If you are going to have a plague in your story then have a dancing plague. Not only creepy but also insane in the actions. Something that is so enjoyable becomes a vehicle of exhaustion and death. Now these are not the dance marathons of the 30’s where people deliberately danced to make money, but possible a disease that took over making them dance as if they were puppets.
The dancing plague broke out in Strasbourg, France in the summer of 1518 with a lady named Frau Troffea. Frau??? I see those ears pick up. To clarify this part of France is close to Germany, so as with many border areas, there are cross cultural ties. Thus Frau.
Okay back to the story. It was a hot July day when Frau Troffea began to dance in a maniacal fashion in the street. This went on for a few days when 34 others, both men and women, began to join her. Within a month approximately 400 people were dancing in the streets. The majority were women, it was not exclusive to women. Needless to say many of the dancers suffered severe exhaustion, stroke, heat stroke, and/or heart attacks.
Due to the number of people involved, and reports that 15 per day were dying, of course the authorities got worried and called in noted physicians of the time. Now remember this was 1518. The physician determined that the plaque was ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’, no not the song for those who immediately started singing.
Now get this the cure was not to stop them, but the physicians believe if you provided music and place for them to dance, they would get it out of their system. Okay.
This incident drew interest. In 1526, just a short few years later, a physician and alchemist named Paracelsus came to Strasbourg to write about Frau Troffea. He used the term “choreomania”.
Another small side step: Choreomania is from the Greek words choros (dance) and mania (madness). Thus the name given to such outbreaks as dancing mania (plaque).
Now back to Paracelsus and his reasoning for what caused this incident. Hearsay told him that the husband did not like his wife to dance. Therefore she began dancing to spite him. Thus Paracelsus made the following conclusions on why the dancing began with three many causes.
1) the need to dance was all imagination
2) people joined because of sexual frustration, thus more women
3) a few may have had a bodily cause for the dancing
Thus the conclusion that dancing was the result of wives unhappy in their marriage was the main cause for the dancing.
Figures, it is the woman’s fault. So what did Paracelsus recommend as a cure for this “whores and scoundrels” as he termed the wives? They were to be fed water and bread while incarcerated in a dark stripped down room, the worse the better. Sounds more like he is punishing women for disobeying their husbands than a cure.
So why were infected? That is where theories come into play. Eugene Backman (Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine) in this 1952 book, looked for a chemical or biological agent. He deduced, as others at the time, that the root cause was ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye.
This is the most prevenient theory and is same path that is used to account for the Salem Witch trials. The fungi produces a LSD effect upon the body with hallucinations.
We also have the theory that the dancing was caused by the bite of a spider. In Italy were outbreaks did occur, the instances were called tarantism. It began a popular myth that if bitten you would dance. The last known case of tarantism being truly investigated in Italy was in 1959. The whole theory has been proven not viable and therefore remains as folklore than fact.
We also have the theory, that these dances were staged as part of religious cults. From Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist from James Cook University, set6s that dancers were deliberately preforming a ritual of some heretical religious sect. This would be a good idea, but it appears none of the dancers were wanting or participating in a processional ritual, nor is there a heretical sect that could account for all the instances and time periods.
Another non-alien-induced-biological possibility comes from John Waller (A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518). He argues that the people were affected by the convictions of starvation due to famine resulting in a mass produced hysteria.
Now the true question is: were these people actually dancing nonstop for a month without nutrition or water? Or were they first dancing and later fallen down jerking in such a manner it appeared they were dancing as an explanation? Or just jerking in a manner that was assumed dancing?
Now to add to the mystery was the 1518 case the only case? Nope in fact seven other major instances occurred in the same area during what we consider the medieval period. Lots of isolated occurrences during the 1500’s and 1600’s in what was then called the Holy Roman Empire. Then just to throw in a wrench, one in 1840 in Madagascar.
Let us look at what some of those other instances.
The story goes that in 1021, on the holy night of Christmas Eve during Mass, in Kölbigk, Germany eighteen people assembled to dance in a wild fashion outside of the town’s church. The priest was unable to continue the mass as the noise from the dancers grew. He stopped and admonished the dancer to cease. When they refused and gave what he determined to be an evil sign, he cursed them to dance for a year. Of which they did, and on the following eve in 1022 they finally stopped dancing and feel asleep. Some never woke.
Now that recollection has fantasy built in: a year is a bit farfetched and the whole cursing, well makes for a good moral if you disobey the priest. But the story does account that something happened that disturbed the community, so what was it?
A possible reasoning that could account for both the curse and the holy time, would be the practice of the “St. Vitus’s Dance” or “St. John’s Dance”. Here the dancer(s) were cursed by a saint and would dance in a procession to places dedicated to that saint.
Then we jump to 1247 and in another German town, Erfurt. In this occurrence a around a hundred children danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt, a length of nearly 20 kilometers, that is a good distance. The children collapsed at the end and were returned to their parents. Here I must note that the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin originated around this same time period. So did the dancing cayuse the story, or the story cause the dancing?
Short time after that incident, there is an account of almost 200 dancers on a bridge over the Moselle River in Maastricht. The continued until the bridge, of course, collapsed and many were drowned.
Now these two stories could be fables, real instances, or excuses for why a bridge collapsed. Now what is interesting to this story is that those who survived were healed at a nearby chapel dedicated to St Vitus. Bringing back that dancing while cursed idea mention earlier, ending the procession at a shrine.
With history there is always embellishments in one form or another.
Let us speed ahead to 1374, where on June the 24th in Aachen we see another large outbreak. By 1376 the outbreak spreads to other cities and even countries like Italy. We have several written accounts that confirm one another that thousands pf people danced for days or weeks with the addition mentioning of screaming for help.
Smaller groups suffered in 1418 in Strasbourg and then in 1428 in Schaffhausen and in Zurich. In Basel (1536) we have another group of children and then in 1552 in Anhalt just one man is reported.
In the 1500’s, Gregor Horst, a professor of medicine, wrote about a group of women who for dozens of years danced madly in a procession to the chapel of St. Vitus. The women claimed they had no interest to day until that same day in May each year when they were forcibly compelled to dance by some unseen force.
This brings us back to the theory of Bartholomew’s heretical sect. While some of these instances can be traced to these religious instances, not all as in the 1518 case as there was no procession nor interest in going to a shrine. But that does not rule out many could had been either real accounts of such rites or what people having no first hand knowledge, believed were the rites.
By the mid-17th century, these occurrences pretty much died out… why?
“Dance at Molenbeek”
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