So now we move to a new theory, something most of us sitting in our living rooms might find far-fetched but those who attend raves on a regular basis might find completely normal...
On a warm summer day in 1518 in Strasbourg, France, a young woman named Frau Troffea stepped into the street and started to dance. Hours passed, but she did not stop. As she spent the long day leaping and throwing herself around the street, she drew a crowd. Finally, in utter exhaustion, she fell to the ground. But the show was not over, folks. As soon as she had rested, she jumped up and began to caper about the streets once more, and she continued to do so, day after day, until about a week had passed, and oddly enough, by that time, about 34 people had joined in the massive party experiment. By month's end, the berserker who had originally caused the crazed dance had been joined by 400 other "dancers" ("Mass Hysteria in Germany 500 Years Ago").
This incident may seem like a strange blip in history, but it's actually an example of a larger epidemic. If people who are not of European descent think that white people are crazy, well, here's the proof. Dancing madness popped up across Europe repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia (and if it says it on Wikipedia, then it must be true, right?), the first outbreak of chorea (from the Greek word for "dance")--also called Dancing Mania, Dancing Plague, St. John's Dance, and St. Vitus' Dance--was in the seventh century (the 600's), and it lasted through the 17th century (the 1600's) ("Dancing mania"). So for a thousand years, people would gather in the streets occasionally and begin convulsing and jerking their arms and legs around until they collapsed from exhaustion.
This phenomenon may sound a bit disturbing and a whole lot hilarious, but it was actually quite deadly. "The unfortunate people who succumbed were described as dancing and leaping until the flesh was worn from their feet and the bone and sinew exposed" ("Mass Hysteria in Germany 500 Years Ago"). But it didn't stop with broken bones and ripped feet. "The people would continue vigorously jumping and dancing about, sometimes also screaming out or chanting, until completely exhausted at which point they would collapse and some would die from cardiac arrest or injuries suffered from their violent dance. Those who didn’t die, once exhausted, would often twitch around on the ground, foaming at the mouth and gasping, until they were able to once again get up and continue their dance" ("This Day in History, 1374"). By the end of Frau Troffea's dance party in Strasbourg in 1518, dozens were dead from exhaustion, heart attack, or stroke ("'Dancing Plague' and Other Odd Afflictions Explained").
You can probably already guess how the outbreak of hysterical dancing relates to the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the story, the Piper blows on his pipe, creating a music so enchanting that the children begin to dance.
There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
. . . .
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
(Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin").
It seems completely probable that the story is in fact based on an incident of the dancing plague. Perhaps it wasn't children, but townsfolk who actually succumbed to the madness. Perhaps it was both adults and children.
An incident from history has remarkable parallels to the story of the Pied Piper. In 1237 in the city of Erfurt, Germany, a large group of children set out for the town of Arnstadt, and what was strange about them is that they "appeared to have been dancing and jumping uncontrollably all the way" ("The Dancing Plague and a Raw Deal for the Pied Piper").
What's more is that musicians were often associated with these strange outbreaks of dancing. Some towns actually hired musicians to play during these interludes, matching the rhythm of their music to the pace of the dancers. Then, they would attempt to slow the music down in the hope that the dancers would naturally begin to slow their dancing as well and eventually stop. It didn't help, however. Sometimes the added music would just encourage other people to join in as well.
However, this idea of the dancing plague and the accompanying musician does seem to be a compelling origin story for the historical event and the fairy tale of the Pied Piper. Perhaps a man in motley clothing was hired to put an end to the madness gripping the town of Hamelin, or perhaps a man with a pipe led the children from Erfurt to Arnstadt, someone in Hamelin heard about it, and somehow the two stories became mixed up so that suddenly the man who was supposed to be curing the children of their mad dancing became the bad guy who killed them all.
