Friday, February 17, 2012

Dancing Plague of 1518

Note to visitors:  This is a long post.  It discusses an unusual historical event, the Dancing Plague of 1518, and it includes three music playlists.  Here is some preamble. 



Strasbourg, France
(Credit: PCL Map Collection,
University of Texas at Austin)
In 1518, Strasbourg was part 
of Germany in the Holy Roman 
Empire.



Between the 14th and 17th centuries, there were repeated incidents of dancing mania in Europe.  These incidents shared a salient characteristic –– the dancers were out of control, caught in a condition described variously as possession, dissociative trance, mass hysteria.

     There's been a strange epidemic
     Lately
     Going amongst the folk,
     So that many in their madness
     Began dancing,
     Which they kept up day and night,
     Without interruption,
     Until they fell unconscious.
     Many have died of it.
     (Michael Kleinlawel, Strasbourg Chronicle 
     [1625], pp. 130-131, quoted in H.C. Erik
     Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-
     Century Germany [1999], p. 48)

One well documented episode occurred in Strasbourg in 1518, and this post centers on that.

I draw from the work of noted historian H.C. Erik Midelfort, University of Virginia, also that of Prof. John Waller, Michigan State University, also Johan Huizinga's absorbing Homo Ludens (1938).  You might click on Dancing Death for an overview by Prof. Waller of the 1518 dance plague, an overview that places the plague in a context of both cultural history and history of medicine.

Let's begin with some background music by clicking on the sepia playlist below:

It is secular music from the middle Renaissance.  Some composers are known, some are anonymous, and one was King Henry VIII.  Most of this music was composed in the early sixteenth century, and I have chosen pieces for atmosphere, not historical accuracy, since I've no idea what these manic dancers were actually dancing to.

In fact, at the onset of the epidemic
there likely was no music, the afflicted dancers stepping to their own mind rhythms.  And though music soon became an integral feature, it would not have been as formal as these playlist compositions.  Instead, I imagine dance tunes to have been simple improvisations on folk melodies of the day, familiar tunes with a good backbeat.  (I do wonder about possible overlap between beats of the street and those of a noble's court, whether situational improvisations might have borrowed from art music of the day.)

Henry VIII (1509)
(Denver Art Museum, 
artist unknown)

Most pieces are Franco-Flemish but there are two outliers, both English and both remaining in the early music repertoire today.  The first is "My Lady Carey's Dompe" (Anonymous, c. 1525).  A dompe is a lament, a renaissance dance form associated with melancholy.  Etymologically, this meaning of dompe survives in the phrase "in the dumps."

And Lady Carey?  Her maiden name was Mary Boleyn and she was Anne Boleyn's older sister, one-time mistress of Henry VIII.

Now Henry VIII, he composed the other outlier, "Paſtyme Wt Good Companye” (c. 1509).  That song was a hit and enjoyed wide and lasting popularity.  Eighteen years old and newly coronated, Henry wrote the song for a court familiar, possibly first wife Catherine of Aragon, possibly Sir Henry Guildford, Controller of the Household and Master of Revels.  (See box below.)

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella,
monarchs of what eventually became Spain.  Yes, that royal couple,
those who brought us the Spanish Inquisition and who bankrolled
Christopher Columbus.  As for Sir Thomas Guildford, he was quite
the event planner.  During the 1511 Christmas revels, he designed
"a mountain which moved towards the king and opened ... out of
which came morris-dancers."

So ... enjoy the music and let's away to Strasbourg.




Engraving of Hendrik Hondius (1642) 
portrays women affected by by the
 plague.  Work based on drawing by 
Pieter Brueghel the Elderwho 
witnessed an outbreak in 1564
in Flanders.

In mid-July, 1518, a Strasbourg housewife, Frau Troffea, walked into the street and began dancing. She didn't stop, couldn't stop, and she danced from four to six days. During that week she was followed by thirty-four others, within six weeks by four hundred. Eventually people died, dancing themselves into fatal exhaustion, heart attacks, strokes.

These were not happy dancers, this wasn't Woodstock or a rave. Images from the time (if not this 1518 event) show the dancers to have been possessed and tormented, not happily boogieing to music:

     ...The Imlin family Chronicle claims that within four weeks, more
     than four hundred were beset with exhausting uncontrollable
     dancing; many danced until they fell to the ground unconscious,
     and some never recovered.
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 33)

     ... they almost certainly were delirious.  Only in an altered
     state of consciousness could they have tolerated such extreme
     fatigue and the searing pain of sore, swollen and bleeding feet.
     Moreover witnesses consistently spoke of the victims as being
     entranced, seeing terrifying visions and behaving with wild,
     crazy abandon.
     (John C. Waller, In a spin: the mysterious dancing plague of 1518,
     Endeavor, 32:3 [2008], p. 118)

 Dance mania victims, in a painting by Pieter Breughel
the Younger (c. 1564–1636), after drawings by his
father.  Musicians are playing Flemmish bagpipes
known as doedelzaks.

     Exactly how many fell
     dead we cannot know
     though one chronicle
     suggests that (at least
     for a time) fifteen were
     dying each day as they
     danced in the punishing
     summer heat, seldom
     pausing to eat, drink,
     or rest.
     (John C. Waller, The
     
Dancing Plague: The  Strange, True Story of  an Extraordinary Illness
     [2009], p. 4)
 


While these dancers plainly suffered, it is noteworthy that over time coordinated music came to accompany their agony –– because after a few days the Strasbourg authorities mobilized a response, an unusual one.  They prescribed a treatment which encouraged the dancing, in the belief that sustained dancing and musical accompaniment would subside the passions:

     To this end they cleared two guildhalls and the outdoor grain
     market and they even had a wooden stage constructed opposite
     the horse fair.  To these locations the dancers were taken so
     they could dance freely and uninterrupted.  The victims would
     only recover their minds, said the authorities, if they persisted
     both day and night with their frantic movements.  And to
     facilitate this supposed cure, the authorities next paid for
     musicians and professional dancers to keep the afflicted moving.

     Every time the sick flagged, fainted, stumbled or slowed, the
     musicians raised the tempo of their playing and hired dancers
     held them firm and quickened their pace.
     (John C. Waller, Ibid. [2008], p. 117)


This was a terrible idea, not unlike sweating a fever out, or a hair-of-the-dog remedy.  The designers of this remedy were the city's Council of Twenty-One.  Their approach derived from their understanding of the malady, which was that "hot blood" was scrambling the brains and regulatory mechanisms of the dancers.

