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As liberating and joyous as dance could be, it was also a lesson full of terror and a constant reminder of human mortality and the looming threat of death. Take a look at these three frightful cases...

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The Danse Macabre Fresco in the Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje (Slovenia), by Johannes de Castua, 1490

The Danse Macabre, or dance of death, was a common allegory used during the Late Middle Ages. Images of this spine-chilling scene are intended to depict the universality of death, highlighting that no matter a person’s position in life, they would all one day dance with death. This was a lesson to everyone: death was to be seen as the leveller of all

This term, the Danse Macabre, could have derived from an old Danse Machabreus, meaning dance of the Maccabees, or from the idea of dancing in churchyards for communication with the dead, as the Arabic word makabr meaning ‘churchyards’. Although we do not know the exact origin of this term, it seems to have first appeared in a 1376 poem by Jean le Fevre, which said: I do the Danse Macabre.

Although the source of the Danse Macabre was the fourteenth century, this allegory reached its peak in the fifteenth century. When life was more precarious, you might expect the people of the period to have treated death as a norm, however it seemed to inspire fascination

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The Lawyer and The Minstrel perform the Danse Macabre, miniature from a 1486 book, printed by Guy Marchant in Paris



A later example from the sixteenth century...

Saint John’s Dancers in Molenbeeck, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1592)

Mass dance epidemics have afflicted Europe since the seventh century, affecting regions at times of famine, disease and political unrest. These episodes of erratic dancing were not uncommon in the medieval period.

One epidemic, in 1237, resulted in a large number of children dancing all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt: about twelve miles! That must have been a lot of dancing... Later, in about 1278, a bridge across the River Meuse collapsed. This is said to have been caused by the crossing of around two hundred dancing people

On one more infamous occasion, in 1374, a vast number of people danced through Aix-la-Chapelle for hours, shrieking and claiming to see visions of Heaven and Hell. One eyewitness, Peter of Herental, described how:

“Both men and women were abused by the devil to such a degree that they danced in their homes, in the churches and in the streets, holding each other’s hands and leaping in the air… Those who were cured said that they seemed to have been dancing in a river of blood, which is why they jumped into the air.”

What the cause of this was, we do not know. However, the participants were in no doubt of the cause: they had been possessed by demons. They moved in circles through the streets dancing for hours, crying out for the demons to stop tormenting them. The participants then moved from town to town, causing the mania to spread to Holland and Flanders. When they could dance no more, they fell exhausted to the ground, rolling on the floor as if in pain. Despite facing hostility from the participants, the clergy performed many exorcisms in front of a public audience and performed masses in hope to cure them. This frenzy died out within the year but continued to pop up over the next few centuries.

For example, in mid-fifteenth century Apulia, a woman convulsively danced into the centre of town, claiming she had been bitten by a tarantula. She was soon joined by others wearing bright colours and ornaments, dancing and drinking wine for days. Giorgio Baglivi described the situation: 

“Some victims called for swords and acted like fencers, others for whips and beat each other. Women called for mirrors, sighed and howled while making indecent motions. Some of them had still stranger fancies, liked to be tossed in the air, dug holes in the ground and rolled themselves in the dirt like swine.” 

It seems to have been both an epidemic and a party! These dancers felt that the only cure for this so-called tarantism was to dance the venom away. There were even tales of those who died because they did not have the right music available to dance to! Many regions employed musicians to play for participants, seeing music as a cure, though how useful this actually was we will never know.



Le Bal des Ardents, Illuminated miniature from Jean Froissart's Chronicles,

by Philippe de Mazerolles, c. 1470-2

On the Tuesday before Candlemas Day (January 28) 1393, a masquerade, given by Queen Isabeau of France, went horribly wrong. The festivities were intended to celebrate a favourite lady-in-waiting’s third marriage, after being twice widowed. In this period, a woman’s re-marriage was an occasion celebrated by a charivari (mock parade) with lots of disguises, discordant music and japes. Amongst this revelry, King Charles had been persuaded by his dissolute friends to join in. 

Disguising themselves as shaggy “wood savages”, the King and five others donned costumes made of linen, soaked in flammable wax or pitch to keep an outer coat of frazzled hemp attached. Meanwhile, face masks completely concealed their identity. They were clearly aware of the danger, forbidding anyone with a torch to enter the room during their dance. Perhaps they even found the level of risk exciting.

In this Dance of the Savages, the dancers teased the guests, as their audience tried to guess their identity. Whilst Charles was gesticulating at the young Duchesse de Berry, the King’s brother Louis d’Orleans and cousin Philippe de Bar entered the room with torches despite the ban. Whether he intended to discover who the dancers were or purposefully tempting fate, Louis held a torch too close to the dancers and a spark fell. Suddenly one dancer after another was engulfed in flames. The Duchesse de Berry, having recognised the King, threw her skirt over him to shelter him from sparks, saving his life. Other guests tried to stifle the flames and tear the costumes from the burning dancers, but were badly burned themselves.

Of all six dancers, only the King and Sire de Nantouillet, who had jumped into a large wine-cooler full of water, escaped with their lives. The Count de Joigny died immediately, Yvain de Foix and Aimery Poitiers followed after two days, with Huguet de Guisay surviving for a total of three days, cursing his fellow dancers. This fatal display became known as the Bal des Ardents or the Dance of the Burning Ones. The frivolity of the near-death experience of Charles appalled the citizens of Paris, who blamed his advisors and threatened to depose, and even kill, them. Alarmed at these threats, and following the suggestion of his advisors, the King made a solemn procession through the city to appease its people.

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Le Bal des Ardents, by Master of Anthony of Burgundy, c. 1470s

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