A look at raving in the Middle Ages
XLR8R Magazine Issue #24
Delirium. The ultimate state of a raving lunatic. Sublime both in its perverse agony and its effervescent bliss, its appeal draws us to the teetering edge of sanity and at times perhaps beyond. The transcendental allure of dance drives us to push ourselves there again and again, above the confines of society and, sometimes even, beyond the voice of reason.
Enter the 14th century Aix-la-Chapelle in July of 1374, a group of people dance themselves for days on end into apoplexy, foaming at the mouth and screaming of wild visions. The manic dancing spreads throughout France and the Low Countries. Crowds gathered, and religious ceremonies are performed in attempts to exorcise the demons. People offered prayer to St. Vitus and he soon became the patron saint of the dancers. The dancing manifested into an anti clerical protest in Liege when ravers began cursing the priests of that city. A few monasteries and towns were even overthrown. In the most severe cases, mad ravers would dance through the loss of a limb, pausing only for a moment to pick up the pitiful piece before resuming the dance until they collapsed to their deaths. For the fewer and more unfortunate they would survive to experience psychotic delusions, nervous spasms, convulsions, schizophrenia, and acute paranoia for the rest of their glorious lives.
The peak of this epidemic came to Strausburg in 1418. Dancers filled the street around the clock this time accompanied by the beats of musicians. The scholars of this time perceptively understood the power of music in its ability to restrain the vices associated with different social classes. They saw it not only as a cure for ailments of the spirit, but also of the flesh and it was used as treatment to the ills of society. In Strausburg, the raving was so widespread that from the raving lunatics and bewildered civilians alike drawn to dance to the music by the groups of performing artists everywhere, down to the masses of gawking spectators and those trying to help the entire town was known to have come to a complete state of delirium.
It grew even madder in the
fifteenth century, when an outbreak in the town Taranto of southern Italy
inspired an actual dance form. A myth explained the raving to be caused
by the bite of the indigenous spider known to us as the Apulian tarantula.
This, however, remains a myth since its bite (although painful) is not
deadly. Nevertheless, the dance that evolved
from this outbreak became known as the 'tarantella' which consists of rhythms
beat out upon a tambourine and castanets, adorned by the devout new-schoolers.
The raving epidemic eventually died out (perhaps just going back underground) or assumed other forms. This leaves us questioning the reason for such an absurdity. One hypothesis is that it occurred because of mass hysteria. The fourteenth century was a cultural mecca full of beautiful art, music, and poetry but also was a time of tremendous social upheaval and people lived under the constant threat of the black plague. That raving became as widespread as it did because of mass hysteria (e.g.: American gothic movement gaining widespread popularity under the global coldwar paranoia) is possible. However, the thought that hysteria alone caused the maddest of ravers to continue dancing after their arms or legs fell off is pure lunacy. The mad raver phenomenon almost certainly needs a physiological explanation that could serve as the initial catalyst.
These godfathers of raving ate of the bread contaminated with 'ergot'. Ergot is a fungal disease of rye that produces hallucinations and bizarre alterations of behavior, eventually leading to insanity or death by loss of limbs or epileptic seizures. This small brown fungus produces an array of dangerous chemicals, including LSD.
The evolution of this frenzied state of delirium inducing dance provides us a glimpse at the pioneers of raving and how they leave us groveling in the dirt. Their delirium induced dancing provided entertainment and awe (not to mention downright fear) and inspired forms of dance, political protest, and larger followings of Dionysian cults. They are truly an inspiration to the modern raver.