Dancing Plague of 1518: 10 Hidden Facts About Mysterious Epidemic

Around 500 years ago, in the 16th century, the French city of Strasbourg (then the Holy Roman Empire-Germanic) was a busy commercial center. Europeans frequented all over their fairs. However, much of movement took place in July and August of 1518. But this time, not for economic reasons.

What the movement was like and how it started, is something you should know yourself. Let’s start the 10 hidden facts about Dancing plague of 1518.

1 What & How Did It Actually Happen?

Dancing Plague of 1518

Historians say that the Dancing Plague started with a woman. On July 14 or sometime next, she left the house and started dancing. The accounts of the time say that she danced incessantly for six days. In a week, another 34 people began to move uninterruptedly. It was the outbreak of one of the most curious cases in the medical history: the dance epidemic of 1518.

2 Where Did It Happen?

Dancing Plague of 1518

The plague conquered the streets of the French city and became a problem for the nobility and bourgeoisie, who consulted the doctors of the time.

After the exclusion of astrological and supernatural causes, experts concluded the problem as a natural one, caused by warm blood (for orthodox medicine at the time, a brain warming that would cause madness).

The treatment: dance, dance and dance – until the victims regain control of the body.

3 What Was The Scenario?

Halls and markets were opened to the victims. Professional dancers and musicians were called to keep them moving. All through the day and the night, people frantically chanted, non-stop. If the patient weakened, fainted, staggered or slowed down, the rhythm of the music was increased.

“In a grain market and a horse fair, the elites created spectacles as grotesque as Hieronymus Bosch’s canvases depicting human madness or the torments of hell,” says John Waller, a professor of medicine history at the State University of Michigan and author of books and other texts on this and other dance plagues.

4 Result Of The Outbreak

Dancing Plague of 1518

As it may sound, it was not the first case of registered dance plague. Before Strasbourg, Europe witnessed at least seven other outbreaks. Just that Strasbourg was larger. By the end of August, the toll of infected people went above 400. There were many who literally died of dancing.

5 Dance Plague & Their Connection With Saints

Dancing Plague of 1518

After the failure of first strategy, the authorities concluded the fact that the problem was not a natural disease, but a curse sent by a saint (for the thinking of the late Middle Ages, which persisted in the region, holy men not only helped Against certain evils, but could also use diseases against sinners). The chosen one was Vito, known for helping epileptics.

The association with the saint roots in other cases of dance plague. The first known was in Switzerland, when two outbreaks occurred in religious buildings in the 15th century. It occurred the day after that of St. Vito. By 1518, the association was already well known.

The victims went through a ceremony. They wore red shoes and the dancers were dispatched to a shrine dedicated to Vito in the mountains. They stayed around an altar with the images of the saint, the Virgin Mary and the Pope Marcelo. In the following weeks, the epidemic lost its force and the patients regained the control of their body.

It is difficult to believe that suddenly a group of people is affected by a plague of dance. Can these stories be trusted?

According to Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at James Cook University (Australia), “Danemomanias (as they are also called) are well documented and described in numerous European medieval chronicles that contained descriptions of witnesses. There is no doubt that they have occurred, but the question of relevance is: Why?

6 Causes & Theories

Several opinions come up about what took hundreds of people to act frantically across the streets of a French city in the early Modern Age.

One is that the problem would have had a chemical or biological cause. The main suspect was cereal rust, a type of fungus that attacks crops. According to Waller, this possibility was been discarded because the fungus causes violent convulsions and illusions, and these do not lead to coordinated movements lasting for days.

Another pointed cause was the Black Death. The dance was supposed as a response to the extreme pain caused by the disease. According to Robert Bartholomew, the problem here is that the date does not match those of outbreaks of the plague.

7 The Story Of Saints, Their Curses & The Epidemic

According to the historian, fear and anguish were widespread among the poorest people, who believed in any mystical rumor. In addition, the saint’s curse was already well known in Europe. “That Vito come to you” or “God give you are Vito” were curses known at the time.

Physical and mental pressure, says Waller, made people more susceptible to suggestions. When they saw people cursed by St. Vito, they also believed that they were cursed and united unconsciously. The action of the authorities, to encourage the dance of the victims in public places, made the epidemic only spread even more.

“The dance plague was a pathological expression of religious despair and fear,” says Waller. This explanation would apply to other cases. In 1374, for example, before the plague was attributed to St. Vito, the victims believed they had been cursed by the devil or St. John.

8 Bartholomew & Waller Hypotheses

Dancing Plague of 1518

St Bartholomew

Bartholomew had another vision. “In theory, many experts think that (danceromania) were a cathartic response repressed by stress associated with plagues, famine, and the black plague, especially the latter.

The sociologist says reports from the time claim that the dance plagues began with groups of pilgrims arriving in the hit cities. These processions were marked by shouts to saints and dances by the participants. Along the way, the villagers ended up joining the dance, which became frenzied by the fervent.

For Waller, there is a problem with this hypothesis: the victims would not show pleasure in their actions. They would beg other people and priests for help. The expressions on their faces were one of fear and despair.

9 The Plight Of The City

Dancing Plague of 1518

For the historian John Waller, it is necessary to understand the context of the time. The decades that preceded the epidemic were notably severe – even at a time when the population was fearsome and deprived. The years 1492, 1502 and 1511 saw great shortages. Strict winters, blistering summers, hail and snowstorms wiped out plantations. These disasters hit the poorest of the population. In addition, the landlords increased taxes aggressively and decreed various prohibitions to the population – such as fishing and hunting their possessions, which would appease hunger.

In 1516, a scorching summer wiped out the plantations and the price of bread went up. People spent their savings to pay for food. The winter that followed was strict and many people died of starvation. Diseases afflicted the people and were considered divine punishments. An account of the time tells that an orphanage was crowded with children of smallpox victims.

10 The Sudden End of Dancing Plague Of 1518

The dance plagues occurred during the final epoch of the middle ages and disappeared. Strasbourg was the last great case and by the end of that century they would have completely disappeared.

Why these outbreaks stopped at the end of the 16th century, is unclear. Since the belief in the curses of saints slowly weakened, it was sensible to assume that they could no longer arise.

For the historian, there is a lesson with the dance epidemic. As unnatural and unbelievable as the case may seem, it is a psychological phenomenon that reminds us of the ineffable strangeness of the human brain.

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