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Danced to Death

During the middle ages, a vicious plague swept through Europe, but this time, rats weren’t to blame. Instead, a mysterious illness was causing hundreds of people to… dance. This might sound like a joyful plague, but the reality was far from pleasant. In 1374, thousands of villagers in Aachen, Germany, poured onto the streets, shaking violently as if to music. The sweaty mob would dance until they collapsed from exhaustion, or even died. Yeesh.

In 1518, the plague hit again - this time in Strasberg, Germany. Four hundred victims wiggled and convulsed their way across the city. From the Netherlands to Italy, “choreomania”, as it’s sometimes called, spread throughout Europe.

One account from the book The Black Death and The Dancing Mania, published in 1888, reads:

“They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”

We get it, a good tune can be infectious (sorry), but what was causing so many to jig themselves to an early grave? Not surprisingly, experts are unsure. Theories include spider bites, religious ecstasy and demonic possession. One possible cause was ‘mass hysteria’ brought on by severe poverty. After all, the black death was sweeping across the continent and famine was rife - it seemed understandable that people would just ‘lose it’ once in a while. Another popular explanation was ergot poisoning from a fungus found in rye bread. (Side note: LSD is a derivative of ergot). If consumed, it can cause hallucinations and spasms - or what might look like ‘tripping the light fantastic’.

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Image by Clker


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