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The Fascinating Mystery of the Dancing Plague

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg suddenly started dancing themselves to death. Why did it happen? No one is certain.

In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg suddenly started dancing themselves to death. Why did it happen? No one is certain.

People Started Dancing Suddenly

It started with just a few people wanting to have a good time dancing. Arms flailing, bodies swaying and gyrating, these people danced continuously throughout the night without stopping.

It was when more and more people started joining in, the authorities realized something was seriously wrong. Little did they realize that they had a dancing plague epidemic on their hands.

Then things became more serious.

People stopped eating and drinking. They formed circles with hands and danced hours today oblivious of all daily activities. They appeared to be in a state of delirium, oblivious to mounting fatigue and the pain of bruised feet until they dropped dead due to exhaustion or heart attack.

And within three months, it claimed 400 victims in the city of Strasbourg. The plague also spread to other cities like Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium and then stopped suddenly. Why did it happen? How did it stop? No one is certain.

As Historian John Waller, author of the book "A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518" tells us.

"That the event took place is undisputed. 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.”

Within three months, it claimed 400 victims in the city of Strasbourg. The plague also spread to other cities like Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium and then stopped suddenly.

Within three months, it claimed 400 victims in the city of Strasbourg. The plague also spread to other cities like Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and other towns in the Netherlands and Belgium and then stopped suddenly.

The Story of the Dancing Plague

The whole thing started when a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into the street in Strasbourg and began to dance solo. Onlookers watched her performance with surprise and awe as she continued dancing twirling, twisting, and gyrating her body for nearly a week, day, and night. By the end of the week, 34 others had joined her, and, within a month, the crowd of dancers had swelled to 400.

Frau Troffea was the first to die of utter exhaustion, but the dance madness did not stop. The crowds began to swell rapidly and soon people were dancing like madmen oblivious of hunger, heat, or even the bruises and wounds on their sore, swollen, and lacerated feet.

It was as if a mass hysteria had captured them into a never-dying trance of dancing until death. As the deaths began to increase due to heart attacks, exhaustion, and heat, the city councilors decided to take some action to stop the madness.

They consulted local doctors and concluded that the disease is due to ‘overheated blood’ inside the brain. Then as part of treatment, they took a bizarre decision, more dancing.

As the deaths began to increase due to heart attacks, exhaustion, and heat, the city councillors decided to take some action to stop the madness.

As the deaths began to increase due to heart attacks, exhaustion, and heat, the city councillors decided to take some action to stop the madness.

The City Councillors Jump Into Action

They ordered the clearing of an open-air grain market and erected a huge stage on it. They also invited musicians, pipers, and drummers to encourage people to dance more.

The objective was to make people dance more and more and get rid of the madness. Then they engaged “strong men” to escort the crazed dancers inside the stage. They even engaged professional dancers to give them company.

It was a wrong decision and within one month the death toll increased as more bloodied and exhausted people started dying despite the shade of the stage. As a city official mentions the event.

“In their madness, people kept up their dancing until they fell unconscious, and many died.”

The councilors realized that they had made a mistake. They did exactly the opposite. They enforced strict rules to ban music and dancing. Deciding the dancers were suffering from holy wrath rather than a medical issue, the dancers were all rounded up and forcibly taken to a shrine dedicated to St Vitus in the nearby hills where their bloodied feet were placed into red shoes and they were led around a wooden figurine of the saint to seek forgiveness.

We don’t know if this worked but the plague came to an end and the dancers returned all normal and well.

Strasbourg was not the only city affected by the dancing plague. In fact, there were at least seven other cases of it in the same region during the medieval period and one in Madagascar in 1840.

Strasbourg was not the only city affected by the dancing plague. In fact, there were at least seven other cases of it in the same region during the medieval period and one in Madagascar in 1840.

Any Explanations?

Strasbourg was not the only city affected by the dancing plague. In fact, there were at least seven other cases of it in the same region during the medieval period and one in Madagascar in 1840.

Any explanations? People over the years have come up with quite a few.

Some say it is stress-induced psychosis. The region over the years had suffered multiple famines and diseases and that had left people insecure and weak. This had resulted in a superstitious populace who believed that they were doing something wrong to incur the wrath of St Vitus who was making them suffer. As the historian, John Waller tells us.

“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."

Another explanation is that the dancers ingested rye ergot, a mold that grows on damp rye stalks and which contains LSD inducing hallucination and hysteria in people consuming them.

But then LSD effects only last for 24 hours and here the dancers were dancing for nearly three months. Another explanation was that the people contracted a rare disease called dyskinesias which causes involuntary movements of hands and feet resembling dancing.

But one thing is for sure as confirmed by both medieval and modern historians, the dancing was involuntary as the people writhed in pain, begging for mercy, and screaming for help. What was happening to them? What made them dance against their will? Nobody knows for sure.

The dancing plague would never cease to be a fascinating part of European history.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 11, 2021:

Thanks Vidya

VIDYA D SAGAR on September 10, 2021:

What a fascinating and sad story Ravi. Makes one wonder what might have caused such a phenomenon that so many people died of it. Thanks for sharing this interesting article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 09, 2021:

Thanks Linda

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 09, 2021:

This is a tragic but fascinating story. I’ll be thinking about the situation that you’ve described for some time!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks Joanne

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks Bill

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks, John for your comments.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 07, 2021:

Yes Ravi, this and other similar instances of what is known as “St Vitus Dance” were incredible phenomena. I actually wrote a poem about it some time ago. Another very interesting article. Thank you.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2021:

Always a fascinating read! Thank you, once again, for a great story.

Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on September 07, 2021:

Truth really is stranger than fiction. Thanks for sharing info about this remarkable event.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks Misbah

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on September 07, 2021:

A very good read as always. Thank you for sharing this interesting story with us. Stay safe and healthy!

Blessings to you!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks Miebakagh

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 07, 2021:

A good and interesting read. Thanks.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on September 07, 2021:

Thanks Teodora

Teodora Gheorghe on September 07, 2021:

A fascinating story! great article!

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