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Hysterical Beats

The Dancing Plague of 1518 is one epidemic we could've really gotten behind.
Brian Anderson
Κείμενο Brian Anderson

When Frau Troffea took to furiously dancing in the middle of a road in Strasbourg, France, in the summer of 1518, no one would join her. In a time of widespread hand wringing, confusion and fear over women succumbing to the cultish clutches of demonic possession, just try to imagine the risks this young lady ran by suddenly taking to a round-the-clock, public show of relentless and spirited writhing.

But no matter – Troffea just kept dancing. Nothing could stop her. She had the fever, damn it. And sure enough, in the span of a week more than 30 Strasbourgan peasants were spazzing alongside her in what would become one of the funkiest bits of mass sociogenic illness on record.

Maybe it was famine, coupled with the region’s wildly fluctuating weather and Biblical hail storms, that had folks falling to the Dancing Plague of 1518. Maybe it was from eating bread laced with ergot, a seizure- and hallucination-inducing psychotropic mold, that had Troffea and a growing band of street dancers locked in a delirious bootstomp. Maybe cutting loose in the streets was just a way to get one’s mind off poverty. The root cause of the Dancing Plague remains unclear, but there’s no denying that for whatever reason Troffea’s condition, which was part and parcel of a larger dancing epidemic that had been rippling out over England, Germany and the Netherlands in earnest since around 1370, pulled people into its orbit singing, shouting, flailing uncontrollably and indefatigably.

A month after Troffea’s outbreak-dance (sorry), a good 400 people were getting down in Strasbourg.

Read the rest at Motherboard.