How the Dancing Plague of 1518 Worked


Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff You Missed in History Class" from HowStuffWorks.com.

Candace: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keener, joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.

Katie: Hello, Candace.

Candace: Hi, Katie. If you haven't already seen it, the Discovery Channel has a new show called "Monsters Inside Me" and it's about parasites and other strange and eerie things that get inside the human body and wreak havoc. And Katie, as always, I am so glad for your historical expertise, but also today especially your health expertise because I've been doing a lot of research on different moments in history where people and the places they live in have been affected by parasites and disease and plague. And it's important to understand that if you have some sort of say parasitic infection, it affects not only your physical well-being, but your mental well-being, too.

Katie: And we are going to talk a little bit about contagion, actually. And we are going to lead in with an email from the reader who requested this topic.

Candace: And I'm not going to read the entire email, like I usually do, because he is very knowledgeable and if I read it, I would give away the whole story. But I would like to thank Ian for his recommendation of our discussion, the Dancing Plague of 1518.

Katie: And if it sounds pretty cool, that's because it is, unless, of course, you had the Dancing Plague. But in July of 1518, there was a woman named Frau Troffea, we think that's how you say it, I'm not sure actually. And she was in Strasbourg, France and all of a sudden, she basically walked out in the middle of the street and started dancing and she didn't stop.

Candace: No. And this is centuries before Lady GaGa so of course people are wondering what is causing this woman to dance, just dance.

Katie: Not disco fever.

Candace: No.

Katie: And it went on for, they say, between four and six days. And by the end of the week, a whole bunch of other people had also caught this mysterious dancing ailment.

Candace: And if you read accounts of the Dancing Plague of 1518, it sounds almost like a fable because the town authorities thought that the best way to cure people of the dancing fever was to encourage them to keep dancing and not stop. And again, we are giggling because it is so ludicrous. They actually erected a special stage, a little platform, for them to dance on. And they hired musicians to come in and they got professional dancers to dance along side them to help pep them up and prop them up when they got fatigued. And it turned out to be very serious because people became so tired from dancing that there were heart attacks and strokes and people just dropping out due to exhaustion.

Katie: It reminds me of the dance-a-thon episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But these people were not happy about the dancing. Like you would think of them having a grand old time with their disco fever, but they apparently were really afraid and really desperate and couldn't stop. It wasn't a voluntary kind of thing.

Candace: It was almost like some sort of force inside them was compelling them to flail about with no control over their limbs. And we have descriptions of this particular dancing plague. And there had been plagues noted before, but none of which were cited in historical records as specifically and with as many details as this one. And we know from city council records, doctors' observations and sermons, as well as a few other sources that these people had grimaces on their faces, their limbs were flailing about wildly, their facial expressions seemed uncontrolled and they were crying out invoking God's name for help and also the name of Vitus, St. Vitus.

Katie: And St. Vitus was a real person. He was martyred in 303 A.D. and the legend goes that if someone provoked his wrath, according to a Discovery News article we were reading, that he would send down plagues and force people to dance. And there really is such a thing called St. Vitus's dance. It's actually known as, I think, Sydenham's chorea, and it's caused by a streptococcus bacteria that causes rheumatic fever and basically puts people into convulsions. Your arms and legs and torso will all twist and contort without your control.

Candace: And people still get this today. The most susceptible to the chorea are girls between the ages of 5 and 15 who live in developing countries.

Katie: So was this St. Vitus's dance or was there something else that was causing this dancing fever?

Candace: There have been a lot of theories proposed and in the 1950s, Eugene Backman suggested that the dancers had ergot poisoning. And you may recall from an earlier podcast when we talked about the Salem Witch Trials that ergot is a type of mold that grows on grain. And even after that grain has been processed and ground and made into bread, it still affects people who ingest it. So he was suggesting that they had ergot poisoning. But later, scholars came along and said no, that's not exactly right because the type of effects that ergot has are similar to LSD so these people wouldn't be flailing around, they would be in trance like states.

Katie: They would be tripping and also maybe contorting, but nothing like these actual dance movements.

Candace: No, no, for sure. And then Robert Bartholomew later proposed that it was a sociological phenomenon and the dancers were members of some sort of ritualized group and this is how they express themselves.

Katie: But I don't think anyone gives much credence to that view because, again, these people were really unhappy about what was happening and they were dropping dead.