This initial diagnosis was consistent with medical thinking of the day, based upon Galen's 2nd century adaptation of Hippocrates' theory of humors (see About the Humours, by historian Noga Arikha for a lucid summary).  And in case you've forgotten how hot blood influences brain functioning, here is some medical background.  It may clarify the Council's diagnosis if not their treatment strategy.

The theory of humors (fluids, juices) was systematized by the Greeks around 400 BC, and subsequently elaborated by Galen (130–200 AD), after which it became foundational in European and Islamic medicine. Such that in 1518 Strasbourg, physicians would have believed that:

  • There were four humors, originating in organ sites: blood from the liver, phlegm from the brain and lungs, yellow bile from the spleen, black bile from the gall bladder.
  • The “humor” blood was not the same as the substance blood; it was one of four humors, all present in the blood.
  • These humors had sensory qualities: hot and moist (blood), cold and moist (phlegm), hot and dry (yellow bile), cold and dry (black bile).
  • Each humor and its qualities corresponded with external phenomena (the four seasons, the four elements), resulting in paralogical sets: blood (hot and moist/spring/air), phlegm (cold and moist/winter/water), yellow bile (hot and dry/summer/fire), black bile (cold and dry/autumn/earth).
  • The humors corresponded with dispositions: sanguine (blood) –– sociable, charismatic, boisterous, optimistic; phlegmatic (phlegm) –– calm, unemotional, sluggish; choleric (yellow bile) –– easy to anger, energetic, passionate; melancholic (black bile) –– introverted, thoughtful, depressed, sullen.
  • These humors waxed and waned during the day, the seasons, the phases of life.
  • Physical and mental disease resulted from surpluses, deficits, imbalances of humors, and ideal temperament reflected an optimal mix of the four humors (cf. Latin: temperamentum, right proportion, proper mixture).
This Galenic theory was elegant, internally consistent, intuitively true, charmingly daffy.  After all, I do fall into somber moods in autumn, when it's colder and dryer, leaves fall to earth, things die (though I'm not sure about my gall bladder's contribution).  And I do get sluggish and congested in winter when my respiratory system acts up.

Interestingly, the rock group
Foreigner revived Galenic
causality in their song “Hot
Blooded” (1978), as did James
Taylor in "Steamroller Blues”
(1970) via self-description as
"a churnin' urn of burnin' funk";
also, Donna Summer in her
disco-rock hybrid “Hot Stuff”
(1979), and Ryan Adams in
"Firecracker” (2001).  At further
removes, we have Hank Williams in "Settin' The Woods On Fire” (1952), and Howlin’ Wolf in “Smokestack Lightning” (1956).  (See red playlist.)

The usual treatment for "hot blood" would have been bloodletting. Humoral medicine routinely involved release of surplus fluids via bloodletting, purgatives, emetics.  And it also used other techniques geared toward re-balancing humors: diet and activity regimens, management of the environment.  As in this example:

     According to an 11th century Arabic book called the Almanac
     of Health, and old man went to the doctor complaining of a frigid
     complexion and stiffness in winter.  The doctor, after examining
     his condition, prescribed a rooster.  Being a hot and dry bird it
     was the perfect tonic for a cold and rheumatic old man.
     (The Four Humours, 12/20/07 BBC Radio 4 interview with
     historians David Wootton, Vivian Nutton, Noga Arikha;
     click on link to listen to program.)

Here, the old man had rheumatism, a condition thought to result from an excess of watery humors.  And since animals had humors too, this rooster was just what the doctor ordered.

Returning to the subject of "hot blood," the usual treatment was not followed in Strasbourg.  The diagnosis was Galenic, but the therapy was quite odd.  Instead of bloodlettings and cooling diets, music and dancing were applied.  The authorities were prescribing the symptom. They "had this idea that these people had to essentially dance it out of themselves" (John C. Waller, Exposure, 11/1/11 podcast, 89 fm, Michigan State University).

What were they thinking?

Well, I don't know but I have a guess.  The Council's thinking seems to have been that the chaos of the dancers could be structured into organized chaos.  Given spaces in which to dance, professional handlers, rhythmic fife and drum accompaniment, the dancers might just ride out the storm.  Their spasmodic movements would not be restrained so much as contained and counter-trained, and optimally this outer-control would lead to self-control.

Such a treatment plan, while terrible, was not entirely goofy.  By taking citizens dancing uncontrollably in the streets, then re-placing them in a guildhall with hired musicians, the Council created a simulacrum of culturally prescribed dance space.  The strange had been nested within the trappings of normal, and the Council even provided a rudimentary score and choreography.  Perhaps through a kind of magic the abnormal would become normal.

I am, in this, repurposing the thought of Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), the eminent Dutch historian.  And to explain my thinking, I must offer some background on Huizinga (rather a lot of background, I'm afraid):

Huizinga believed that a play-element permeated culture, an element with characteristic features:

     ... play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within
     certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely
     accepted, but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and
     accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness
     that it is "different" than "ordinary" life.  Thus defined, the
     concept [seems] capable of embracing everything we call "play"
     in animals, children and grown-ups: games of strength and skill,
     inventing games, guessing games, games of chance, exhibitions
     and performances of all kinds.              
     (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in
     Culture [1938], p. 28)


So play was voluntary and it occurred within set timelines and in designated play-spaces.  The school dance, the harvest festival, the Super Bowl, all have socially constructed elements which create the sense of a special world set apart from everyday life:


     More striking even than the limitation as to time is the
     limitation as to space.  All play moves and has its being within a
     play-ground marked off beforehand ... .  The arena, the card-table,
     the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis  
     court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-
     grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed,
     within which certain rules obtain.  All are temporary worlds within
     the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
     (Ibid., p. 10)


Furthermore, while play could be fun, even ecstasy, it was not without seriousness.  It was very serious, insofar as there were rules of play, freely agreed upon, which created fair play and social order:


     Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns.
     Here we come across another very positive feature of play: it
     creates order, is order.  Into an imperfect world and into the
     confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.  Play
     demands order absolute and supreme.  The least deviation from   
     it "spoils the game," robs it of its character and makes it worthless.
     (Ibid., p.10)


There are do's and don'ts to play then, rules that become most apparent when violated, when a spoilsport breaks the spell. Concerning this spell, Huizinga etymologically observes that illusion literally means "in-play" (from Latin inlusio and the verb illudere; cf. prelude, collude, interlude, ludicrous).

