463 and 1518. All three cases did not cover the whole of Europe or even larger areas, but rather areas of distribution in the Rhine-Mosel-Maas area that were relatively easy to define: 1374 from the Upper Rhine to Belgium, 1463 in the Eifel region, 1518 in Strasbourg. There are other individual documents in the 14th century and afterwards. People danced until they fell into ecstasy that switched off their feeling of tiredness or exhaustion. This allowed them to continue until they collapsed from exhaustion or even died.


  • The British hard rock band Black Sabbath released a song called St. Vitus Dance (on their album Black Sabbath Vol. 4 ) in their psychedelic phase . While the title evidently addresses St. Vitus's dance, the lyrics are about something completely different, a relationship crisis.
  • The German folk-rock band Subway to Sally dealt with St. Vitus' dance in their song of the same name from the album Herzblut (2001), the chorus of which reads: "Everything revolves around me / The world sinks into a sea of ​​colors."


Web links

Commons : Tanzwut  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Tanzwut  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Bernhard D. Haage, Wolfgang Wegner: Veitstanz (antiquity and middle ages). In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1437 f.
  2. Florian Bock: When the dance madness hit Strasbourg - epidemic in history not an isolated case on from July 31, 2018, accessed on August 20, 2018.
  3. ^ Vitus (Veit). In: Ecumenical Lexicon of Saints.
  4. See also Ernst Conr. Wicke: attempt of a monograph of the great St. Vitus dance and the involuntary muscle movement, together with remarks on the tarantula dance and the Berberi. Brockhaus, Leipzig 1844, ( digitized version ).
  5. John Waller: Dancing death . BBC, September 12, 2008.