The Plague That Made People Dance Themselves to Death


[MUSIC PLAYING] Medieval Europe had no shortages
of super-deadly disease outbreaks that could wipe
out a chunk of the population without much of an effort. But none of them
were quite as fun as the bizarre case of Frau
Troffea and the dancing plague that had upwards of 400
people compulsively dancing in the streets, some
even to their deaths. Today, we’re going to examine
the plague that made people dance themselves to death. But before we do that, be
sure to subscribe to the Weird History channel and let
us know what diseases you’re most afraid of catching. All right, now limber up
because here is the Coachella of medieval afflictions. And a 1, and a 2, and a 3. Our story begins on a
hot July day in 1518, when German housewife
Frau Troffea stepped out of her home in Strasbourg and
started to get down to a boogie that no one else could hear. She danced in the streets
of her small town all day, to the embarrassment of her
husband, who was not himself equally compelled
to dance in any way. Frau stopped dancing long
enough for a few hours of restless sleep before
waking the next day and tapping her
toes bloody again. A crowd began to form around
this seemingly insane woman dancing to absolutely nothing,
with bruised and bloody feet. What a fun little
street performance, the villagers must have thought,
as this poor woman danced herself to very possible death. Soon, however, she wasn’t alone. Frau formed a
whole dance troupe, with roughly 30 others
catching the jitterbug and joining her in a
spontaneous dance-off. [MUSIC PLAYING] Frau soon had a full
marching band worth of people dancing with her. The dancing mania, as it
was eventually labeled, spread to more
people in Strasbourg, with estimates as
high as 400 people involuntarily joining
her dance crew. It quickly grew into
a full-grown crisis that the city council had
no clue how to manage. They don’t teach you how
to handle spontaneous raves and crisis management
courses at business school. The only clear thing
they could agree on was these groovy kids were
not having a groovy time. Dancers were in obvious
pain, screaming in agony and begging for mercy from
whatever bizarre affliction they were suffering from. As the summer stretched on
and the temperatures rose, as many as 15 people
a day were dying from dancing in the streets. Jeez, David Bowie and Mick
Jagger made it look so fun. [MUSIC – DAVIE
BOWIE, MICK JAGGER, “DANCING IN THE STREET”] (SINGING) Dancing in the street. Oh, oh. Fresh out of ideas on how to
handle this makeshift problem themselves, the city council
consulted with local physicians to diagnose the problem
and shut it down for good. After ruling out the
standard astrological causes and supernatural
causes, the doctor diagnosed the exhausted
dancing maniacs with a probable case
of hot blood, which sounds like a diagnosis
from the band Foreigner. But really, the theory
was that hot blood was a problem with the
balance in a person’s humors. In a case of hot
blood, doctors believed the brain would overheat, which
in turn would cause madness. The typical remedy,
it’s the 1500s. So if you guessed bloodletting,
you guessed right. However, given these
victims specific inability to voluntarily stop moving,
physically removing any blood, regardless of temperature,
wasn’t a feasible course to take. So unlike the town
in Footloose, they prescribed even more dancing. They hired musicians to get
the crowd hyped and brought in extras to mix up the
energy of this lame party, hoping of burning out the
dancers, but to no avail. This cure, like a poorly
chaperoned prom, was a failure and actually
exasperated the problem. [MUSIC PLAYING] As the exhausted
dancers were beginning to stumble and slow
down, the musicians didn’t think to play the slow
jams and cool the room off. Instead, they sped up the
tempo, causing the townspeople to move faster with the music. You can’t play a banger and
not expect the crowd to react, DJ Medieval Guy. Not only did these
party beats fail to stop the sporadic
dancing, but it also attracted volunteer booty
shakers to the square, as passers-bys
joined in on what was being misperceived as “fun.” The city council realized
that having this giant block party to burn out the afflicted
wasn’t the best solution to this problem. Clearly, these
poor dancing queens were not suffering
from hot blood. No, no, it was obviously a curse
on the city, sent as a warning to repent for their sins
or suffer the consequences. [MUSIC PLAYING] Now, acting like the
town in Footloose, the police of
medieval Europe liked to run a pretty tight ship
to keep the sinners at bay. It’s obscene, rock
and roll music. If this dancing
mania was a curse, sin would have to be reigned in
within the walls of Strasbourg. Gambling houses, gone. Brothels, please,
not in this city. We hear you loud
and clear, saints who have cursed
our town with dance as a punishment for the
gambling and prostitution. The city also gathered
up the, ah, loose people and banished them from the city. 1518 was a poor time to
have a bad reputation– Shame. –in Strasbourg. Shame. They even tried to send
gifts to the saints by donating a 100-pound
candle to the cathedral. One candle just didn’t cut it. And the dancing plague
kept on hustling. [MUSIC PLAYING] You knew it was coming. They went full Footloose. The town took the drastic
step of outlawing dance, tacking on a fine
of 30 shillings for anyone caught moving
their hips to a beat. They also banned music, with
the exception of string music for weddings. “But they are on
their conscience not to use tambourines
and drums,” the municipal archive reported. Drums were the most dangerous
instrument since they allegedly triggered the strange epidemic. Please, everybody knows the
most dangerous instrument is the sax. It oozes sexiness, really
riles up the saints. In spite of all of Strasburg’s
best efforts and bad gifts, the epidemic continued. But would you believe this
was not the first dancing mania that struck Europe. In 1374 a dancing outbreak
