The Dancing Madness

In 1518 the streets of the Holy Roman Empire’s Strasburg observed an event that began as strange and quickly became one of the most mysterious and deadly diseases to strike the area.  A woman walking down the street suddenly became compelled to dance and found that she could not stop.  As the minutes of her strange macabre waltz turned into hours and the hours into days those around her began to worry about her wellbeing.  When she was joined by others, it soon became apparent that a horrifying new sickness was spreading through the land.

Frau Troffea was the first victim of the strange illness, and danced nonstop neither sleeping nor eating as she found it impossible to stand still.  Within one week the small crowd around her was no longer simply comprised of shocked onlookers, but other dancers.  The strange disease had claimed an estimated 34 people and added them to this strange improvised troupe of madness.  And though several died and had to be dragged away convulsing, only more joined the group.  Within less than a single moon phase 400 people were crowding the streets dancing uncontrollably and unable to stop themselves for anything.

And if the disease was strange, the cure was even more bizarre.  Nobles on the advice of physicians had stages constructed and musical groups were called in to play a ballad for those dancing to ensure they would get the “hot blood” out of their system and eventually come back to their normal lives.  As the minstrels played even more of the dancers died of various causes, but most commonly exhaustion and heart attack.  Imagine 400 people dancing at all hours of the day and night in crowds around minstrels who played their music around the dancers always shocked by the mysterious sight surrounding them.  And the horrific dance was only accentuated by the eerie music and the horrified expressions of the dancers as they pleaded for the ability to quit as though under some mysterious sorcery.

There is no official undisputed explanation of the disease, but there are several theories.  Some suggest the entire ritual was a form of mass hysteria in which people upon seeing the dancers believed themselves to be likewise afflicted, but it would have to be a strange and extreme form of hysteria as the dancers would have to be constantly engaged in a hypnotic activity even while horrified and pleading to stop.  There is some precedent of this disease, however.  In 1347 the dance of St. John was a similar illness that caused people to jump and scream giving the appearance that they were insane.  And after the Spanish flu of 1916 there was a form of sickness that seemed related to many doctors where patients would go into strange convulsions with accompanying hallucinations and eventually simply fall asleep until they died.  Though recovery was rare it was not impossible.  Could the 1518 disease have likewise been somehow connected to a series of plagues that had previously ravaged the land?