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Dance Until Death… The dancing plague of 1581…

In 1581 a woman from Strasbourg stepped into the street and began to dance wildly. Her name was Frau Troffea and she had no music to dance to and her face showed no signs of pleasure. Her involuntary jig lasted all day long and after hours of exhaustion she collapsed in a sweaty heap.

Within hours she was up again and resuming her silent dance. She danced all through that day until she collapsed and slept briefly.

By the third day Frau Troffea had bloody and bruised feet but her dancing continued. Now a concerned group of neighbours surrounded her as sweat dripped down her back and her shoes filled with blood. Some of them knelt in prayer and others attempted to stop her dance with no success.

skellyThe crowd who were probably all Catholic speculated on the cause of this strange outburst. Some blamed demons who had possessed her body and soul. Others believed that there was a serious sin she had failed to ask  for God’s forgiveness for and that she should do so at once. If she did not then she would be powerless to resist the Devil’s power.

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A Catholic shrine.

After a great deal of thought it was decided that Frau Troffea should be taken to the nearest Catholic shrine in the Vosges mountains. Her raging dance continued  for a few more days then ceased never to return.

Unfortunately by then 30 people had joined the dance back in the town. Soon 100 citizens were dancing in agony and unable to stop. Within a month 400 people had joined in and slowly the dancing turned into an epidemic and people began to die.

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A 1642 Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portrays women affected by the plague.

Exactly how many died is unknown. A chronicle made at the time stated that 15 people a day were dying in the punishing summer heat. The victims hardly ever paused to eat, drink or rest.Only in Late August did the epidemic slow down and stop leaving many bereaved and others fearful.

This is not the only case of the dancing plague in history. The first recorded outbreak was in 1017 in a saxon town. In the 14th century there was a contagion of thousands which began in the Rhineland and the dance spread rapidly. The victims screamed with pain as they danced unwillingly to their deaths.

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Municipal records confirm that a monk danced himself to death in the cloisters of his Swiss monastery. There are many more recorded incidences of this incredible plague but perhaps the most disturbing occurred in the sixteenth century. When a woman in Basel danced for a whole month. The physician Felix Plater recorded that the skin on her feet was worn away exposing her bloody tendons and bone.

Any thoughts about the cause of this strange disease??..

Bibliography:

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I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year !

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