The Dancing Plague of 1518

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Perhaps the very first authentic rave, the Dancing Plague of 1518 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...

Boogie Fever

Frau Troffea is said to have been the first person afflicted by the disease as she 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. 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.

Hot Blooded

Check it and see. She's got a fever of 103! Come on Lady, do you do more than dance? Okay, so maybe now we know the inspiration for the famous Foreigner song. At the very least, we've all got a good song stuck in our heads, right? Anyway, as the situation in Strasbourg got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned.

According to this article, 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."

Mass Hysteria


Now, according to John Waller, who wrote not one, but TWO books on the event, the outbreak was caused by mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a manifestation of mass hysteria that is often preceded by extreme levels of psychological distress. According to Waller, a famine, caused by cold winters, hot summers, crop frosts, and violent hailstorms. In addition to the wide-spread famine, smallpox, syphilis, and leprosy afflicted the populace, as well. Waller believes this series of events might have triggered the MPI.

Saint Anthony's Fire

Others have attributed the outbreak to ergotism, which you can get after eating ergot-laced bread. Ingestion of ergot, a psychotropic mold that grows on rye, can lead to delirium, hallucinations, and seizures, as well as other symptoms. At the time of the outbreak, this wasn't called ergotism, but rather "Saint Anthony's fire," which sounds ever so much cooler.

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July 29, 2011 - 6:10am
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