It's a good theory, so obviously there must be something wrong with it, right? I actually can't find anything in my research that disputes the idea that the story of the Pied Piper was inspired by an incident of the dancing plague--after all, it seems to have been a popular pastime in Germany during the time--however, I can't find anything that confirms it either. The only problem I can see with it is that the journey from Erfurt to Arnstadt--and the dancing that ensued--happened in 1237, fifty years before the children of Hamelin were said to have disappeared. On the other hand, that doesn't necessarily mean that the epidemic of hysterical dancing hadn't put such a grip on the public imagination of the people in Hamelin that it gave rise to the claim that a musician had led their children astray either.
There is one more tiny glitch in this theory though. In the original quotes that I cited from my first post, there is never any mention of dancing. The children are said to have "disappeared," been "led away," been "lost," or simply "left." And actually, when I look at the different versions of the fairy tale, Robert Browning's is the only one I can find that even uses the word "dance." Of the child who was left behind when the Piper blew on his pipe, Browning writes, "One was lame, / And could not dance the whole of the way" (Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"). Then, later in his poem, Browning adds, "And Piper and dancers were gone forever" (Robert Browning "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"). Browning published his famous poem in 1842, roughly six hundred years after the children mysteriously disappeared from the town of Hamelin. So it appears as if the children who went missing were not seen dancing at all...at least not until Robert Browning put his particular spin on the tale.
In my next post, I'll be looking at another theory behind the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but before I do, here are some strange little factoids about the dancing plague, including the idea that it was caused by a fun guy. No, wait, that should be spelled "fungi."
- In the Middle Ages, people thought everything was caused by demons, including the dancing plague. To cure it, people tried appealing to saints. Since most people in Europe were Catholic, it makes sense that they were a bit saint-crazed.
- One of the saints associated with the epidemic was St. Vitus; thus, the name St. Vitus' Dance. He was put to death by a Roman emperor, apparently for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which is ironic because legend has it he had driven a demon from that same emperor's son. No good deed goes unpunished, after all. It does make sense, however, that people who believe their dancing to be caused by a demon would appeal to a demon-hunting saint though, doesn't it? St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers and epileptics, so again, it makes sense that he would be associated with an illness that combines features of both. During the Middle Ages, those afflicted with St. Vitus' Dance were said to be cured by touching the stones of a church that held the saint's remains.
- The other saint associated with the dancing plague is St. John (St. John's Dance), aka John the Baptist. I can't find much information on why it was named after St. John, however, though it may have to do with Salome's Dance, a dance that was so provocative it caused John to lose his head, literally.
- In one infamous account, an outbreak of dance mania occurred in Kölbigk, Germany on Christmas Eve when a group of revelers interrupted church services. The story goes that the priest cursed the group for their vulgarity, and as a result, the dancers were unable to stop their herky-jerky for a year, at the end of which most of them died from exhaustion.
- There are many theories as to what caused the dancing plague, including the idea that the dancing was actually a gimmick staged by religious cults, mass hysteria caused by the tumultuous times people were living in, or St. Anthony's Fire, aka ergot poisoning. Ergot is a poisonous fungi that grows on rye and other cereals, and when consumed, it causes "hallucinations, seizures, mania, convulsions, irrational behavior, and unconsciousness" ("This Day in History, 1374"). This same fungus may be what caused Puritans to start claiming that everybody and their dog was a witch during the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600's.
- People in Luxembourg still commemorate the dancing plague with something called the "Dancing Procession." "Taking two steps back for every three steps forward, the dancers painstakingly creep toward the grave of St. Willibrord, an Anglo-Saxon missionary who died in A.D. 739. Once there, participants pray for ailing relatives, for Willibrord is the patron saint of patients suffering from movement disorders" (US News & World Report, "Was Twisting a Disease?"). So if you're in the mood to twist yourself silly, you can join the 12,000 other dancers who gather yearly in the city of Echternach. Maybe stop before you begin foaming at the mouth though.
So what do you think caused the disappearance of 130 children from Hamelin, Germany in 1287: the plague, the dancing plague, or something else? I'll discuss another theory in my next post.