Photo Of The Day

Photo Unknown source. The Dancing Plague. The outbreak began in July 1518, when a woman, Mrs Troffea, began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg, France. This lasted somewhere between four to six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female.

Photo Unknown source.
The Dancing Plague. The outbreak began in July 1518, when a woman, Mrs Troffea, began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg, France. This lasted somewhere between four to six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female.

The Dancing Plague

When Frau Troffea took to furiously dancing in the middle of a road in Strasbourg, France, in the summer of 1518, no one would join her. In a time of widespread hand wringing, confusion and fear over women succumbing to the cultish clutches of demonic possession, just try to imagine the risks this young lady ran by suddenly taking to a round-the-clock, public show of relentless and spirited writhing.

But no matter – Troffea just kept dancing. Nothing could stop her. She had the fever, damn it. And sure enough, in the span of a week more than 30 Strasbourgan peasants were spazzing alongside her in what would become one of the funkiest bits of mass sociogenic illness on record.

Maybe it was famine, coupled with the region’s wildly fluctuating weather and Biblical hail storms that had folks falling to the Dancing Plague. Maybe it was from eating bread laced with ergot, a seizure- and hallucination-inducing psychotropic mold, that had Troffea and a growing band of street dancers locked in a delirious bootstomp. Maybe cutting loose in the streets was just a way to get one’s mind off poverty.

The root cause of the Dancing Plague remains unclear, but there’s no denying that for whatever reason Troffea’s condition, which was part and parcel of a larger dancing epidemic that had been rippling out over England, Germany and the Netherlands in earnest since around 1370, pulled people into its orbit singing, shouting, flailing uncontrollably and indefatigably.

Perhaps it was the very first authentic rave, the Dancing Plague is one of the most bizarre incidents you’ll ever read about. It all started, well, back in the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg, France. Now, I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a post you’d read over on The Onion. But verily I say unto thee, the Dancing Plague happened—though no one is exactly sure why…

Frau Troffea stepped into a narrow street in Strasbourg, France and began a fervent dancing vigil that lasted between four and six days. By the end of the week, 3o something others had joined her.

Troffea began to dance maniacally in the street one hot day in Strasbourg. This went on for, oh, about a week! Then, others had joined Troffea and little by little, over the course of a month or so, approximately 400 people were raving around Strasbourg.

At its peak, the epidemic claimed the lives of fifteen men, women, and children a day. Possibly 100 people danced to their deaths in one of the most bizarre and terrifying plagues in history.

In case you don’t know, Strasbourg is closer to Germany than it is to Paris. In fact, it’s practically on the eastern border of France. Not that this has anything to do with the outbreak. But many of the dancers expired eventually from strokes and heart attacks.

As the situation in Strasbourg got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned. They sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood.’ However, instead of prescribing bleeding, authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would only recover if they danced continuously night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving.

Historian John 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  maybe has solved the mystery.

“That the event took place is undisputed,” said Waller.

He explained that historical records documenting the dancing deaths, such as physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the boogying rage, all “are unambiguous on the fact that (victims) danced.”

“These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing,” he said.

Possible reason? Stress-induced psychosis. Having suffered severely from famine, and in many cases wiped out and reduced to begging, the region was in an ongoing crisis. Many had died of starvation. The area was riddled with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis. Waller believes the stress was intolerable, and hence a mass psychological illness resulted.

It was a superstitious time. From the sound of it, these people didn’t have much left in their lives but superstition.

“Anxiety and false fears gripped the region,” Waller said.

One of these fears, originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.

Waller’s theory is interesting, and quite a bit more plausible than other theories, including one that it was caused by ergot fungus, the organic version of LSD. Ergot is extremely poisonous, and it’s far more likely to kill people than start an impromptu dance party among starving people.

The fact they were starving, or something like it, makes the dancing even more extraordinary. Where did they get the kilojoules? Perfectly healthy people can be exhausted by a few hours’ dancing, let alone days.

There were many other strange plagues which are pretty good supports for the psychological elements of Waller’s idea, including a “laughing epidemic” that went on for 18 months in Tanzania.

After all, why should social diseases be purely physical?

Just to make the dancing plague a bit more bizarre, there were at least seven other cases of it in the same region during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar in 1840.

I mean, humans are weird enough as it is. And the potential social influence that we each individually carry is even weirder. There is historical precedent for this sort of thing.

In 1278, a flash dance mob collapsed a bridge over the River Meuse in Germany. One-hundred and fifty years later, a monk danced himself to death in northern Switzerland. He wasn’t alone – boogying to death was not at all unheard of during the dance epidemic years.

Then, just like that, spastic dancing stopped in the 17th century as abruptly and mysteriously as it began.

Paul Wallis

The Dancing Plague

Dancing plagues and mass hysteria

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