Dance Of Death
For the ones who really love to dance- Beware! If you go really crazy over it, you might die.
Apparently a lady named Frau Troffea started dancing on a hot summer day in the streets for no reason in Strasbourg in 1518. Not just that, but she continued to dance for 6-7 days at a stretch and ultimately died. The “disease” spread like flu and others kept joining her. Within a month, there were about 400 people affected by the mysterious disease and most of them died of heart attack, stroke or exhaustion.
So this inexplicable urge to dance was not just limited to Strasbourg, but it spread to Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though few were as large—or deadly—as the one triggered in 1518. The Strasbourg dancing plague, which definitely sounds like a legendary tale, it well recorded in 16th-century books.
In the year 1374, way before the 1518 plague, this same mania scattered along the valley of the River Rhine. Slowly it spread to Netherlands, Germany and France too. It took 6-7 good months for the plague to subside.
Not many years before the 1518 plague hit, an equally strange compulsion had gripped a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1491, several nuns were ‘possessed’ by devilish familiars. They raced around like dogs, jumped out of trees in imitation of birds or miaowed and clawed their way up tree trunks in the manner of cats. This was not really limited to nuns, but they were the ones affected in large numbers.
Precautions that were taken:
The dancing plague’s precaution was strangely very similar to the plague itself. The disease was considered to be its own cure. The local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, announced that the plague was a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’. And the cure was simply to Dance more rather than bleeding. Wooden stages, Guildhalls and bands were arranged for the afflicted. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would only recover if they danced continuously night and day.
Theories and reasons assumed:
According to John Waler, who wrote two books on the epidemic, the outbreak was caused by mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a manifestation of mass hysteria that is often preceded by extreme levels of psychological distress. This possible reason for this MPI is Stress-induced psychosis. Having suffered severely in famine and reduced to begging, many had died of starvation. The area was riddled with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis. Waller believes the stress was intolerable, and hence, a mass psychological illness resulted.
The Superstitious Idea:
The 16th century was a superstitious time, and soon enough people would start questioning religion and authority of the Church. “Anxiety and false fears gripped the region,” Waller said.
St. Vitus, a Catholic saint was believed to have the power to curse people with a dancing plague if someone provoked his wrath.
Other theories include the idea that it was caused by Ergot fungus, the organic version of LSD. But ergot is extremely poisonous and could kill. So the idea of it leading people to dance was dismissed.
Whatever really caused the plague must have been something weird. As of now, beware of wearing those dancing shoes again lest they might be infected with the plague.