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The Dancing Mania

The Dancing Mania by Justus Hecker
By: (1795-1850)

Numerous theories have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania, and it remains unclear whether it was a real illness or a social phenomenon.

One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St Anthony’s Fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops. Ergotism can cause hallucinations, but cannot account for the other strange behaviour most commonly identified with dancing mania.

Many sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods…people may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day, and in doing so, attempted to become ecstatic and see visions. Sources agree that dancing mania was one of the earliest forms of mass hysteria, and describe it as a “psychic epidemic”, with numerous explanations that might account for the behaviour of the dancers.

Another popular theory is that the outbreaks were all staged, and the appearance of strange behaviour was down to its unfamiliarity. Religious cults may have been acting out well-organised dances, in accordance with ancient Greek and Roman rituals. Despite being banned at the time, these rituals could be performed under the guise of uncontrollable dancing mania.

Justus Hecker, a 19th-century medical writer, described it as a kind of festival, where a practice known as “the kindling of the Nodfyr” was carried out. This involved jumping through fire and smoke, in an attempt to ward off disease.

It is certain that many participants of dancing mania were psychologically disturbed, but it is also likely that some took part out of fear, or simply wished to copy everyone else.

Although dancing mania was something confined to its period, some have identified modern-day activities that display some of its characteristics. It has been suggested that raving, an activity which became popular in the latter half of the 20th century, features characteristics of dancing mania. For example, raves may involve activities that onlookers consider odd (such as partying all night), the use of drugs to bring on hallucinations, and participants who are part of a subculture. (Introduction from Wikipedia, slightly adapted.)

First Page:

MANIA

Transcribed from the 1888 Cassell & Company edition by Jane Duff, proofed by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org.

The Black Death and The Dancing Mania.

FROM THE GERMAN OF J. F. C. HECKER.

TRANSLATED BY B. G. BABINGTON.

CASSELL & COMPANY, LIMITED: LONDON , PARIS , NEW YORK & MELBOURNE . 1888.

INTRODUCTION

Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker was one of three generations of distinguished professors of medicine. His father, August Friedrich Hecker, a most industrious writer, first practised as a physician in Frankenhausen, and in 1790 was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Erfurt. In 1805 he was called to the like professorship at the University of Berlin. He died at Berlin in 1811.

Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker was born at Erfurt in January, 1795. He went, of course being then ten years old with his father to Berlin in 1805, studied at Berlin in the Gymnasium and University, but interrupted his studies at the age of eighteen to fight as a volunteer in the war for a renunciation of Napoleon and all his works... Continue reading book >>


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