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Dance to the Death: A Look into the Dancing Plague of 1518

Five centuries have passed, yet the dancing plague remains a mystery. In the heart of Strasbourg and in the landscape of the Renaissance, a city in the Holy Roman Empire, now in France, the Dancing Plague of 1518 took place, where hundreds of citizens danced uncontrollably and involuntarily for days.

The hysteria kicked off in July 1518 when a woman known as  Frau Troffea began to dance silently on the street and was unable to stop and continued to experience this mania for about four to six days. Authorities transported her in a wagon 30 miles to Saverne in hopes of curing her at the shrine of Vitus, who was believed to have cursed her but the people who had witnessed this incident began mimicking her. The incident was also called St. Vitus' Dance or Choreomania.

This term is derived from the Greek terms, choros (dance) and mania (madness). As more citizens got affected by this plague, the privy council became more desperate to control it and hence attempted a bizarre treatment to solve the problem by letting those affected continue their dance and instructed carpenters and tanners to transform guild halls into temporary dance floors and by employing musicians to keep the dancers moving. However, this plan went awry as onlookers interpreted the frenzied dance as a display of Saint Vitus' fury, drawing more people into the mania and within a month, four hundred citizens fell victim, worried the council then proceeded to dismantle the stages that were built and also banned public dancing and music to contain the outbreak, except for limited occasions with stringed instruments.

The council commanded the severely affected individuals to be gathered into wagons and transported them on a three-day journey to the shrine of Saint Vitus, where Frau Troffea had been healed. Priests placed the victims underneath a wooden carving of Vitus and they placed small crosses and red shoes on them, sprinkling their shoes with holy water and marking them with crosses of consecrated oil crosses and conducted this ceremony amidst thick incense and Latin chants to yield the intended outcome. News spread to Strasbourg, prompting more to be sent to Saverne seeking forgiveness from Vitus and within a week, the flow of those suffering dwindled significantly. The dancing plague persisted for about a month, from mid-July to late August or early September before stopping as mysteriously as it started. At its peak, up to fifteen deaths occurred daily. The total toll remains uncertain, but if the reported daily death rate held true, it might have been in the hundreds.

 Unravelling Historical And Contemporary Theories and Psychological Perspectives

There is an ongoing debate on the cause of the dancing plague and various theories have been put forward. The main theory states that the dancing plague was a curse from St. Vitus. Some thought it was a natural medical phenomenon but the doctors were unable to explain it. Paracelsus, a Swiss physician who studied the outbreak stated that Frau Troffea started

dancing to embarrass her husband and suggested that the other women also did it to embarrass their husbands however this explanation is impossible because the dancing plague did not only affect women but it also had an effect on people of all ages, including children. 

There are several contemporary theories about the dancing plague, for example, one prominent theory suggests that it might have been because of food poisoning that was caused by ergot, a kind of fungus that can be found in bread, which is known to cause hallucinations, compulsive twitching and jerking movements. The people of Strasbourg might have been affected by this, hence potentially causing their uncontrollable dancing and their inability to stop. While this theory holds merit for various reasons like bread being a common food for people at that time, many historians still do not accept this theory and prefer another contemporary theory that this was a mass psychogenic illness brought on by a combination of stress and superstition.

Psychologists think they can explain this through a combination of two phenomenons, Dissociative Trance Disorder and Social Contagion. Dissociative Trances could have been responsible for the dancing and Social Cognition could explain how it spread. DTD is when people experience dissociation as a trance. It is hard to study from the low number of documented cases what exactly goes on in people's brains during a DTD trance but from people who have voluntarily entered a trance state, we get to know that trances tend to involve different patterns of activity in the brain like a shift from more activity in the analytical left hemisphere to the more experiential right one this may explain why the dancers felt they were compelled to act, rather than being in control of their own bodies and actions and also since the body releases natural opioids during trances, this can explain how dancers enduring intense pain managed to continue. Trance experiences are shaped by cultural beliefs and Dissociative trances are also triggered by trauma so the historical outbreaks of dancing plagues in harsh times like the floods, Black Death, Syphilis and other problems that were present then show how trauma might have contributed to this. People are also more susceptible to trance states if they expect them. People's behaviours can influence each other significantly. This is often known as behavioural contagion or social contagion and it can extend to various aspects of life like the spread of terrible behaviours by contagion is well documented like self-hatred or violence towards others. Some believe that the dancing plague might have been a result of this contagion effect. Seeing others in their dancing trance, combined with the cultural fear of dancing plagues, was enough for others to manifest their trauma in a dissociated dance, too. 

Impact On Art and Literature 

The dancing plague had a significant impact on European culture. Like other plagues, it greatly affected the notions of death and religion. It became a source of inspiration for many great works of art and literature. One of the paintings on the dancing plague that is well appreciated is Hans Holbein The Younger's painting ‘The Dance of Death’ which depicts a skeleton leading people in a frantic dance this can be seen as an allegory for the dance of death and can also be seen as a symbol for the inevitability of death. He has also written a book with the same title. Another artist, the well-known Peter Breughel also did a drawing  in 1564 depicting sufferers of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year inspiring various others like Hendrick Hondius who did an engraving based on Breughel's drawing. The novella “The Dance of Death” by August Strindberg is a powerful critique of mass hysteria and the dangers of fanaticism and tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with the dancing plague and is convinced that he would be the one to cure it.  

While there are various theories surrounding the dancing plague , the true causes remain uncertain and it continues to be a mystery. The enigma that is the dancing plague continues to be a source of inspiration for artists. In 2013 , The Royal Ballet in London presented a performance based on this enigma , a reminder of the intrigue it  holds on many even today. The dancing plague holds a mirror to our own struggles against daily inexplicable challenges that haunt us. We should confront these challenges and dance with our demons ,not succumb to them.

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