History Lesson: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Rooster dives into the Dancing Plague of 1518 on this installment of History Lesson.

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“Altered state of consciousness is colored by the cultural context.” – Robert Bartholomew

In Strasbourg, Alsace, 1518, years after Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his printing press to the awestruck city, and amidst the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation, the people were suffering. Syphilis, leprosy, and starvation wreaked havoc within the city’s walls, with no end in sight. Despite this grim state of affairs, on some particularly hot July day, a Mrs. Troffea walked out into the street, and she began to dance.

And she danced. And she danced, and danced, and continued to dance until, eventually, she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. But, once she had rested, her dancing urge was apparently not yet satisfied – Mrs. Troffea stood up and went right back to dancing. And dancing. And dancing. Within a week’s time, approximately thirty more townsfolk had joined in Mrs. Troffea’s fevered frolic.

Strasbourg’s city officials and religious authorities were stumped. Some theorized that the dancers were possessed, or cursed, or afflicted with “hot blood.” They encouraged the dancing as a possible cure, to work out the illness. Guildhalls were reserved, and stages were built and arranged for musicians and professional dancers to accompany the afflicted.  After a month had passed, about 400 people – mostly women – were gripped by the dancing plague. Just like Troffea, they would dance for hours, collapse or pass out from exhaustion, and then continue in their frenzy after resting. Some of them, however, would never get back up – they died from immense fatigue or cardiac arrest.

By September, the dancing began to subside, and finally it stopped as mysteriously as it began. Those who survived went back to their lives, but questions remain unanswered: what the hell caused the dancing plague? Why dancing? Why couldn’t they just stop?

The strongest modern theory attributes the bizarre plague to mass psychogenic illness. The outbreak would manifest in forms other than dancing, as evidenced in similar cases in Medieval Europe, but it was always a psychological phenomenon that spread through superstitious communities during times of extreme stress.

In one related case, an entire convent of nuns meowed like cats. They scratched at the base of trees and meowed aloud for several hours a day. During the Middle Ages, many girls were forced by their parents to become nuns – a stressful life of forced poverty, celibacy, and strenuous manual labor. Mass psychogenic illness is also theorized to be the origin of the Salem Witch Trials, which began with groups of adolescent girls screaming, throwing fits, and convulsing. It was yet another superstitious religious environment, incredibly repressive and stressful for girls and women – the perfect setting for an outbreak.

Each display of mass hysteria played into the context of these strict religious communities. It was once believed that Saint Vitus, patron saint of dancers and epileptics, would punish sinful behavior by cursing people to dance; cats were associated with the devil; convulsions and seizures were (and in some places still are) believed to be symptoms of demonic possession. That would explain why cases of mass psychogenic illness are relatively rare in our more modern developed and secular societies, but they can still be found in war torn areas or areas under extreme stress and mass anxiety.

Robert Bartholomew, medical sociologist, believes outbreaks of motor hysteria could be on the rise in Western societies, including cases of twitching teenagers in New York, 2011, and hiccupping high school students in Massachusetts, 2012. “An investigation into the incident did not reveal any environmental causes for the ‘outbreak,’ leading one doctor to assume the girls may be suffering from mass hysteria brought on by stress.” – Fox News Health

We may be living in easier times than Strasbourg 1518, but we are not immune to our environments or stress. Take care of yourselves out there.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

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