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A Dance which only ended with Death- Know all about the lethal Plague of 1518

A Dance which only ended with Death- Know all about the lethal Plague of 1518 October 24, 2019Leave a comment

“Beta zara uncle ko naach ke dikhao”

Most of us have been “victims” to when our over-enthusiastic parents asked us to perform a talent expo in front of certain relatives. Be is singing, dancing or answering textbook questions- we did it all! But, would you do it now? The answer is a BIG FAT NO!

For a second, imagine going through the horror all over again. In childhood, while our parents initiated the drill, we had the right to stop whenever we wanted to. At the end of the drill, we’d end up feeling pretty glorious no matter how we started. The Dancing plague of 1518 was a similar frenzy where people started dancing, however, once they started, they couldn’t stop.

A woman dancing on the streets

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A ballet dancer performs in the open

The mania began on a hot summer day in July when a woman named Frau Troffea started dancing on the streets of Strasbourg (now in France). Although she danced without music or a suitable occasion, onlookers hooted and cheered for her, not knowing what was to come next.

Soon enough, Frau Troffea’s uncontrollable urge to dance took a mad turn. The lady went on and on without food and rest for about a week, until she finally collapsed due to exhaustion.

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One of the many consequences of rigorous dancing

What followed next was sheer madness. Frau Troffea returned to complete the dance battle after having rested enough. She continued to dance for days and within a week, about 30 people joined Frau Troffea. Despite the injuries and exhaustion the dancing troop just wouldn’t stop.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

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Classical music being played in a hall

The City authorities couldn’t decipher what caused the uncontrollable urge to dance among the masses. In order to control the ever-increasing number of dancers, they came up with the plan of fighting fire with fire. Leaders from all spheres unanimously concluded that more dancing was the solution to stop the hysteria.

Officials from the city arranged for guildhalls and musicians to intensify the joie de vivre. But, instead of pacifying the crowd, it only added fuel to the fire. By August, about 400 dancers, predominantly female, were gripped by the plague. A number of people died from exertion as the dancing continued. At the peak of this mania, at least 15 citizens were dying daily from stroke, heart attack, and exhaustion.

As unexpectedly as the plague started, it began to recede in early September. Some records tell that the victims were sent away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for their condition.

What people thought

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A portrayal of what the dancing plague may have looked like

It is still unknown as to why the strasbourgeoise danced to their deaths.

  • Initially, the locals speculated supernatural causes
  • Physicians blamed it on “hot blood”
  • It was speculated that the dancers belonged to a religious cult

A Curse could have Triggered the masses

Side-effects of consuming Ergot Fungi
Ergot fungi growing on a sprig of rye

On several occasions, the outbreak has been linked to the consumption of ergot fungi, which commonly grows on rye. The fungi is known to have psychoactive chemicals which cause confusion and hallucinations.

While this may seem like a logical reason, historian John Waller argues that those poisoned by the fungi could not have danced for days. Moreover, the outbreak, which occurred somewhere along the Rhine and Moselle Rivers had rather different climates and crops.

The curse of Saint Vitus
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Saint Vitus who could curse people with a dancing plague

This theory concerns St. Vitus. The 16th century Europeans believed that the Saint could curse people with a dancing plague. Notably, during the same time diseases and famines were rampant in Strasbourg. These two factors combined could have led people to develop a stress-induced hysteria which eventually caused the non-stop dancing frenzy.C

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A painting showing mass hysteria

Throughout history, similar manias have rocked parts of Switzerland, Germany and Holland. The dancing plague of 1518 remains the largest and deadliest recorded instances of such a derangement till date.