Tips&TricksMedieval mystery. Dancing epidemic that led to hundreds of deaths remains unsolved

Medieval mystery. Dancing epidemic that led to hundreds of deaths remains unsolved

Mysterious dancing epidemic.
Mysterious dancing epidemic.
Images source: © Wikipedia | Pieter Bruegel

10:07 AM EST, December 29, 2023

This curious historical occurrence began with a single woman stationed in the city's core who inexplicably burst into a dance. There was no music playing, no celebration to speak of. She danced relentlessly for days on end, unreachable to those around her.

This strange affliction soon rippled through the city, with as many as 400 people, unable to stop dancing, being affected quickly. Exhaustion claimed the lives of some. What was the root cause of this perplexing epidemic? Join us as we explore one of history's most baffling illnesses.

The dance epidemic: An unresolved enigma from the past

A peculiar episode transpired in the picturesque city of Strasbourg in July 1518. A woman known as Frau Troffea began to dance in the public square. By today's standards, this might not be particularly remarkable, yet in the strictly regulated societal context of the time, such a deviation from the norm was perceived as scandalous.

Occurring at the city's very heart with no ongoing festivity and absent musical accompaniment, the woman entered a dance-induced trance, removing herself from worldly interactions. After dancing nonstop for 48 hours, she eventually collapsed from exhaustion and was taken for medical care. A particular physician conjectured that Troffea's incessant dancing was a form of rebellion against her husband.

Yet, her solitary nonconformity was merely the start, witnessing a subsequent spread of this eerie dancing disorder to others who began to move in what appeared to be a trance-like state. No attempts to rouse them yielded success. The epidemic reportedly infected around 400 people, with many succumbing to exhaustion. Medical professionals were at a loss regarding its cause. Some reports propose the likely involvement of ergot, a hallucinogenic-fungi-infested plant common in the fields where most cases were reported.

A case not unique in history

Eerily similar incidents were reported as early as 1021-1022 in Kölbigk and, two hundred years later, again in Erfurt and Maastricht. The etiology of this epidemic remains elusive. Jennifer Wright, author of "What Doesn't Kill Us: The Greatest Plagues in Human History," suggests societal stress, famine, and an array of faith-related restrictions as potential contributors to the ensuing mass psychosis.

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