The “dance plague” that struck a French city and killed dozens
It happened and we know it well. It was in 1518 when Strasbourg residents “danced to death” for reasons that remain unexplained.
One woman started it all and the rest followed. Within a month, over 400 people took part and dozens died from exhaustion, strokes and heart attacks.
It may have been over 500 years ago and various assumptions have been made about the ‘dance plague’,but still a comprehensive explanation that would have garnered historical consensus has never been proposed.
Discovery Channel tells us that it all started in July 1518, when Frau Troffea went out in a Strasbourg straitjacket of the Holy Roman Empire and began dancing frantically for the following days. By the end of the week, 34 others were dancing alongside her, and before the month expired, a motley crowd of 400 nomads were jumping frantically on the city streets.
Amidst the summer heat and sweat, exhaustion and dehydration, the dance would leave dozens of victims. A prominent historian and professor at Michigan State University, John Waller, argues in his related book “A Time to Dance: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518” that he found the explanation.
After confirming from the municipal records that several dozen deaths took place, citing medical reports, chronicles of the time, and official register records, he concluded that it was a case of mass hysteria, “a stress-induced psychosis.”
Having suffered the most from the famine that had struck Alsace and decapitated Strasbourg from hunger, the inhabitants were now suffering from diseases (smallpox and syphilis). Waller believes that these conditions caused ”a massive psychological disorder“, at a time when prejudices and superstitions reigned.
His theory is more plausible than the relatively predominant, that the inhabitants were infected by a hallucinogenic mushroom containing ergotamine, the natural analogue of LSD. This fungus, however, is extremely poisonous and would probably kill the population rather than make it dance to death …