Candace: Right, right. People kept pointing back to the fact that, no, they looked as though they were dancing against their will, even though they couldn't stop.

Katie: So we have a different historian who is coming out with a book, I believe in September, called A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, and his name is John Waller. And his theory is that it was a mass psychogenic illness.

Candace: And Waller has written before about the Dancing Plague and he seems to be one of the most cited experts about the Dancing Plague of 1518. I know that all of the sources that I consulted, or most of them I should say, mentioned his name in some way, whether he was writing the article or he was an expert consultant. But his name is sort of synonymous with this Dancing Plague because he proposed what seems to be the likeliest explanation for the madness.

Katie: It was group beliefs turning into collective action, basically is the idea behind it. And to put things in context, during that time, a lot was going on in medieval Europe, including lots and lots of famines, lots of deaths that followed. And psychologically, the people of the time were not in a good mindset.

Candace: No. Many were suffering from malnutrition and people had been reduced to begging in the streets. And it was very hard to cope as a community, one could imagine, to see your neighbors dying.

Katie: And basically what happens with that kind of thing is one person gets this - it's also known as mass hysteria, but one person gets the belief and it's sort of transmitted through the community, much like a virus would be. You have to think of it as sort of a physical epidemic and it goes from person to person as everyone buys into that collective conscious.

Candace: And if you're looking for some other examples of this type of contagion, there are plenty out there.

Katie: There's the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962, which is what most people I think talk about when they are talking about mass hysteria, which is when a bunch of girls at a boarding school started laughing and couldn't stop for days and it just kept going and going. And it does seem to be something that happens more often to girls in the more recent examples. There was also another on in Chalco, Mexico where 600 girls at a boarding school came down with the same mass hysteria. Epidemic hysteria affects men as well, though. There is a phenomenon known as Koro, which affects people in Asia and Africa where the men think that someone has stolen their genitalia. And these penis thieves can be just people who say come up to you on the bus or in the street and maybe bump up against you or ask directions to a place that doesn't exist. And then the men report feeling their genitalia either shrink or disappear inside themselves and they will start yelling about the penis thief. And actually several people have been murdered for the supposed penis thievery! And it's something they can't prove because you'll go to a doctor and, of course, someone's penis is still there because this is a psychological kind of thing, but it has really serious implications because, again, several people have been killed. In 2001, in Nigeria, there were at least 12 murders of suspected penis thieves.

Candace: And while these cases can be difficult to study without empirical evidence like you would get from perhaps studying a parasite, they shouldn't be taken lightly. I mean, they may be interesting to listen to. I know I was certainly fascinated by -

Katie: The penis thieves.

Candace: Exactly. And it's been written up in everything from medical journals to I think you had an article from Harper's even.

Katie: Yeah.

Candace: It's really gripping, but you can see how history plays into these cases of mass hysteria. For instance, during times of war, like during the time of the Cold War when people feared some sort of retaliation, they would start smelling noxious fumes around them, especially in public places. And people would begin to act very strangely. Groups of people would begin fainting or they would begin having headaches. And to study mass hysteria in conjunction with history, I think is to more fully understand the minds of the people who were living in that moment.

Katie: And culture definitely plays a part into it. One article was saying that they should be called sociogenic illnesses because without the culture, the illness doesn't exist. So without those people in that place in history, it doesn't exist. You know, we'll talk about say body dysmorphic disorder in the United States, but if you are not in a westernized country that might not be something that you are worrying about because that seed of fear was never planted; whereas, it would never occur to one of us to worry that our breasts were going to disappear. But if you lived in another place, in a different culture, that would be the kind of thing that you would worry about.

Candace: So I hope that these insights into the sociological, psychological, neurological, biological - am I missing anything?

Katie: Parasitical.

Candace: Parasitical, historical - and I forgot where I was going with that. So all of those lists of -icals, if you will.

Katie: Yes, all those -icals.

Candace: To put it in a non-academic way. But they do, like Katie said, influence the way that we conceive of history. And they make something like the very mysterious Dancing Plague of 1518 into an actual thing that we can study and try to understand.

Katie: And if you want to learn more about the Dancing Plague of 1518, as well as other instances of mass hysteria and where history and medicine come together, take a look at our blog post on the home page at HowStuffWorks.com.

Candace: And don't forget to check out Monsters Inside Me on the Discovery Channel Wednesdays at 9:00.

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