What would you think if a group of people suddenly began to dance in droves all around you? Today, the world would call that a flash mob and think nothing of it. In the Middle Ages, it would’ve most likely been considered the result of witchcraft, though in some cases it was attributed to plague. On chapter 22 of ORIGINS, we look into St. Vitus’s Dance and other weird plagues.
If you had told me in 1990 when I was trying out for my dance and drill team that one day adults would perform similar choreographed routines in shopping malls and food courts called “Flash Mobs”, I would have told you that your idea sucked. Yet somehow, flash mobs rose to the top of the list much in the same way that swing dance re-popularized with Gen Xers after Newsies and the craze known as Dancing with the Stars found a home in our hearts as we watch fame and plain become one. What is it about dancing that connects us on levels that nothing else can? It shapes us, it defines each generation from the Charleston of the Roaring 20s to the 1950s Twist, to the fame of the 1960s classics such as the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, and the Funky Chicken. The 80s brought Kevin Bacon and Footloose into everyone’s home. If you haven’t seen this one, you must. It’s a classic—like Grease with John Travolta—and you should know the story or else risk embarrassment during cocktail parties amongst strangers. Where am I going with this, you ask? As a regular listener, you already know this is not a podcast of history alone. There must be a supernatural connection to the foot bone (connected to the leg bone…) for it to stand ground on ORIGINS. What if I told you that a dancing plague literally forced people to dance themselves to death? Your first thought, as was mine, would probably be witchcraft. After all, the event took place in Europe during the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. The Dancing Plague involved thousands of people at a time in some cases, and truthfully should be credited as the world’s first and largest flash mob.
Picture this: Strasbourg, France, 1518. A young woman with dark hair and eyes strolled the streets on a lovely July afternoon. The sky was clear, with cool air in the mid-seventies blowing against her covered skin. Frau Troffea, a woman who kept to herself, peered into the Rhine River Canal at the water reflecting the gothic architecture of the Notre-Dame. It could’ve been any summer day, one that would’ve slipped through the pages of time unnoticed. Until the Frau began to sway. It was subtle at first, merely her hips swinging as she passed over a stone bridge to reach the town square. Here she stopped, and her gentle swaying became a gradual swirling. Her arms rose and painted arcs in the air then lifted above her head, fanning out to both sides. A few pedestrians took notice, side-glancing this inappropriate public behavior. They continued on their way and did nothing. The Frau’s movements became erratic and grew larger, drawing attention to her twirling and shaking in the streets of Strasbourg. For a week, the Frau did nothing but dance, said nothing, and ignored everyone as if she were bewitched. Actually, the experience could’ve been labeled as witchcraft and never earned its own page on Wikipedia if nothing had changed. But then the impossible happened: the world’s first flash mob.
For no apparent reason, someone joined Frau Troffea in her silent dance. Then another. And another, until the square was packed with strangers behaving strangely. Three dozen Strasbourg-eneze danced alongside the Frau in a flash mob to shame all those that followed. Crowds gathered at first, pointing and watching the strangers intimately perform. Then after a few weeks, their glee turned to fear when the first person fell over dead. What was causing this dance to take over people so strongly that they were unable to use their senses to stop; that they were actually dancing themselves to death, out of control and not of sound mind? Naturally, the social media gossip began (hey, there’s nothing new under the sun) and spread like wildfire. “Witchcraft.” “Heresy.” “Plague.” The last whisper caught the ears and attention of the town. Plague. What if this were a dancing plague? It wasn’t logical, but neither was witchcraft. And people were dying in the streets. Something needed to be blamed for this problem.
The dancing epidemic continued and by August, nearly 400 people had danced themselves to death. The cause was determined to be “hot blood” and physicians stated the cure was to dance the fever away. Desperate to speed the process along, a stage was constructed, and professional dancers hired to accompany the flash mob. A band played. And like flies, one by one the dancers dropped from exhaustion and heat and fatigue, some even dying from strokes and heart attacks; others simply unable to move as the plague fled their bodies. By September, the town was fed up, and the dancers were forcibly removed to pray for absolution on a nearby mountaintop shrine.