Note that for Huizinga the "ordinary world" is not a synonym for the humdrum and tedious; the ordinary is "imperfect" and life is "confusion.”  And nothing was more imperfect and confused than the 1518 Rhine River valley –– where filth, famine, peasant unrest, anti-clericalism, Bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis were never far off, in fact or in memory.  Consider also that the Protestant Reformation had begun in 1517.  Finally, add in an atmosphere of superstition and supernatural understandings, a climate alive with signs and tokens and presences, a climate where devils might really be abroad at night.


All in all, ordinary life was rather shaky.

The Wedding Dance
Pieter Breughel the Elder (c. 1566)
(Detroit Institute of Arts)

For Huizinga, play activities form a social infrastructure which anchors such a shaky world.  The playgrounds, playtimes, performances, rules, all provide the stability of rite and ritual. Things may be topsy-turvy in your city but there is always the civilizing order of the theater, the court, the contest, the ritual, the exhibition –– and it only works if everyone plays by the rules.


In this way, urges and aspirations are contained and played out in consensually structured ways, with playgrounds for competing, fighting, gambling, celebrating, flirting, and with rules for war, the court, political congresses, the casino, the dancehall.

Which urges and aspirations are we speaking of?  The ones to compete, excel, take risks, show off, tolerate uncertainty, successfully pull something off –– whether via solitary solving of the Saturday New York Times crossword, or by demonstrating superiority as part of a team, winning the prize, the praise, the honor for yourself and your group; or even by being on the losing side, so long as the game was conducted fairly and you played your part well.

Importantly, play activities foster group cohesion and community formation.  Membership in a "play-community" continues after the game, in the form of a club, or simply as an awareness of being part of an association.  So that:


     the feeling of being "apart together" in an exceptional situation,
     of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the
     rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic
     beyond the duration of the individual game.
     (Ibid., p. 12)


Red Sox Nation, Cheeseheads, Trekkies, fraternal organizations, veterans' groups, all designate fellowship in somewhat closed societies, with insiders and outsiders, special customs, paraphernalia, calls, signals, modes of dress-up.  Objects of indifference to those outside the magic circle, they are emotionally significant to those on the inside.  And taken as a whole they contribute to the structure of society; in part, being areas of cohesion within themselves; in part, being fixed orders within a larger world outside of themselves, orders which give definition or flavor to that world.  Thus there are campuses, communities, cities that are known for sports, the arts, religious practices, political leanings.

This is quite enough Huizingan lead-in for one sitting.  Let us now see how Huizinga specifically addressed dance as one such play-form:


 St. George's Kermis with the Dance Around the 
Maypole: Pieter Breughel the Younger (1627) 
A kermis was a Low Countries fair 
(kerk, church + mis, mass). 
     Whether we think of
     the sacred or magical
     dances of savages, or
     of the Greek ritual
     dances, or of the
     dancing of King David
     before the Ark of the
     Covenant, or of the
     dance simply as part
     of a festival, it is
     always at all periods
     and with all peoples
     pure play, the purest
     of play that exists.
     Not every form of dancing ... shows this play-quality to the full.
     It is most readily discernible in choral or figure dances, but it is
     also there in the solo dance –– wherever, in fact, the dance is
     a performance, an exhibition, a display of rhythmical movement
     as in the minuet or quadrille. The supersession of the round
     dance, choral and figure dance by dancing á deux, whether this
     take the form of gyrating as in the waltz or polka or the slitherings
     and slidings and even acrobatics of contemporary dancing, is
     probably to be regarded as a symptom of declining culture.
     (Ibid., p. 164)


The minuet or quadrille, hmm.  By modern lights (Homo Ludens was written in the 1930's), this seems stodgy and conservative.  "Slitherings and slidings and even acrobatics" –– whatever would Huizinga have made of the funky chicken or popping?

Still, we ought to remember the historical context for Homo Ludens. Huizinga was alarmed by and publicly critical of the surge of fascism in the 1930's, and he was arrested and detained by the Nazis in the last years of his life.  His concern accordingly was with preservation of consensual social order, and his conservatism is understandable against the backdrop of Nazism –– given the corruption that was Nazi ideology and its poisonous enactions: coercion not freedom, propaganda not play, mockeries of justice, breakings of civilized covenants.

In any event, whether or not modern dance reveals "declining culture" is of lesser concern.  What matters is that dance be a voluntary play form expressing a social mainstay.  A play form sustained by freely accepted social conventions, rule-bound but not coercive.

Thus there are agreements as to time and dance space (say, 8:00 p.m. Saturday at the high school gym), and as to the observance of do's and don'ts.  And there is as well a distinct mood to play.  It is "enchanting," with part of its spell being the sense of hopeful "tension" among participants: a mood of tingly anticipation that the event will "come off" successfully (Huizinga, Ibid, p. 10).  Finally, there is an expectation that the dance will come to an end.

Therefore, and within a Huizingan frame of reference, the crazed dancing of Strasbourg violated play's key features: volition, temporal and spatial boundaries, mood.  The dancing was involuntary, frenzied, un-ruly.  It occurred in the streets, outside culturally sanctioned play-space.  And crucially, the dance never ended, the dancers could not stop.  Any hopeful tension had been replaced by terror.

Something was all wrong: The dancers must have seemed mad but also maddening, mad as a condition within themselves, and mad in a fashion that disturbed the social order.

From this perspective, the Council's treatment plan makes a kind of sense.  We recall that its remedy had been to reposition the disorder within the order of the guildhalls, market and stage.  This has a now you see it, now you don't aspect, a variation on the old switcheroo.
The street has been swapped for a sanctioned playground, trained musicians and dancers have materialized, the "confusion" of mad dancing has been corralled.

Perhaps the Councilors thought that by casting the strange in a normal mold, they could effect social alchemy –– with the dancers transforming into normal.  If so, this would have been a magical solution, the manipulation of reality in order to control nature.  Because forcing the dancers to "dance it out of themselves" in prescribed dance-spaces was as magical as giving a rooster to a rheumatic old man in winter.

But we know little of the Council's reasoning and this Huizingan perspective is guesswork, a way to make sense of a therapy which was meant to help but which inadvertently brought harm.  We might as easily imagine that the authorities had simply resorted to the time-honored idea that "music has charms to soothe a savage breast" (William Congreve, 1697) –– except that breast-soothing music, along with dancing, is presumably not forced upon those whom it is intended to calm.