hit the city of Aachen and quickly spread
across the Rhine Valley. This was less of a free-for-all
mosh pit of wild dancing and more of a
hands-across-America situation. Dancers afflicted
held hands in a circle and danced for hours
together, in wild delirium, until at length they
fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. Sounds like the city
of Aachen was just collectively tripping balls. Aachen officials disagreed. They chalked this up to your
standard demonic possession. Exorcists were brought in
to bathe the dance circles with holy water, while
shouting incantations in the faces of the possessed. Honestly, it sounds like Aachen
just didn’t know what to do. But, of course,
when all else fails, you can always blame the women. [MUSIC PLAYING] In 1526, around 10 years after
the strange dancing phenomena had tired itself out,
Renaissance physician Paracelsus visited
Strasbourg for a post-mortem, and to diagnose the F in
their what the fuck situation. According to Paracelsus
forced natural dancing was an involuntary
physical response, like a reflex, that
could be caused if certain parts of the
body were manipulated. But because this was
1526, for good measure he also blamed the women. He scrutinized the role
of our hero Frau Troffea and saw her as a
rebellious woman, who set off a dancing
mania in order to avoid doing a
house chore or two. Paracelsus claimed, right
before she started dancing, her husband had asked
her to do something she didn’t want to do. This would make
sense as a woman. And women specifically
are famously known to dance through the
night, feet bleeding, in order to avoid
a little housework. It sounds a little
presumptuous of Paracelsus to assume the task
he asked her to do had not been to start dancing,
and don’t stop till I say so. [MUSIC PLAYING] As dancers continued to
wave their hands in the air like they very, very
much did not care, the city continued
to search for a cure for these poor souls,
AT one point turning to the medieval cure-all,
pray to Saint Vitus, who had been martyred as a
child in the year 303 on the orders of emperors
Diocletian and Maximilian. His tormentors tossed
him into a cauldron of boiling lead and tar. And tossed this lead and tar
marinated child to a lion. So cruel. And isn’t the lion
overkill at that point? Well, legend has it
Vitus emerged unharmed from the cauldron. And the hungry lion
simply licked Vitus’s yummy metallic-scented hands. He was OK. And he gained a lion friend. That guy earned his sainthood. Saint Vitus had a reputation for
healing illnesses, particularly ones with trembling limbs. So you could see why the city
of Strasbourg prayed to this guy for an assist. [MUSIC PLAYING] Running out of ideas for how
to stop this dancing plague, the city gave an
unconventional method a shot. Taking a big swing,
they piled all of those inflicted with
dancing fever onto wagons and carted them up a mountain
to Saint Vitus, a shrine to the saint. Dancers continued to
fall on the altar. So the priest gave
a mass over them and handed out little
crosses and red shoes, which had been
blessed with holy oil on both the tops and the soles. The red holy-soaked shoes
apparently worked like a charm. Hallelujah! The affliction seemed to break. And the dancing parties
slowly came to an end. Most of the dancers regain
control of their bodies. The time of the
dancing mania soon became known as
Saint Vitus’s dance, either because the saint
had cured the dancers or caused the whole thing. Modern experts don’t all
agree on what exactly caused the 1518 outbreak. It’s been suggested by
some that a possible grain poisoning, which is known
to cause convulsions, could be the culprit. That wouldn’t account for
the tight choreography, which was described less
as random convulsing and more like
coordinated movement. Others suggested a
group case of epilepsy or other medical conditions,
which wouldn’t explain, of course, how the mania became
contagious since epilepsy is not something you can catch. And if your mind was floating
towards weird dance cult, you are not alone. One theory out there is
this was all the work of the secret members
of a heretical cult that emerged every decade
to revel in public. This, of course, fails to
connect how the dancing seemed to spread amongst
the people since it was clear the dancers were in
complete agony and many died. And at a time when Europe
was in a heightened alertness for suspected
heretic cult antics, it’s unlikely this one simply
slipped under the radar. The likely cause of the dance
party that couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop, was a classic
case of mass hysteria. [MUSIC PLAYING] To say things in
Strasbourg in 1518 had been pretty bleak
would be an understatement. The city suffered
from not one, not two, but four serious famines
between 1492 and 1511. In 1516, food
prices shot way up. And in 1517, a fifth famine
killed countless people. One chronicler labeled
it “the bad year.” And sometimes a
nickname really fits. In 1518, smallpox and
leprosy were on the rise. And the orphanage was overpacked
with at least 300 new orphans. Fear of being possessed
drove people insane. And the city was ripe for an
outbreak of mass hysteria. Superstitious beliefs led
people to believe their minds and bodies were being controlled
by a force so powerful the bodies were no longer
their own to control. They were convinced they
were victims of an unseen power, which makes
sense considering the ultimate cure that
stopped the dancing was a visit to the
shrine of Saint Vitus and a new pair of
holy-bless shoes. It checks all the
mass hysteria boxes and explains how it
began, how it spread, and how it was
ultimately defeated. That is, of course, until the
guy started a little music festival in the
desert of California. But that, my friends, is
for another weird time. What do you think of the
dancing plague, good time or great time? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our weird history.

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