Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
But the Dancing Plague is fascinating in its own right and not merely on account of how we tell its story.
There is no good physical explanation for it. A popular belief held that St. John the Baptist caused it, so that some named the phenomenon after him. Others noted that some devotees of St. Vitus took to ecstatic dancing when visiting the shrine of that saint and so named the plague after him. Yet others attributed the dancing to the Devil himself.
The leading pharmacological theory of the Dancing Plague is that it was an instance of a phenomenon named after yet another saint: St. Anthony’s Fire. That traditional term refers to a condition that broke out occasionally in medieval Europe in which victims convulsed uncontrollably, which could resemble dancing. The condition was caused by fungi that sometimes contaminated the wheat supply, which contained a psychoactive chemical similar to LSD.
But scholars have more or less debunked this theory. Convulsions are not dancing, and contemporaneous accounts from 1518 were very clear in using the German word for “dance.” And LSD can’t sustain you in nonstop physical exercise for days at a time. Most importantly, the malady appeared to have been spread by sight: people who saw the dancers were likely to join in, regardless of what food they ate.
And most instances of St. Vitus’s Dance occurred somewhere along the Rhine, not corresponding to wheat consumption patterns. Right — the 1518 instance was by no means the only one. It just happens to be the best recorded one, not least because it happened after Gutenberg.
In 1247, a group of children began to dance in the German city of Erfurt. Some say they kept moving until they reached Hamelin some 250 kilometers away. Hamelin was of course the scene of the famous “Pied Piper” tale in which the Piper lured the children of Hamelin away to their deaths with his music. The 1374 Aachen outbreak was the most famous on record. Afterward, outbreaks occurred in cities in the Low Countries such as Utrecht and Liege.
Dismissing the fungal theory, scholars have turned to psychology for an explanation. A notable factor that might have contributed to mass hysteria was the religiosity of Medieval Europe, where the Catholic Saints, eternal damnation in Hell, and magic and witchcraft all seemed so real as to be real. Another factor was the fact that not so long ago Europe had suffered a different and very physical plague: the Black Death or Bubonic Plague. In general, Medieval Europeans living along the Rhine were subject to tremendous psychological stress. Mix heightened religiosity and tremendous fear, and — the theory goes — you got mass hysteria expressed as uncontrollable dancing.
But 1518 was no longer the Middle Ages. True, the Black Death was still a real threat. Indeed, Raphael would die from it two years later in Italy. But Raphael’s death in 1520 marked the end of the High Renaissance, when Europe was already well on its way out of the benighted superstitions of the Middle Ages. For that matter, Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door a year before the Strasbourg outbreak in 1517, fundamentally challenging the Vatican’s hold on the European soul. 1518 was squarely within what we now call the “Early Modern.”
And although the Strasbourg outbreak was the last one that would ever occur along the Rhine, in Italy the related phenomenon of Tarantism continued into the 18th century. The ecstatic dancing of Tarantism was believed to be caused by the bite of a tarantula or was the cure for it. A musical genre called the tarantella evolved to accompany the allegedly spider-induced dancing.
But even back then, many observers noted that the dancing seemed to have very little to do with whether a person was in fact bitten by a tarantula and much more to do with whether he or she believed that such a bite had happened. The German doctor and medical scholar Justus Hecker noted, however, that some skeptics of the tarantula theory subjected themselves to the spider’s bite. To their astonishment, they couldn’t help but to dance. All of their science and skepticism and rationality went out the window the moment the arachnid’s bite sank in.
Maybe that is why I read about the Dancing Plague now. Religiosity and magical thinking? Sure seem to be on the rise. Fear? A lot of that going around. And even the rational among us who know better find that sometimes our reason is feeble defense.
No, there has never been another outbreak of the Dancing Plague since 1518. But maybe that just means that nowadays we express our mass hysteria in other ways.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."