Dancing Plague of 1518
One of the most astonishing facts that I have come across is that of the 'Dancing Plague of 1518'. This was a dancing epidemic that broke out in Strasbourg, France and claimed the lives of almost 400 people who succumbed to exhaustion, stroke and heart attack after dancing for days without rest.
In July of 1518, a woman referred to as 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, 34 others had joined her and, within a month, the crowd of dancing, hopping and leaping individuals had swelled to 400. Authorities prescribed more dancing to cure the tormented movers on 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'. Special guilds were built for them to dance, with musicians and professional dancers being hired to play music and keep them on their feet.
This is an actual fact. Historical documents, including 'physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council' are clear that the victims dance.
What is most amazing is the fact that the human body can withstand only three days of such exertion and dehydration. Then how come Frau Troffea managed to dance continuously for six days? Was she already dead? Then how was her body dancing?
Many theories have been abounding throughout the years to explain this bizarre phenomenon, most notable among them being the following:
1. Poisoning by ergot fungus: Many believe that this mania was the result of poisoning by ergot fungus, a psychotropic mould that grows on stalks of rye. But this is highly unlikely. Ergotism can trigger delusions and spasms, but it also typically cuts off blood supply to the extremities making coordinated movement very difficult.
2. Rituals of a heretical cult: It was suggested sometime in history that the people were perhaps members of a heretical cult. But this was disputed by the fact that whenever possible, the dancers cried out for help and expressed their misery, so it couldn't be because of some cult ritual. No evidence for the same was ever found.
3. Stress-induced psychosis: Historian John Waller propounded a theory that a mass psychological illness was the result of a famine that left many starving. Diseases lie syphilis and smallpox abounded, leaving several dead in their wake. This might have led to extreme stress condition which the people were not able to cope up with. But this leads to a more interesting question: how were the people able to keep up dancing for so many days without any consumption of food? It's impossible even for marathon runners, let alone a starving population.
So what actually happened? Will anybody ever work out the reason behind this mass hysteria? Or will it forever be shrouded in a cloak of mystery?
Only time will tell.