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Whoops! RecoveringConservative can't join us tonight, so we're rescheduling "Lunch with Two People who Suffer from Schizophrenia". Having looked back at his previous writings on the subject, I know it'll be well worth the wait.

For tonight I'd like to talk about a peculiar malady that troubled Europe during the Middle Ages: dancing mania. I recently stumbled across a song about it and now I'm sort of stuck on the subject. Hopefully this diary should work as an exorcism and I'll be able to move on.

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This kind of thing used to happen a lot.

The solitary figure
Of the girl with a tear
Danced through the streets
In a forgotten year

It was 1518, in Strasbourg. The young lady's name was Frau Troffea. Dancing mania, or choreomania, had been popping up here and there for 500 years by then, with not a whole lot of variation in character, so the song could have been about events in any number of times and places. I've heard a longer version of the song, though, where they identify the setting as Strasbourg.

As crowds gathered 'round
This peculiar thing
The spectators swayed
Then danced in the ring

Unable to stop
Feet rubbed to the bone
They moved to a tune
That was all their own

And that's pretty much how it would go. People would come and gawk, as people do, and that's how it would get you. A sort of line-of-sight contagion vector. Once the madness took hold, people were compelled to keep moving. Exactly what that looked like varied through time and locality, but it was always frantic and ceaseless. People would pass out, regain consciousness and keep right on dancing. The line "feet rubbed to the bone" was all too often literally true.

No one seems sure how long Frau Troffea kept going. It was in the neighborhood of four to six days. By the end of that week, thirty four people had joined in. By the end of the month it was around four hundred. As many as fourteen people a day fell down and died.

Word spread far and wide
There was talk of a curse
On a town run on sin
The ruling class were the worst

This is an interesting observation. Not the curse part, it was 1518, of course there'd be talk of a curse. No, people blaming the ruling class, saying they were so awful that they were at fault for this, too. They might have been on to something.

The following is an excerpt from an account written by Andrew Davidson, F. R. P. C. E., Etc., Physician To The Court Of Madagascar in 1867.

...it will be remembered, as Hecker and others have pointed out, that choreomania, in its first outbreak, followed closely upon the black-death, “and was to be ascribed to the excitement of men's minds, and the consequence of wretchedness and want.” The mental and moral state of the people, induced by such great calamities as the black-death and the inundations of the Rhine, and by the political and religious conditions of the period--the feuds of the barons-- the corruption of the church and of public morals, the licentious exercise of power, or the unwarranted resistance of authority, were all exciting causes of its epidemic manifestation.
The article gives a pretty thorough summary of known instances of choreomania, all the while claiming not to. By the standards of the time, maybe it was perfunctory, but he also needed to shore up his case that he had, indeed, witnessed an outbreak of the strange condition in a non-European population in the middle of the 19th century. Yep, Madagascar, in 1863. That's... actually a little unsettling.

The musicians were paid
But played all alone
For the dancers still moved
To a tune all their own

This practice of employing musicians for the dancers is regarded today as a lousy idea, but that's only because it never once worked. And maybe it helped seduce more people into the frenzy. So what was the thinking?

Well, the way these people were dancing was abnormal, but dancing itself is a perfectly normal activity. So let's try introducing some more normalcy, set up stages, get some musicians up there, and see if people don't stop when the music does. So it didn't work in Metz? Well, maybe those musicians in Metz just don't know how to end a tune with authority! Hell, I'd have tried it. And I'd have failed like the rest.

Was there any help for them? They were often beaten, which wasn't as heartless as it sounds, because those with enough lucidity would often beg for such treatment. They believed themselves possessed and wanted the damn demons out. People would wrap the afflicted tightly in sheets, or throw cold water on them. None of that helped much, although the Scots had a lot of success with "cold water immersion", which sounds a lot like "chucking folks in the lake".

But the best treatment was exactly what you would expect for people who believed themselves possessed: religious intervention. In particular, sufferers would be led (with no small effort, I would imagine) to altars of St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and epileptics. That got very good results.  

Now, when I say that these people thought they were possessed, that's a pretty big oversimplification. Some believed that The Dance was a gift from God to induce visions and prophecy. And as the sufferers tended strongly to be the 99 percenters of their time, they were a pretty oppressed and repressed people. Many joined in as a lark, clearly faking it as a means to get away with lascivious behavior. For many of these, it turned into a nightmarish case of "fake it 'till you make it". Mr. Davidson (I don't see an "M.D." in that string of pedigree letters) from the PDF I linked to above had a few things to say about that aspect of the phenomenon as well, on pages 6 and 14.

Other sources for this diary were this one, which has some pretty good background on Strasbourg, calling it the Silicon Valley of its day and backing it up. This one is a translated work by Hecker, presumably the same Hecker mentioned by Davidson. Interestingly, it gives the date of the Strasbourg event as 1418, where every other reference I've seen says 1518. Translation error? Not likely. If you only know a few words of a foreign language, they'll be yes, no, some obscenities, and some numbers. You won't find translators screwing up numbers. Transcription error? Most likely. But if you have enough interest to look at the chronology in that article, you may see that the timeline sort of supports the earlier date. What if someone else made the mistake in a more popular work and the wrong date is now the accepted one?

Wait, is that what the 3 (or so) Daft Monkeys meant..?

The solitary figure
Of the girl with a tear
Danced through the streets
In a forgotten year

Ahh, crap! There it goes again.

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