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Mass Hysteria: The Dancing Plague of 1518




Imagine, you’re passing by the town square on your way to sell your crops and you happen to pass by a woman randomly dancing in the street, with no music or incentive at all, and by the next week you have now unwillingly become a part of it. This is exactly what happened in Strasbourg in 1518 when one day, out of the blue a woman named Frau Troffea went out into the streets and began dancing without any indication of stopping at any moment . Strasbourg records show that by the next week 30 more people had joined the dancing, however all seemingly involuntarily and appearing distressed and wounded by the constant dancing. The woman and the fellow dancers would only stop when they collapsed, remaining in the streets very evidently in pain, exhaustion and dehydration however as soon as they began to feel better they would immediately get back to dancing. The dancers were in obvious alarm as they could be heard screaming in agony, begging for whatever had compelled them to dance to stop and spare their souls and as their feet bled at the movement.

As days passed on more people began to join the dancing unwillingly and the "plague" continued to spread, it is estimated that around 400 people eventually joined the dancing mania, quickly growing into a full grown crisis. Furthermore, the town council had no idea as to how to manage this crisis, civic and religious leaders theorised that perhaps by joining in and encouraging the dancing it would eventually stop therefore arranging professional dancers to join in and musicians to accompany the dancing. This led to no avail as more and more of those that had begun dancing voluntarily found themselves unable to stop.

The situation was now getting dire as the summer heat worsened and the town was consumed by unnatural dancing. It is estimated that at the peak of that horrifying and unsettling event 15 people were dying daily from dancing. As the town council continued to investigate what could potentially have caused this mania, they came to a conclusion that it was a curse placed on Strasbourg by the Devil to their multitudinous sins. This led to the town making the decision of putting a stop to all "sinful" things in the town such as gambling houses, brothels and eventually going as far as banning dancing and music. Finally, the council turned to Saint Vitus, a saint that was known for curing illnesses and curses, they led the dances to his temple and the priests gave them shoes and apparel bathed in holy water which ultimately led to the slow but eventually diminishing of the "curse". This mania then became known as Saint Vitus' dance, with great thinkers of the time claiming it was caused by Saint Vitus as a punishment for the town's sins and especially for women's sins, believing that Frau Troffea had originally begun dancing to get away from doing house chores.



Nowadays most historians believe that this event was a clear case of mass hysteria, one that as seen through history, had happened a few different times all throughout Europe during the sixteenth century. This mass hysteria was at a time in which Europe was at a heightened fear of satanic cults as well as divine punishments. Between 1492 and 1511 the city of Strasbourg alone had gone through four different famines, in 1517 they had one more famine and in 1518 smallpox was on the rise. People were going insane, all being convinced that they were victims of a supernatural force that sought to punish them. This led historians analysing the events to believe the mass hysteria theory with symptoms such as; believing some specific event or thing has triggered those symptoms, no underlying health conditions, extreme fear of a nonexistent threat and combined emotional distraught among an isolated community. Many other historical events are believed to have been caused by mass hysteria such as the Salem witch trials, the Malaysian female possession in the 1980s and many more. Mass hysteria can happen with anyone and anywhere so beware of what you believe in…


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