Psyched by years of plague and famine, Frau Troffea suddenly starts dancing. Quickly, 15 people die, every single day.
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We are in 1518; it’s a warm July in the wonderful city of Strasbourg, now in the (ex) Alsace region of France. In its narrow streets, Frau Troffea starts to dance frenetically. At first, passersby laugh and clap at her joie de vivre – a moment of happiness in what has been a miserable century.
But their laughter and claps quickly stop as Troffea doesn’t stop. Despite her husband’s pleading, her feet covered in blood and exhaustion, she keeps dancing for six long days! (Okay, she did stop for short naps from time to time.)
A week later, 34 dancers had joined her and by the end of the month, up to 400. At its peak, its often said, even by renowned media sources such as the Guardian, the BBC, ‘Le Monde’ or Encyclopedia Britannica, that up to 15 people died of heart attack, stroke, or sheer exhaustion every day (more on this later).
Worried, local nobles consult doctors, who among other things such as misaligned planets, blame it on “overheated” blood under the principle of “humeurs” which was the basis of medicine back then. But rather than the usual bleedings, they believed the dancers needed to shake off the disease.
So, the nobles ordered the clearing of a grain market and erected a large wooden stage. There, under the blazing July sun, the afflicted danced along the music of hired pipers and drummers, day and night. Unexpectedly, this worsened the plague as more people tagged along. Seeing their failure, the nobles quickly had the stage destroyed, and any orchestra strictly forbidden.
In the end, they blamed the disease on spiritual depravity and forced the dancers to assist a procession for Saint Vitus, who is said to protect against involuntary movements (and oversleeping, for us YouTubers). And apparently, it worked! And the dancing finally stopped.
So what caused this dancing mania? Much has been blamed for it, hysteria, demonic possessions, heretical cults, or more reasonably, ergot, a fungus found in rye bread with effects similar to LSD. It’s been a medical curiosity for both today and the past, with Swiss pharmacist Paracelsus, one of the founders of Toxicology, coming to Strasbourg in 1926 to investigate it. While there, he supposedly traced back the disease to Frau Troffea – and this is where much of the BS surrounding this event starts.
First of all, according to the Region’s federation of historians and archaeologists, it is improbable that anyone was ever called Frau Troffea, but mostly, they couldn’t find any contemporary sources that actually cite any deaths. This common belief comes from Johannes Wencker, a man who claimed to have recollections from a dozen survivors, despite being born in 1590, that is, 72 years after the facts. These possible fabrications have been further propagated by Professor John Waller from Michigan State University when he published “The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness”.
And it’s important to know this because, without high rates of mortality, this becomes a simple case of mass hysteria, which has occurred twenty times between 1200 – 1600 A.D. in Western Europe alone, and more recently, in 1863 in Madagascar. These regions all had common traits – regions suffering from high level of stress which makes them more prone to such conditions. Strasbourg, itself, had suffered years of plague and famine.
The very recent Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, which affected up to 1,000 people with uncontrollable laughter, makes sense considering the region had just won its independence after a violent civil war. This shows that although the Dancing Plague of 1518 is definitely curious, and quite entertaining for us, it has nothing quite mysterious about it.