Several modern historians have argued that the dancing plagues of mediaeval Europe were caused by ergot, a mind-altering mould found on the stalks of damp rye, which can cause twitching, jerking, and hallucinations – a condition known as St. Anthony’s Fire. However, the historian John Waller has debunked the ergot hypothesis in his brilliant book on the dancing plague, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die (2009). Yes, ergot can cause convulsions and hallucinations, but it also restricts blood flow to the extremities. Someone poisoned by it simply could not dance for several days in a row.
Waller’s explanation of the dancing plague emerges from his deep knowledge of the material, cultural, and spiritual environment of sixteenth-century Strasbourg. He opens his book with a quote from H. C. Erik Midelfort’s A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (1999):
Madnesses of the past are not petrified entities that can be plucked unchanged from their niches and placed under our modern microscopes. They appear, perhaps, more like jellyfish that collapse and dry up when they are removed from the ambient sea water.
According to Waller, the Strasbourg poor were primed for an epidemic of hysterical dancing. First of all, there was precedent. Every European dancing plague between 1374 and 1518 had occurred near Strasbourg, along the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there were the prevailing conditions. In 1518, a string of bad harvests, political instability, and the arrival of syphilis had induced anguish extreme even by early modern standards. This suffering manifested as hysterical dancing because the citizens believed it could. People can be extraordinarily suggestible and a firm conviction in the vengefulness of Saint Vitus was enough for it to be visited upon them. ‘The minds of the choreomaniacs were drawn inwards,’ writes Waller, ‘tossed about on the violent seas of their deepest fears.’
One way to elucidate the dancing plague is to consider the trance states people reach today. In cultures around the world, including in Brazil, Madagascar, and Kenya, people enter trances deliberately during ceremonies or involuntarily during periods of extreme stress. Once entranced, their perception of pain and exhaustion is marginalised. Waller describes the spread of the dancing plague as an example of psychic contagion, and he draws a parallel with the laughing epidemic that engulfed a region of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) in the fraught postcolonial year of 1963. When a couple of girls at a local mission school got the giggles, their friends followed suit until two-thirds of the pupils were laughing and crying uncontrollably and the whole school had to be shut down. Once home, the pupils ‘infected’ their families and soon whole villages were consumed by hysterics. Doctors recorded several hundred cases, lasting a week on average.
Pennant-Rea, N. (2018, July 10). The Dancing Plague of 1518. Retrieved July 03, 2020, from https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/the-dancing-plague-of-1518
What is the purpose of placing the word ”fraught” in the passage?
To imply that Tanzania was much worse during the postcolonial years than during the colonial period.
To imply that the laughing and dancing epidemics were related through the poor economic conditions in both cases.
To imply that the dancing epidemic was a massive problem for Tanzania in the postcolonial year of 1963.
To debunk claims that Tanzania did not face problems after the colonial period.