Death in the Streets – The Dancing Plague of 1518

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedin

Dancing-Plague

It was the month of July in the year 1518, in Strasbourg, France.  A relatively unknown woman history refers to as Frau Troffea stepped outside into a narrow street.  She then began a fervent dancing vigil, all alone for somewhere between four and six days.  By the end of the week, over thirty others had joined her and, within a month, over four hundred.  Although it sounds impossible, the evidence is ironclad of the occurrence.  Numerous records document the dancing and the deaths that followed.  Multiple examples of physician notes, sermons in the cathedral, local written accounts, and the official notes of the Strasbourg city council all confirm the phenomena.  At the time, no one had an explanation for the odd behavior of so many people.  Unfortunately by the end of the summer, dozens had succumbed to the non-stop exertion and died.

Diagnosis and “Treatment”

Clergymen and city leaders struggled to determine the cause of the strange series of events. Local physicians blamed it on “hot blood,” suggesting the participants had some sort of mysterious fever.  They assumed that the dancing was leading to the participants being cured in their own strange way.  So confident were they that a stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in to join the sick.  The city leaders even went so far as to hire musicians to provide backing music; helping the afflicted get through their sickness.  Truth be told, the city leaders were stumped as to the cause of the dancing and also any way to make it cease.

Before long, city leaders realized that their efforts to “help” the afflicted dancers were in vain. The non-stop dancing marathon started to take its toll. Many of the dancers collapsed from sheer exhaustion; their bodies drained of energy just stopped functioning.  Others died from strokes and heart attacks with local physicians unable to revive the victims.  As tensions grew in this age of superstition, attention turned from the medical community to the church for a solution. There were whispers of curses and cults causing the dancing, and people were losing faith in seeing a clear path to healing.  Finally in September after multiple deaths and no reduction in the numbers of dancers, clergymen stepped in.  The entire group was taken outside of the city limits to pray for absolution in a shire atop a mountain.

Die_Wallfahrt_der_Fallsuechtigen_nach_Meulebeeck

What Modern Medicine Tells Us

Ms. Troffea should have been dead through dehydration after about three days.  Since we are unable to determine if the dancers were eating and drinking during their ordeal, we cannot make a conclusion.  The level of continued physical exertion revealed by the records isn’t sustainable for a human being.  These were common people, not trained athletes.  The professional long-distance cyclists and marathon runners of the modern world would not be able to keep up the pace these people did.

With no forensic evidence to test, there are multiple theories on what caused this bizarre event in the first place.  We can review evidence from other similar dancing events to determine if any correlations can be discovered.  In 1374, hundreds of villagers along the Rhine River took to the streets in what was described as a strange dance.  People were leaping, jerking, and hopping around, seemingly to music no one else could hear.  These poor souls barely ate or slept.  They just danced for days on end, until they collapsed.  This was the first documented cases of this phenomenon.  There  were instances of dancing fevers going as far back as the 7th century and up all the way up to the 17th century.

Possible Causes

Understanding that this type of event has a scientific explanation and not a supernatural explanation was something our ancestors couldn’t understand.  Yes, they gave medical doctors a chance to “cure” the sickness, but when thing failed, the church was viewed as the better choice.  In this case, we don’t have any written accounts of how leaving the city actually stopped the dancing, but it is something to consider.  Another factors to take into consideration would be other diseases active in the area at the time; perhaps this phenomena was a side-effect.  With smallpox, syphilis, and the bubonic plague all active in Europe, it’s a valid avenue for study.

Researchers of this event seem to converge on the topic of stress and how high stress levels were during this time in history.  Famine, drought, premature death, disease, and miserable living conditions are all cited as causes for the high stress levels.  They then go one step further and attribute this bizarre dancing behavior to stress-induced psychosis.  When Frau Troffea began her dancing fit, some call that the beginning moment of a mass psychological illness. This sounds plausible but improbable.  It leaves too many unanswered questions and fails to clearly identify why some people were affected and others were not.  Assuming all the people in the city were subject to similar influences, the idea that only a few hundred would have this mass psychological event is highly unlikely.

1374 – Aachen, Germany

The first documented case of a dancing plague took place in Aachen, Germany. Citizens began dancing around and reportedly experienced hallucinations.  The ranks of dancers quickly grew into the thousands with people vigorously jumping and dancing about, some also screaming and chanting.  They did this until completely exhausted at which point they would collapse wherever they were. Some would die from heart failure or later succumb to injuries suffered from their violent dance.  Those who didn’t die, once exhausted, would often twitch and gasp until they were able to once again get up and continue their dance.  Besides the violent dancing, reports that some rolled around on the ground making animal sounds. Others begin having sex with one another.  While still others would scream, begging people to beat the bottoms of their feet or get people to throw them high in the air.  All of these behaviors suggest something more than a mass psychosis, perhaps a drug-fueled flash-mob type of event.  Regardless, it sounds planned and not something that just happened.

 

Was it Drug Related?

In ancient times, many people had a great understanding of the effects of certain plants and mushrooms found in the woods.  It has been long documented that people used concoctions for healing, trances, or other experiences that might be considered “getting high” in today’s terminology.  Also we know that ergotism existed. A condition brought on when rye and other grains were infected with a fungus called Claviceps Purpurea.  The alkaloids that cause hallucinations, seizures, mania, convulsions, irrational behavior, and unconsciousness would overwhelm the human body and could easily be characterized as dance plague.  The only major stumbling point is that ergotism is also associated with loss of limbs due to restricted blood circulation.  No limb loss was reported in either of these incidents of Dance Mania, during or afterwards.
ergotism

Other Possibilities to Consider

We cannot simply ignore the fact that these dancing plagues could have been planned events, with possible drug use as part of the plan. There are documented stories of cults that would have a dancing ritual as part of their celebrations.   This is somewhat supported by details on the German incident in which the participants would try to bring in observers to join their dance; perhaps as a way to recruit new members.

Other incidents of cults or counter-religious groups using mass dancing are known. On Christmas Eve of 1021 in Kölbigk, Germany, people supposedly formed a human ring around a church and began chanting and dancing.  The events were meant to disrupt the Christmas Eve service.  Despite the priest’s efforts, the anti-religious group wouldn’t stop, in fact his intervention only made them dance more vigorously and chant louder.  The impasse supposedly made the priest “curse” the dancers; which obviously wouldn’t happen.  His curse was that they would not be able to stop dancing for a year.  Of course the tale is unbelievable, but it was reported that many died from exhaustion.

Some consider raves to be a form of dance-mania, with participants dancing for hours, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. To enhance the event and to increase their stamina, drugs like ecstasy and LSD are being ingested by the ravers.

rave party

Conclusion

After examining the rather old evidence and stories, there are still many questions unanswered.  What happened to the people who went to the high mountain shrine?  Were they cured to return to their lives, or something else?  What could have led people to literally dance themselves to death? Would the high-stress of everyday living in ancient times actually be enough to drive people to a dancing madness?  It would seem that the outcome is obvious yet the causality is still up for interpretation.

thegypsy

Owner/Admin at The Gypsy Thread
As a hopeless romantic at heart, Ralph indulges in romantic poetry, but also allows his mind time to wonder across all subjects.A master of vocabulary and word-use, Ralph has a writing style that gives his works their own life, often giving his readers just enough information that they end up doing additional research on his subject matter.

Latest posts by thegypsy (see all)

More from thegypsy

Stories of Flowers

Lend me a moment and I shall tell you of flowers  Each...
Read More