Whatever the reasoning, the treatment didn't work.

Some people danced themselves to death.  Apparently all that staging, spectacle and percussive accompaniment drew more citizens to the enthrallment of the dance, as if a hypnotic circus had come to town:

    With a change of policy, the Strasbourg council now decided that     
     music was actually making matters worse; music and rhythmic     
     drumming were infecting others to dance uncontrollably.  And so     
     the council forbade almost all music until the end of September.           
     In the municipal archive of Strasbourg is preserved an account in     
     Sebastian Brant's own hand:

     On the second day after Vincula Petri [i.e., on August 1]
     nano 18: When sadly at this time a horrible episode arose with 
     the sick, dancing persons, which has not yet stopped, our lord 
     councilors of the XXI turned to the honor of God and forbade, 
     on pain of a fine of 30 shillings, that anyone, no matter who, 
     should hold a dance until St. Michael's Day [September 29] in  
     this city or in its suburbs or in it whole jurisdiction.  For by so 
     doing they take away the recovery of such persons.  The only
     exception is that if honorable persons wish to dance at weddings 
     or celebrations of First mass in their houses, they may do so  
     using stringed instruments, but they are on their conscience not 
     to use tambourines and drums.  
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 35)  (Sebastian Brant was a
     contemporary Strasbourg jurist and satirist.

Music and dancing had become dangerous stuff, to be kept at home, toned down, and even then to be performed only by "honorable persons."  Midelfort goes on to emphasize music's potent draw, particularly percussion:

     Stringed instruments may not have seemed so dangerous as  
     percussion instruments because they did not trigger the spasmodic,
     rhythmic convulsions of this strange dancing.  The Council had
     moved as early as July 27 to order several mad dancers to cancel
     their drumming and to content themselves with the music of stringed
     instruments.
     (Ibid., p. 35)

Later, Midelfort states:

    Without claiming to have explained this mysterious phenomenon
     [dancing mania] for the first time, I would suggest that it looks
     surprisingly similar to what Gilbert Rouget in 1980 called a 
     possession cult –– that is, a vehement trance induced (in initiates) 
     by music, and sustained and finally terminated by music.
     (Ibid., p. 46)

And later:

     Music did seem to induce the weird frenzy of the dancers, a trance 
     that was infectious among at least some observers.  In Strasbourg, 
     in 1518, music also seems to have functioned, at first, as part of an 
     intended therapy.  But quickly it appeared to the bewildered city
     fathers that music was making things worse.  (Ibid.p. 47)

In addition to disallowing music, the city fathers inclined now to a religious explanation and cure.  The "hot blood" diagnosis gave way to an assumption that the dancers had been cursed by a saint.  The dancers themselves had earlier requested that a special Mass be held for them, a request initially denied in light of the "hot blood" diagnosis (Ibid., [2008], p. 118).  Now the Council shifted gears, believing that indeed the dancers probably were victims of divine punishment and in need of intercessory services.


This new view of causation was in keeping with the influence of:

     ... the formidable force of religion in early modern Germany, a force 
     that could encourage certain religious experiences, such as visions, 
     voices, and raptures, that would surely suggest psychosis today.
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 25)

Martyrdom of St. Vitus
(German: Artist Unknown, c. 1450)
This divine punishment was thought to have been visited upon Strasbourg by St. Vitus,* a barely teenage convert to Christianity from Sicily, about whom there is more legend than fact.  Vitus (c. 290–303) is said to have run afoul of the Roman emperor Diocletian, been boiled in oil, tar, or molten lead –– which he survived –– then been thrown to some lions, who licked his feet, then ... well you should probably read up on it separately.  *(Vitus was known by other Latinate names: Vito [Italian] and Guy [French and English], with Vito derived from Latin, Guy derived from Guido [Italian]and Guido itself derived from Wido [Ancient Germanic].)

The point is, it was Vitus's lot to have been martyred.  And during the 14th century in the Rhineland, he became one of a group of saints, the Fourteen Holy Helpers, connected with health and healing.  He was invoked to ward off epilepsy, leprosy, syphilis, Sydenham's chorea (a convulsive form of rheumatic encephalitis); also, certain joltings of nature: storms, lightning, snakebites, dog bites, demonic possession. St. Vitus, it would seem, was the go-to saint when your boat was pitching.

And he was the patron saint of dancers.

Therefore it was reasonable that Strasbourgians attribute the dancing disorder to this particular saint; also, to assume that the remedy lay in placating St. Vitus.  How did this placation unfold?

First the city cleaned up its act:

     ... the Strasbourg councilors had decided that it was time for a
     general penance.  Celebrations with music and holiday dancing
     were out of place.  Loose persons [leichtfertigen], meaning
     probably prostitutes and gamblers, drinkers and ruffians, were
     "banished from the city for a time."  The city also ordered a
     contribution of a hundred-pound candle and a High Mass,along
     with three Low Masses, to be sung in the cathedral.
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 36)

In addition, the dancers were taken to the shrine of  St. Vitus:

     By this point, the city had recognized St. Vitus as the patron
     of this disease, and reports came back that those who went on
     the pilgrimage came back fully recovered.  According to 
     Specklin's chronicle:

     They sent many on wagons to St. Vitus on Hellensteg
     [i.e., Hohlenstein] beyond Saverne, and others got there on
     their own.  They fell down dancing before his image.  So
     then a priest said Mass over them, and then they were given
     a little cross and red shoes, on which the sign of the cross
     had been made in holy oil, on both the tops and the soles.
     In St. Vitus' name they were sprinkled with holy water.  It
     helped many, and they gave a large contribution.  This is
     why it is called St. Vitus' dance.

     If we can trust this part of Specklin's account, it would
     appear that the pilgrimage to St. Vitus on Hohlenstein
     involved a successful application of holy water and holy
     oil to specially prepared red shoes.  Again, we notice the
     color red, which is, with black, perhaps the most powerful
     color known to folklorists, for whom the bloody tint often
     connotes health and healing, love, fire, joy, but also the
     devil, the witch, and the magic by which one might ward
     off the evil eye.
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 36)  (Daniel Specklin was
     an architect born eighteen years after the dancing mania.)

And so the dancers recovered.  This time a magical solution had worked.  The manipulation of reality (pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Vitus, dancing before his image, a Mass expressly for them, the wearing of anointed red shoes) influenced their experience of the disease, and they got better.  Thus it would appear that supernatural belief attended the birth of this frenzy, exacerbated it, and eventually abated it.

