In the streets, as the bells tolled, the pilgrims took to dancing. They claimed they could not stop. When asked why, they said it was St. John. Some suspected the culprit was a spider.
Imagination, after all, has diverse needs. Among these is enaction of beliefs, known and unknown, inherited and adopted. Perhaps there was some collective recognition of the allure of what was forbidden. Maybe it was a rejection of the certainty professed by the self-proclaimed experts of the unseen. How could there be such neat categories for the unknown, and what was a body to make, really, of the smug certainty of those pious pillars of chastity claiming to know all?
Every ritual is a cosmology enacted and here comes a sudden ambivalence between order and disorder. Birth, after all, was very messy, and yet commonly described in deceptively banal terms: who was born, who gave birth, in the time of whose birth. These easy phrases tend to obscure the body’s radical passage from imminence to transcendence, and the terror of the vast labyrinth of possibilities that open when this is considered.
No, no. This was deemed too much. It was easier, many believed, to call for an exorcism, to blame a series of botched baptisms given by priests improperly purified of the weaknesses of the flesh. And of course, the spider, who as a weaver of intricate patterns in the air, had long been cause for suspicion among the high-minded guardians of propriety.
On this day in 1374, observers in the Rhine basin observed processions of pilgrims wandering from town to town in a display of what some described as “hysterical” dancing. This 2016 article describes this notable outbreak of “Dance Mania.” I am interested as much in the phenomenon itself as I am in the factors that led such behavior to be displayed, diagnosed, and chronicled.