Five hundred years ago, a bizarre “dancing plague” descended on the Alsatian city of Strasbourg. People were to be seen leaping and convulsing “in the public markets, in alleys, and in the streets”. The first victim, a Frau Troffea, was spotted on July 16, 1518. Within a few days, three dozen more citizens had been affected, and by the middle of August as many as 400 people had succumbed.
Many writhed and whirled for hours before collapsing from exhaustion and a number of deaths were recorded. Modern theories have touted the role of a rye-loving psychoactive fungus (unlikely) or an episode of mass psychological trauma brought on by a prolonged period of socio-economic stress (a modish, but feasible explanation).
Back in 1518, the chronicler Hieronymous Gebwiler had no doubts about the cause of the outbreak. God was sending a none-too-subtle sign that he was appalled by the city’s moral decay. This terrible illness, which cruelly mimicked and exaggerated the movements of dance, should convince the people to “keep some moderation” in their pastimes and to “omit shameful and blasphemous dances”. At the very least, they should “never dance in the wrong place and with inappropriate persons, as when they dance in cloisters and nunneries with monks and nuns”. If Strasbourg did not take heed of God’s warning, “for our obstinacy He will let us sink in a Red Sea of sins”.
Others looked beyond supernatural explanations. The city’s medical boffins suggested that overheated blood, perhaps resulting from an imbalance in the body’s humours, was sending victims into their frantic trances. Could the madness be vanquished sooner if the afflicted were forced to continue with their gyrations? To this end, two guildhalls were pressed into service and platforms were erected in the horse and grain markets. Troops were deployed and the infected were spurred on by the sound of pipes and drums.
As one might expect, the results were disastrous. Nobody was cured and it became apparent that merely watching the diseased in their frenzied state was enough to spread the mania among the populace. Consequently, all music was banned from Strasbourg until Michaelmas, though exceptions were made for the weddings and private Masses of the city’s more well-heeled families. Even they, however, were only permitted to listen to soothing stringed instruments and “on their conscience, not to use tambourines and drums”.
It was time to prescribe piety. All preachers were to “speak out publicly from their pulpits, praying to God and pleading that he send His grace and mercy to us”. Masses were celebrated and a moral cleansing of the city was undertaken: prostitutes, gamblers, drunkards and hooligans were to be banished. Finally, a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Vitus in the nearby Vosges mountains was arranged. Holy oil and water were dispensed and, so the chronicles insist, all was soon well.
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