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Tag Archives: Ergot
I’m by no means an expert on 16th century France, but I’d imagine it would involve an unhygienic population, rampant disease, chickens running everywhere, cheese and wine. Now that I think about it, it’s probably not that different from modern day France, only with less chickens and more antibiotics.
What I wouldn’t have thought of was Martha and the Vandellas. I’ll bet you didn’t either. But in 1518 in Strasbourg, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the streets. Not for just a few hours, either. According to reports, she danced for four to six days, stopping only when she collapsed from exhaustion. That’s one serious case of boogie fever.
Worse yet, others began to join her. After a week there were thirty three other dancers and after a month, an unbelievable four hundred people had joined in the involuntary rave. Don’t think of it as college night at the pub, these people were writhing and foaming at the mouth, screaming or making animal noises and rolling in the dirt. Most of the people who were afflicted died of exhaustion, starvation or stroke.
Disturbingly, this was not an isolated incident. Outbreaks of dancing mania were reported throughout Europe as early as the 7th century and continued through the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years of sporadic outbreaks of dancing leading to death. Let that sink in for a moment.
A German account from 1278 featured 200 people dancing on a bridge so frenetically that it collapsed, killing many participants. Survivors were treated at a nearly chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, giving rise to the name St. Vitus’ Dance for the strange phenomenon. Other theories regarding the origin of dancing mania include epilepsy, pagan rituals, ergot poisoning and collective mass hysteria, although all of these explanations are problematic.
An Italian variant was known as tarantism, as victims were supposed to have been bitten by a tarantula wolf spider. Tarantism is also unique in that those afflicted were not out of control. They usually followed a pattern of dancing throughout the day, but stopped at midday to rest and bathe, only to resume dancing until sunset. They then stopped again to eat a light meal and sleep until sunrise, a pattern that could go on for weeks. Cases of tarantism in southern Italy have been reported up through 1959, although tests on spiders in the region have virtually disproved the theory that spiders were responsible.
The bottom line is, no one quite knows what caused the dancing plagues or why they stopped. If you’ve ever been to a rave, you might be tempted to say they are still with us, they just result in fewer deaths.