Ironically, the same belief system which possessed them also cured them; a ritual counter-trance superseded the original trance.  And some form of "hysterical" process was presumably involved in both cause and cure.  But what does that mean?  What's going on when powerful beliefs collide with real-world signs so combustibly that fearful or hopeful expectations "possess" one and become facts?


Male Mallard Duck About To Fly
For me it involves a collapse of the distance between perceiving subject and object of perception.  Which, in English, means that you can get too caught up in what you're looking at.

That is, some people can't walk past a duck pond without quacking* (over-identification, merger with a phenomenon) –– whereas others whip out a notebook to scribble something like Genus: Quackus, further listing traits of size, shape, gender, plumage, whether it is a dabbling or a diving duck. Some people, then, keep their heads, notice details, wrap their minds around a phenomenon as opposed to joining the phenomenon. *(This felicitous example was given me years ago by a former teacher.)

These are extremes of course; and to be fair, one can also be so detailed as to become obsessionally detached, lost in one's own notations versus lost in the phenomenon.  Still this contrast in perceptual style will serve for now.

The hysterical process therefore involves a convergence of impressive stimuli with minds inherently open to, or culturally trained to being particularly impressed by such stimuli.  At the outset of the 1518 plague, such impressive stimuli were the crazed dancers and percussive drumming; at its conclusion, the stimuli were the shrine of St. Vitus, a special Mass, red shoes, holy water.  For those hysterically inclined, it was as if they had been standing on a railway platform, then too readily hopped on an impressive train and been carried away (began quacking, if you will).

Which might have been fine had they been able to get off at the next station, but they couldn't.  They were possessed:

     Studies of possession cults in hundreds of modern 
     cultures, from Haiti to the Arctic, reveal that people 
     are more likely to experience dissociative trance if 
     they already believe in the possibility of spirit 
     possession (Rouget, 1985).  Minds can be prepared, 
     by learning or passive exposure, to shift into altered 
     states. ... The dancers of 1374 and 1518 occupied an 
     environment of belief that accepted the threat of divine 
     curse, possession or bewitchment.  They didn't intend 
     to enter trance-like states, but their metaphysical beliefs 
     made it possible for them to do so. ...      

     That the dancing plagues were reliant on cultural 
     belief-systems is apparent from the fact that they were 
     concentrated in just those communities where we know
     there to have been a pre-existing belief in the 
     possibility of dancing curses being sent down from 
     heaven or hell. ... The people of Strasbourg in 1518 
     were convinced that a saint called Vitus had unleashed
     a dancing curse (Martin, 1914; Waller, 2008).  And so,  
     having entered the possession state, it seems that they 
     acted according to the conventions of the St. Vitus myth: 
     dancing for days on end.  The dance turned epidemic ... 
     because each new victim lent credibility to the belief in 
     supernatural agency.  Indeed, the Strasbourg epidemic 
     exemplifies the awesome power of suggestion: the city 
     authorities ensured that the outbreak got out of control by 
     having the dancers gathered together and left to dance in
     some of the most public spaces in the city (Waller, 2008).  
     (John C. Waller, "Looking Back: Dancing plagues and  
     mass hysteria,” The Psychologist, Vol. 22:7, 2009)     

In the article above, Waller uses terms such as possessionmass hysteria, and mass psychogenic illness (click on link for a description of modern mass psychogenic illness).  Here and elsewhere, Waller draws attention to the extreme stress –– hardship, disease, famine, unrest –– which impinged on the lives of the Strasbourg citizenry in 1518, engendering an atmosphere of traumatic anxiety.  He posits a theory which could be read as somewhat clinical.  Meaning: precipitating stressors (disease, famine, strife, etc.) + lack of social supports (distrust of the clergy) climate of shared supernatural beliefs and superstitions  + a few vulnerable individuals ➔ symptomatic behavior ➔ psychogenic spread of symptomatology within a shared sociosphere ➔ symptom relief through supernatural rituals believed to be curative.

Waller is cautious in his thinking and might himself not want to be read this way; it may be that I am the one imposing a "clinical" framework here.  Still, there is something about giving a name, however provisionally, to a mysterious phenomenon that tidies it up a bit, makes it appear more knowable than perhaps is the case.  Also, regardless of how an assertion is qualified, others may take its phraseology and run in directions unintended by its author.

Discovery News, for example, sounds more definitive about the 1518 dancing plague than seems warranted:

     Historian John C. Waller, author of the ... book, A Time To 
     Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the 
     Dancing Plague of 1518, studied the illness at length and
     has solved the mystery. ...

     Waller ... believes a phenomenon known as “mass
     psychogenic illness," a form of mass hysteria generally
     preceded by intolerable levels of psychological distress,
     caused the dancing epidemic.  (Jennifer Viegas, "'Dancing
     Plague' and Other Odd Afflictions Explained," Discovery News,
     8/1/2008)

Maybe so, maybe not, but I doubt Waller would claim he had solved the mystery.  And I am sure Midelfort would make no such claim:

     The historian of madness is well advised, especially in such
     cases [of dancing mania], to attend scrupulously to what was
     said and done with such suffering, rather than leaping to fill
     the diagnostic vacuum with the confident assurances of the
     modern psychiatric manual.
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 25)

Which is sensible, because a word like "possession" conveys more wiggle-room than does "mass psychogenic illness."  It evokes an image that's a bit foggy, as if one were developing film in a darkroom bath but hadn't added the fixative.  And a measure of ambiguity seems reasonable when imagining the nature of an event so far removed in time and cultural tenor.  Possession might just be the apt phrase to describe the dance mania; neither too vague nor too precise, it is just right.

