The Boogie Woogie Flu

Don’t let the title of today’s post fool you:  I’m not going to write about the coronavirus today.  I’m actually enjoying the relative freedom and flexibility of distance education, sipping car dealership coffee while I wait for my 2017 Nissan Versa Note to get a transmission flush and a belt and some wheel bearings replaced, all with appropriate social distance between me and the other people getting their cars fixed.

But in these plague-riddled times, I couldn’t resist this charming little Quora post about another, funkier plague:  the Strasbourg “Dancing Plague” of 1518.  Not that there’s anything charming about dancing yourself to hell, but it sounds a lot more fun than cloistering alone in your house for two weeks.

The Quora post, written by and in the style of a college undergrad, does a good job of telling the story, but here are the highlights:  on 14 July 1518, a woman named Frau Troufea began dancing wildly throughout the streets of Strasbourg.  She looked to be in great pain, and the dancing appeared involuntary.

What’s odd is that soon the dancing hysteria spread, and other Strasbourgers joined in.  The situation quickly grew out of hand as more and more dancers got caught up in the mysterious malady.  Local leaders thought that paying healthy people to dance with the revelers, as well as hiring musicians to play for the dancers, would somehow help the situation, but it only made the boogie spread further (because the way to make people stop dancing is to lay down a funky groove—yeesh!).

Ultimately, the dancers were strapped to carts and taken twenty-five miles up the road to a local shrine in the hopes that this forced pilgrimage would end their woes.  The cure worked, and most of the dancers ceased their endless gyrations.

Historians are unsure what caused the dancing.  The most common modern explanation is that it was ergot, a fungus that grows on wheat, and that is a key ingredient in the production of LSD.  The contemporary explanations also ruled out the supernatural, blaming the dancing on “hot blood.”  Encouraging the dancing obviously did not help, but rather spread the contagion more quickly, but tying the dancers down worked.

Perhaps there are some parallels here to our current malady.  There are at least some lessons.  Public leaders are often grasping at straws in the face of unknown, novel pandemics—one set of policies, based on one set of assumptions, is attempted, only to be adjusted, often dramatically, to new information.

Another lesson:  hindsight is 20-20.  It’s easy for us to scoff (as I did above) at the wacky first attempt at stopping the dancing pandemic.  Would we have done any better in those circumstances?  Probably not, and the governing officials of late Medieval France had far less scientific knowledge—and access to it—than we do today.

Finally, it’s a healthy reminder that humanity is weird—and complex.  So is Nature.  Maybe it was rouge ergot that spread its spores into the legs of French peasants, giving them a case of the boogie woogie flu.  Or maybe it was, as many of the peasants believed, God’s punishment for their sins (or, equally plausible, some sinister form of demonic possession).

If you’re interested in delving further into the topic, the Quora poster includes a link the book The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Waller (you can pick it up on Amazon, too, while you’re ordering more toilet paper).

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