As crazy as this sounds, it really happened. There are documents to prove the flash mob of Strasbourg took place alongside dance fever mania in places like Switzerland, Holland, and neighboring Germany. What could’ve caused this craze? No one knows for sure, but the people of 1518, who were under the stress of plague and famine which they’d attributed to the cursing of St. Vitus, chocked this one up to the Saint too. St. Vitus was deemed the patron saint of dancers and entertainers, and the patron of epileptics. Some have claimed that the hysteria based in real fears altered the mindset of the weak, whose herd mentality followed the swaying hips of one Frau Troffea. Others claim they were part of a religious cult, and after people like David Koresh and the Heaven’s Gate have graced this planet with their ideology, this claim makes good sense. The boring explanation is that they ate moldy bread and hallucinated, though I don’t see how this mold could’ve affected them for a month. I’m sticking with the cursed Saint theory myself.
Mob mentality is a powerful thing and can make even the most intelligent, grounded person become a psycho. Cults are extremely controlling and sneak into a person’s life through theories that fill an unanswered question inside of the person that needs answering. The first way to determine if you’ve fallen victim to a cult mentality is simple. Ask yourself: do I look like everyone else in this group? I’m not talking about uniforms or even similarities with purpose (like keeping your hair short in the military). I’m talking about wearing identical clothes, having identical hairstyles, and only having access to those in the group. If you look around your circle of influence, which happens to remain in a stationary location, and you look just like Jane or Jack who looks just like Suzy or Bill…you might be in a cult. Just saying.
But not all weird phenomena are cultic in nature. Perhaps in the case of the Strasbourg Flash Mob it had something to do with the water. In 1374, nearly 150 years earlier, dozens of villages situated along the Rhine River (the same River Frau Troffea crossed) fell victim to choreomania, a dancing plague. Jerking and twisting and contorting their bodies, hundreds of villagers danced on bloodied feet without drinking or eating, just like in Strasbourg. It could’ve been brain-eating amoeba that swept through the warm summer waters and plagued the people in 1374 and 1518. But it’s more fun to believe a Saint cursed them and forced them to dance themselves to death, isn’t it?
Dancing isn’t the only killer when performed in excess. Other bizarre plagues have struck and killed in our history’s past. In 1962 a Laughter Epidemic exploded in the Bukoba region of Tanganyika. The all-girls boarding school seems like the perfect place for excessive, uncontrollable laughter. If you’ve ever been around teenage girls, they pretty much can cry or laugh for no apparent reason for a very long time. However, 95 girls started laughing and couldn’t stop. For two months. The laughing plague spread until the laughter wasn’t funny anymore. In fact, the laughter morphed into mania. The girls would cry and then grow anxious, afraid they were being chased until they moved from panic to hysteria. I guess laughter isn’t always a good medicine. This Laughing Epidemic spread to any nearby village the girls visited and to anyone who came into contact with the infected girls. They too were struck with laughter lasting for a few hours to up to 16 days.
In France, a plague known as Dromomania struck in the late 1880s through the early 1900s. Known as a Pathological Tourism, it is an uncontrolled need to travel. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to. One man, in fact, travelled so much on many epic journeys that upon his return he was hospitalized for exhaustion, his mind in a mental fuzz with no recollection of where he’d been or how long he’d been gone.
One epidemic, also prone to pass the boredom of the Middle Ages, involved the infected to meow like a cat. Known as Motor Hysteria, it infected nuns from the 1400s through the late 1700s. This psychogenic illness showed itself in mannerisms reflecting demon possession, inappropriate sexual behavior, and of course, the meowing of the cats, to include tree climbing and using their nails as claws to tear into things. While priests were called in to perform exorcisms in many cases, other times the nuns were tried and convicted (aka killed) as witches. This one actually makes the most sense, with the exception of the cat part. Nuneries were not good places in this day and age. Most girls went unwillingly and were forced to practice trance and possession tied into religious teaching. No wonder these nuns behaved badly.
So whether it’s dancing, trancing, or just plain laughing, anything in excess could be bad for you. The next time you see a flash mob while you’re trying to enjoy your chicken sandwich, I bet you’ll look at it in a whole new light, thanks to me. And if you think something long enough, it just might become true.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle. Please rate and subscribe to ORIGINS. It’s your greatest compliment. Finally, stick around for a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “Turning” a post-apocalyptic short through the eyes of a man turning into a zombie.
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