A quotation by Midelfort, cited in the Acknowledgment of Waller's 2009 book, contains a metaphor for the necessary ambiguity surrounding any theory of madness half a millennium gone:

     Madnesses of the past are not petrified entities that can be       
     plucked unchanged from their niches and placed under our       
     modern microscopes.  They appear, perhaps, more like
     jellyfish that collapse and dry up when they are removed     
     from the ambient sea water.  (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 49) 

It's hard to improve on this as a metaphor for singularities of history and their embeddedness in a culture far different from our own.  Yet I can't resist a similar aquatic metaphor:

     I hope I have made one thing clear to this point –– and it is
     that society is inside of man and man is inside society, and
     you cannot even create a truthfully drawn psychological
     entity on the stage until you understand his social relations
     and their power to make him what he is and to prevent him
     from being what he is not.  The fish is in the water and the
     water is in the fish.       
     (Arthur Miller, "The Shadow of the Gods," in The Theater 
     Essays of Arthur Miller [1996], Robert A. Martin, Steve
     Centola [eds.], p. 185)  

Miller might have agreed with Midelfort as to the importance of the water, the experience-near medium in which fish swim and jellyfish float.  One has to dive in:      

     To see what madness meant in the sixteenth century, to see
     how it was experienced and treated, we must learn to swim.      
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 49)           

Even so, we're not fish, we are still ourselves doing our best approximation of fish –– an approximation that will always retain some element of mystery.  In this regard, let me re-quote a passage by Midelfort cited earlier, expanding it somewhat and adding a thoughtful following sentence (highlighted):

     The third problem is the formidable force of religion in
     early modern Germany, a force that could encourage certain
     religious experiences, such as visions, voices, and raptures, 
     that would surely suggest psychosis today.  If one's culture
     encouraged visions and voices, however, it does not make
     full sense to see these "symptoms" as evidence of illness 
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., p. 25)

If hundreds of Strasbourgians believed they were being cursed –– if that's the water they swam in –– and believed further that certain rituals would release them, well that's a psychogenic or, better, sociogenic something but it's still a mystery.  A mysterious "possession" rather than the somewhat experience-distant "mass psychogenic illness."

Besides, humans are suggestible, quite normally so.  Under our work outfits we are primates, attuned and responsive to environmental signals, more monkey see, monkey do than we realize.  Someone smiles at us, we smile back; someone sneezes, we sneeze; bobbing driftwood becomes a fearful fin; we are advised to not yell "Fire!" in crowded spaces.  And as Waller notes, in keyed up times we may more easily be spooked or susceptible to "hysterical" experiences, sightings, understandings.

Here is a humorous version of this suggestibility (which is possessing me right now, overcoming editorial judgment).  It occurs at the end of Mel Brooks' Spaceballs (1987).  The scene: Captain Lone Star is desperately in love with Princess Vespa, but he is a commoner and can not marry a princess; Lone Star is told by Yogurt that actually he is a prince, therefore entitled to displace Prince Valium and marry Princess Vespa:

     Yogurt:  You know that medallion you wear around your neck?   
     Well, here's what it means.  It's a royal birth certificate!  That's right! 
     Your father was a king, your mother was a queen, which makes you 
     a certified prince!

     Lonestar:  Hey!  I'm a prince!  I'm a prince!

This scene from Spaceballs shares that quality of suggestibility that plagued the Strasbourg dancers.  The forms of suggestibility are different, surely.  For while Lone Star embraces the joyful illusion that he is a prince, the Strasbourg dancers embraced the belief that they were cursed.  Lone Star's dreams come true; he is freed up to move within the expansive world of a prince, he gets to be a god of sorts. The Strasbourg dancers' fears come true; they become trapped within their convulsing bodies, they get to atone to a saint.

And with that, I'll let the diagnostic specifics of the dance plague be –– content with general descriptions of possession, trance, heightened suggestibility.



In the final section of this post, I want to focus on one aspect of the dancing mania, music.  I have provided musical background for this with a playlist of contemporary dance songs, a bookend to the Renaissance music which opened this post.

This orange playlist spans several decades, from two 1957 songs –– "Mr. Lee" by the Bobbettes, and "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu" by Huey “Piano" Smith & His Clowns –– to Thievery Corporation's 2010 recording of "Exilio."  The songs are up-tempo and specifically about dancing.  In some cases the dancing is implied, as in "Rock & Roll Girls" (2004) by Alvin Lee, and "Wild Weekend" (1960/1963) by the Rockin' Rebels.  And two songs are not about dancing at all: Rod Stewart's "Lost Paraguayos" (1972), which gained admission only after I was outvoted by my layout editor, Todd (who is adamant that the lyrics point to dancing in Paraguay), and Little Feat's "Feel The Groove" (1979), which just wandered in.

When in doubt as to a song's inclusion, I ran it through a test –– did the song feel infectious?  Did it get into my system, not in a dance-plague way but in an ordinary have-a-good-time way.

The playlist itself is offered in sympathetic harmony with the 1518 dancers who suffered centuries before, and I intend no disrespect to those unfortunates.

By "sympathetic harmony," I mean to endorse Prof. Midelfort's emphasis on music as thumping enticement, and to suggest that music moves us as viscerally today as it did the dancers of 1518 Strasbourg. Genres change but the contagious pull of music, its power to activate limbic system excitements, is timeless.  Music plays us, plucks our strings, gets inside us.

Here is cognitive neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin on this subject:

     In order to be moved by music (physically and emotionally) it  
     helps a great deal to have a readily predictable beat ... When we  
     talk about a great groove in music ... we're talking about the way 
     in which beat divisions create a strong momentum.  Groove is  
     that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent  
     to a book that you can't put down.  When a song has a good
     groove, it invites us into a sonic world that we don't want to leave.
     Although we are aware of the pulse of the song, external time
     seems to stand still, and we don’t want the song to ever end.
     (Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music [2007], p. 170)
  
Groove holds and carries us, takes us on a trip.  It does seem to slow or stop time, and Levitin's analogy of being absorbed in a book is fitting; groove space is reverie space.

Levitin goes on to stress the role of percussion:

     Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not
     strictly metronomic –– that is, when it is not perfectly machinelike.
     Although some danceable songs have been made with drum
     machines ... the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who
     changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional
     nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the
     drums, "breathe."
     (Ibid., pp. 171-172)

There is a science to this, some of it thorny.  But here is an accessible passage:



     ... far more than language, music taps into primitive brain
     structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion.
     Whether it is the first few hits of the cowbell on "Honky Tonk
     Women," or the first few notes of "Sheherazade," computational
     systems in the brain synchronize neural oscillators with the pulse
     of the music, and begin to predict when the next strong beat will
     occur.  As the music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its
     estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in
     matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes
     delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an
     interesting way –– a sort of musical joke that we're all in on.  Music
     breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does,
     and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay
     synchronized.
     (Ibid., p. 191)

I am not a surfer but this might be what riding a wave feels like –– one senses the pulse and movement of a wave, as if water too "breathes, speeds up, and slows down."  Music then is the perfect medium for dance, a medium in which one's body similarly rides a wave.

All this to underscore the power of music.

