The Dancing Plague, 1518

It baffles people now as it did then, when hundreds of people around 16th Century Strasbourg danced and danced till they could dance no more. Read about its potential cause and the remedies phycisians came up with

One Summer’s day in 1518 down a narrow street in Strasbourg, France an odd thing occurred; people turned to notice a woman dancing.

Why? No one had a clue but she continued ever more feverishly and without a break for four to six days.

More alarmingly within a week, 34 others joined in and within a month there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female.

This ‘Dancing Plague’, as it became known, took such a hold on them they couldn’t stop, not to eat or rest and many died from exhaustion, stroke or heart attacks. For a period, the plague was killing 15 people a day.

The crowd could not stop dancing until utter exhaustion forced them to collapse. (thepsychologist.bps.org.uk)

So what caused this bizarre behaviour? The most plausible explanation is that it was a psychogenic disorder — a physical illness that’s believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors. People were going through particularly tough times, even by Medieval standards, with the region riddled with starvation and disease and this accounted for them being exceptionally stressed.

Local physicians were sought out and advised that the afflicted shouldn’t stop until the dancing wore off. To this end the city authorities took over two guildhalls and a grain market, even building a stage for musicians to open, essentially, the world’s first-ever disco.

Yet, it was a disaster as the illness underwent a dramatic growth; performing dances in more public spaces allowed this psychic ‘contagion’ to spread.

One historian states that a marathon runner couldn’t have lasted the intense workout that these men and women did hundreds of years ago.

The Wise Men of Gotham, 1200s

When the King of England wanted to build a road through Gotham village’s locale, the rustics knew there was only one way to get rid of his men; to play insane… Find out what absurd tasks they came up with acting fools.

It is difficult to determine the veracity of tales from such historical, murky depths as 13th Century England yet there’s likely truth to a tale mentioning Gotham village’s ‘foles’ (fools) or later ‘wise men’.

The villagers gained this sobriquet by displaying such cunning they warded off the attentions of the most powerful man in the land.

The story goes that King John I wanted to pass through the village and have a royal highway established in his wake, or that he wanted to build a lodge nearby – both needing the locals to contribute for its upkeep.

Faced with a stark choice between increasing their financial burdens or defying the king’s will, they took a third route; to dupe the King and his henchmen into believing they were a village of fools, or rather, infected with insanity. It was common belief at the time that madness was contagious so the notion of a village populated by lunatics was perfectly feasible.

So, on the day a royal herald turned up at Gotham’s bucolic locale in advance of the king, Gotham was ready for him. Wherever the man went, he saw the rustics engaged in some absurd task.

The men of Gotham tried to entrap a cuckoo with a hedge (projectgotham.org)

He first came upon some villagers embroiled in trying to drown an eel in a pool of water.

Bewildered, he then observed others dragging carts to a large barn to shade the wood from the sun.

His unease heightened as he then came across others tumbling their cheeses down a hill, that they might find their way to Nottingham for sale.

The king’s man recoiled at being in the midst of such imbeciles and the last straw came; he watched as villagers hedged in a cuckoo which had perched on an old bush: ‘The Cuckoo, as soone as she perciued her selfe incompassed within the hedge, flew away. “A vengeance on her!” said they “We made not our hedge high enough”’.

The king’s official withdrew. He reported that the settlement was brimming with lunacy and to avoid it like the plague, and so the ruse worked. “There are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.” Gotham’s ‘Wise Men’ boasted triumphantly.

The later ‘Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’, inspired 18th Century American writer Washington Irving to label New York ‘Gotham’ and further gets referenced in the ‘Batman’ comic book series.

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Erfurt Latrine Disaster, 1184

Oddball tales: A catastrophic disaster to befall the Holy Roman Empire barely heard of; when dozens of the Empire’s noblemen drowned… in a latrine.

A complex, multi-ethnic patchwork of kingdoms made up the Holy Roman Empire that was the most powerful Christian kingdom to arise from the ashes of the Dark Ages.

Politically it was a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances and rivalries as its greatest nobles incessantly manoeuvred for power.

In the year 1184 AD a feud between two of the empire’s most powerful leaders of the land was now reaching boiling point. On one side was Louis the Pious, Landgrave of Thuringia. On the other side was the Archbishop Conrad of Mainz.

This political schism was in danger of wrenching apart the mighty empire from within and could be ignored no longer.

On the way towards Poland on a military campaign King Heinrich VI of Germany halted in the Thuringian capital of Erfurt to call a meeting of nobles and end the dispute before it spiralled out of control.

So it was that a hundred or so of the empire’s most important Counts, Dukes and clergymen congregated in the meeting hall of the Church of St Peter in the summer of 1184.

St Peter’s Basilica in Erfurt (aworkstation.com)

Yet there was a hidden danger unbeknown to all and it would shortly spell the doom of many present.

The noblemen took their seats whilst the King sat apart from the highborn rabble in an alcove. The floor was wooden and creaked loudly as men moved over it. They took their seats and some looked down nervously, feeling how under-strain it was.

That floor was all that separated these dozens of men from a cellar below. The cellar however was a massive latrine filled with tonnes and tonnes of liquid smelly brown stuff, and must have been metres deep.

Indeed, one would imagine the stench was overwhelming the moment they entered the room; it is anyone’s guess why they chose to meet there in the first place.

An ear-splitting crack sounded out a split second warning before they plunged into the dark pit below.

Alarmed calls and shrieks thundered off the stone walls as men struggled and foundered in the thick liquid, fighting a losing battle to keep their heads above the surface.

The survivors could only stare down breathlessly as they watched roughly 60 of their kin perish in the most humiliating manner a lord could possibly die.

The Erfurt Latrine Disaster sent a shock-wave through the empire as the staggering death toll included the Counts of Abinberc, Thuringia, Hesse, Kirchberg and Wartburg.

King Heinrich was said to have survived only because his alcove had a stone floor.

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