This is not to argue that music had the requisite sway to cause the Strasbourg dance plague.  That would have been some groove indeed. But neither was music incidental to the plague.  It functioned in at least three ways:
  • First, music drew people to the dance stages at the guildhalls, grain market, horse fair.  Those people would have been fascinated and probably appalled by the spectacle; it would have been hard to remain untouched. Perhaps they tapped their feet, grooved to the beat –– but then left it at that, did not become infected.
  • Whereas for susceptible others, music served as a gateway drug hooking them into something beyond their control.  Not the only drug, surely; this music was no Pied Piper of Hamelin.  It would have been a lesser co-sponsor of the epidemic, secondary to the awful and compelling specter of the dancers.
  • For those who did become entranced, music exacerbated the problem, as Waller and especially Midelfort note.  Once afflicted, music helped sustain the spell.
Concerning this last, Midelfort wonders if this trance-maintenance function was part of a larger, mostly forgotten possession ritual, which he calls "the tail end of a possession cult":

     ... it may be that what we find in late medieval and early modern   
     Germany is precisely the tail end of a possession cult, a painful,   
     even agonizing, and sometimes fatal, trance that was no longer   
     understood by the educated theologians, physicians, and
     magistrates as spirit possession, or any known disease, a
     frustratingly mysterious psychophysical state that also made no
     sense to "initiates” anymore. ... Music and the recurrent color      
     red may have still had the vestigial function of socializing
     and maintaining or channeling the trance ... . 
     (H.C. Erik Midelfort, Ibid., pp. 47-48)  (Last sentence highlighted.)

This is interesting, the idea that the dance plague's musical accompaniment had taproots in forgotten memory* –– that music (and the color red) were sensory remnants of a religious ritual no longer understood, yet possessing residual power to evoke a trance state.  It suggests that observers who became infected shared a stored possession-cult template, which got activated as they became increasingly absorbed in the compulsive dancing and percussive drumming.  First they watched the display, then they joined the display.  *(Good luck charms, lucky rabbits' feet, knocking on wood, throwing coins in a fountain, numerous amulets and talismans –– all are "tail ends" of belief rituals mostly forgotten.)

But why them?  Why were these observers susceptible to the call of the spectacle.  

Here I refer back to Midelfort and Waller's emphasis on the cultural milieu of supernatural visitations and explanations.  It is not far-fetched to imagine that certain individuals had internalized cultural possession-scripts more thoroughly than had others; that, accordingly, they had deep-dwelling ties and loyalties to these scripts; and that they could reasonably have been susceptible to "hysterical" suggestion.

The dramatic stimuli of percussive drumming and compulsive dance by themselves would not typically cause dissociative trance.  But that same stimuli, filtered through internal scripts, might indeed have been felt as a rip current pulling them "back" to a familiar (if poorly understood) reality.  For those afflicted, this might have felt like a bewildering surrender to an irresistible current.

Or another analogy might be to the experience of being haunted.  We are prone to be afraid of ghosts when we've been primed to be afraid of ghosts, and the Strasbourg dancers may have been primed by ancestral possession-scripts to respond to certain stimuli.  We commonly speak of haunting melodies, those which linger in mind, those we can't seem to shake off.  The beats and rhythms of the 1518 drama may similarly have haunted susceptible observers, getting inside them, lingering, possessing. 

In this way, although the dance plague music allowed admission for all to the train platform, only some actually boarded that train.

Finally, some thoughts about happy trance as opposed to involuntary, terrifying trance. Sometimes –– in a kind of auditory grace –– we experience a unity of music's call and our somatic-emotional response. Meaning, a less bounded zone in which outside and inside merge, in which a song penetrates us, grabs us, leaves us lost in a happy blur of song and feeling.  (See this blog, Seaweeds, for an elaboration of this theme.)

T.S. Eliot addressed such unity when he wrote:

     For most of us, there is only the unattended
     Moment, the moment in and out of time, 
     The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
     The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
     Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply 
     That it is not music at all, but you are the music
     While the music lasts.
     ("The Dry Salvages," 5: 206-212)

These are moments of transcendence, "distracted" moments, transient, absorbing, outside routine realities of time and place.  Eliot's "moment in and out of time" has forebears in the English Romantics' theme ofthe sublime, and much deeper historical roots.  As seen in this sparkling 13th century poem by Sultan Walad, son of the Sufi poet and mystic Rumi:

     Day and night my father danced,
     Spinning on earth like the turning heavens.
     His laughter echoed through the zenith of the sky
     And was heard by beings of every realm.
     He showered the musicians with gold and silver.
     He gave away whatever came into his hand.
     He was never without a singing heart.
     He was never at rest.

     There was a rebellion in the city––
     No, the whole world sounded with the cries of rebellion.
     How could a great pillar and champion of Islam,
     Hailed as the leader of both worlds,
     Become such a raving madman?

     Those who recited the scriptures
     Were now singing with abandon
     And swaying with the musicians.
     In public and in private
     People turned away from dogma and empty rituals
     And went crazy after love!
     (Jonathan Star, Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved 
     [2008], unnumbered page after Introduction)

Wouldn't you like to dance like that?  The dancing in this poem is joyful and integral to a never-ending sublime.  It is the dancing of the whirling Dervishes and it conjures a world close in spirit to T.S. Eliot's "moment in and out of time."  It seems trance-like but of a different order than the involuntary, fearful possession of 1518 Strasbourg.  Ecstasy is different than madness.

The mood here is expansive, centrifugal, liberating.  The joy never ends for Rumi, as if he had permanently managed to get outside "ordinary life" and conventional categories of time and place.  Which was probably easier to do in 13th century Persia, where there was a tradition of holy mendicants (Dervishes) whose devoted followers might feed and care for you.

For the rest of us, ordinary life has a way of intervening, so that we have to settle for sublime glimpses, moments, interludes.  Glimpses which, when they do occur, may do so accidentally, as in T.S. Eliot's "unattended" moments of transcendent "distraction" –– moments when we are seized unawares by striking and enveloping sensory impressions.  More commonly, we find ways to let go, cut loose, carpe diem through the noctem and thereby achieve a semblance of such moments.  At these times, music and dance can be recruited as our ticket and our ride.

Yet even if we take that ride all the way to euphoria, and we're on cloud nine, we nonetheless retain a degree of volition.  We know when it's time to stop, find the car keys, re-enter the ordinary.

The crazed dancers of Strasbourg were, by contrast, nowhere near cloud nine –– neither alive with joyful grace nor lost in sublime union. They were in torment, in a terrifying trance, unable to retrace their steps.

Interestingly, the word trance comes from Latin transire (go across), via Old French transir (depart, fall into trance).  It has cousins in words like transit, transient, transitory, transitional –– words which evoke passing through or in-betweenness, a sense of having left here yet not having arrived there.  Etymologically, a trance is a kind of trip, albeit a strange one in which duration and direction have no meaning.  Because there is only in-betweenness, a twilight state where time, volition, cognition, alertness to surroundings are on hold.

For the dancers of 1518 Strasbourg, it was a nightmare trip –– train platform behind them, no foreseeable destination, trapped in a carriage that buckled and spasmed and wouldn't stop.





6 comments :

Anonymous said...

If one listens to music and dance continually (even off and on, but regularly), does that mean one is in a sytematic, cyclical, and perpetual trance? Be that at a music festival or all through life (as a music enthusiast or professionally); if you are one of these people are you forever "tripping"? Is that good or bad? Excellent post dad. Well done.

Colin

Kit said...

Thanks, Colin. You raise an important question.

I think if someone sips regularly from the well of music (or art, dance, literature, other "absorbing" cultural experiences), one is in a good place. Being someone with one hand on the radio, I'm pretty certain about this.

You're referring to what in this post I refer to as a happy trance—a main feature of which is its voluntary nature. You're lost in it, yet not so lost that you can't put your trousers on and go to work. In this sense, trance is a pleasurable place (or better, psychic space) in which to be, such as at a music festival or just in the in-between spaces and "interludes" of everyday life—say, with headphones on, lost in musical space, on the subway going to work. At these times, the differences between (happy) trance, daydream, reverie, etc. are probably small or maybe just those of semantics.

And these states bring with them a feeling of spontaneity, realness, vibrancy. They are an invigorating antidote to the ordinary world of conformity and adaptation (in which we wear work clothes instead of sweatpants to our jobs, show up on time, are diplomatic to cretinous co-workers and bosses, etc.).

D.W. Winnicott mined this area fifty years ago in his discussion of potential space, play, true self vs. false self, realness. A Winnicottian question might be, Where are you when you're at a museum? At 59th Street and Columbus Circle? Or in a creative-reverie, "play" space in your head? (Navigate the blog's Archive to # 29 [Devil In The Details, Part 2], or especially # 30 [Seaweeds] for a fuller, possibly tedious elaboration of these themes.)

This kind of play-space trance would be quite different from the trance of a possession state, which is closer to numbed-out zombie or robotic stuff. The main difference being that in play you're in an exalted place, the highest, holiest place in the house—whereas in a state of possession, you're no longer at home. Lost in reverie versus just plain lost, enlivened versus deadened.

A long answer here but yours was a good question.

Anonymous said...

Can it ever be both? Some combination?

Bill said...

As I read this, I thought of the Hans Christian Anderson story of The Red Shoes, made into a 1984 British file and (I didn't know this until I googled it) a 2005 Korean horror film. Here you have the color red and the idea of a trance-like dance from which the dancer cannot escape, except through death. There must be a connection between this story and the St. Vitus dance trances of the middle ages, no?

Kit said...

Hi Bill and thanks for your comment. I don't know much about this business with the color red. H.C. Erik Midelfort (whom I quote liberally in this post) discusses it as a powerful color associated with good things (fire, joy, love) and not-so-good things (deviltry, dark magic). Some websites note that it has an ancient power, going back to neolithic humans; and it also (reasonably enough) was the color of martyrdom and death.

So I don't really know, but I'll sign on to your idea here about the connection between The Red Shoes and the healing of the afflicted dancers at the shrine of St. Vitus.

Kit said...

Hi Colin. I'm getting back to your last comment about the possibility of a combination of happy trance and possession trance.

To begin with, I don't really know. All along I've been acting as if there were discrete trance states; one normal (if heightened), which expresses the spirit of play; the other abnormal, which expresses the spirit of coercion. With both states involving the sense of being seized by something, caught up in, surrendering to something; only the "normal" surrender-state is one that you can snap out of—versus the "abnormal" state, which is abnormal precisely because it gains the upper hand, becomes a state you can't escape from.

If I do imagine a combination-form, I imagine something analogous to a stretch of ocean where a distinctly cold current meets up with a distinctly warm current. You could have qualitative differences between the two currents, but also a middle-zone where cold water gradually becomes warmer, a thermal area with no clear distinction between the cold and the warm.

If we were then to think of musical currents, there could be "normal" versus "abnormal" currents, but in addition a state in which a mixture of the two occurred. As if there were a gradient of trance characterized by "normal" "combination," and "abnormal" settings.

There would also have to be some mechanism which would cause a shift from "normal" to "abnormal," something to heat up the musical water but not too much, allowing a zone of water that was no longer as cold as it had been, yet not so hot that it had clearly become "abnormal."

The only "heating" mechanism I can imagine would be quantitative increases in the intensity of, exposure to, immersion in the stimulus (music). So that there might be a combination trance-form that was still "normal"—which is to say, voluntary—but barely so, i.e., close to crossing the line into involuntary possession.



The thing is, I don't think it works this way. It still seems to me that what is voluntary does not pass over at some point into what is involuntary, with a transitional zone in between.

I think there are quantitative steps within (but not between) trance categories, such that pleasant reverie might mount by degrees to ecstasy (in happy trance), or a scary thought might intensify into persistent gripping terror (in dissociative trance).

But I don't think I can move from deep immersion in music to a qualitatively different zone where I'm unable to snap out of that immersion. 

 I don't think an increase in the intensity of, exposure to, immersion in a stimulus (music) would by itself push me into an "abnormal" state, raising my musical temperature ever higher on a musicometer... until suddenly I am possessed.



Similarly, were I deeply absorbed in a museum painting, I don't think I'd reach some point of no return; a point where, for instance, I couldn't hear or respond to the guard saying, "The museum closes in fifteen minutes."



But I can imagine a third, intervening variable which might flip some kind of mind-switch. If I were to experience an acute neurological event which locked me inside a mental state; or if I were to inexplicably spike a fever, or fall prey to the LSD some churl slipped into my coffee; or (as with the 1518 Strasourg dancers) I were to possess an internalized cultural script, now mostly forgotten, which resonated with a theme in the painting—if, that is, some third element impacted my faculties, then absorption in the painting might transform into involuntary entrancement. I would have jumped the fence into possession.

So that's how the idea of a combination of trance states sits in my head. It may or may not be how you are thinking of it.

Comments are appreciated: