In July 1518, the French town of Strasbourg endured a bitter summer of unrelenting drought. The failed harvest added to the locals’ already penurious situation and the intense heat had also caused outbreaks of fever. The pervasive feeling was one of dread and, overwhelmingly, entrapment in circumstances too great and remote to control. This was a community only one generation removed from peasantry, but with very little more to show for it. The church, sensing the despondency of its congregants, preached forbearance and recommended more fervent prayer.
Round about mid-month, one of the townswomen, Frau Troffea, unable to feed her children and husband, weakened by hunger and unable to envisage any end to this, left her house, walked into the main street and began to dance. People stared, first in amusement and astonishment, then in bewilderment. This was not a dance they had ever witnessed before, nor was there any apparent reason for its performance. It was a flailing, unco-ordinated dance, marked by spins and out-thrust arms and feet, with her face averted, but it was clearly not the dance of a madwoman: nor was it the ceaseless restlessness of St Vitus or the convulsive spasms of epilepsy: no. This was neither neurological nor, indeed, pathological. It was something far deeper and more insistent. It was fast, ceaseless and she kept it up all day and continued through the night. While the villagers watched in silence, it was clear that Frau Troffea was directed by a rhythm and possibly even a music, known and heard only to herself, but coming from some internal metronome that perhaps even she had never realised she could activate.
She continued dancing, without rest, for six days and six nights until, exhausted and dehydrated, she finally dropped dead in the street. But by that time, dozens and then hundreds of other villagers had joined her, and now almost the entire population of Strasbourg was out on its cobbled streets, dancing fast and furiously, the old, the young, the ill and the despairing.
For an entire, uninterrupted month, day and night, the burgers of continued their frenzied dance in the streets, spilling out into the village square. The phenomenon caused alarm and terror in neighbouring towns. The church, fearing possession, considered a form of exorcism, but this was impracticable, since the villagers could not be stopped long enough to apply bell, candle or feather. The momentum had reached so feverish and so delirious a pitch that the dancers, in any case, could hear nothing but the inner rhythm driving them, could see nothing but their own gyrating limbs and could focus on nothing but the compulsion driving them. Neither were they aware of each other: this was no coordinated dance, no impromptu ballroom. It was coming from a realm far beyond coherence.
Of the 400-odd dancers who kept up their distraught marathon, a high percentage died of heat stroke, exhaustion, heart attack or, like Frau Troffea, dehydration and malnutrition.
Strasbourg was the first town where what came to be known as the “dancing plague” saw citizens all over France and then in neighbouring central European countries perform this form of self-immolation.
A medieval rave? No. A fictional story? No: it is historically documented and remains an enigma to this day, but has never been satisfactorily explained by the numerous anthropologists, sociologists or psychiatrists who have addressed it. Some have attributed it to mass hysteria, intensified by the penury and residual misery of feudal subjects. Still others have pointed out that the emotional suggestibility and of the average medieval burger in feudal Europe was just a notch or two below lemming-like.
Still, while all these theories contain some truth, the event remains bigger than the sum of its parts. The point is not the external misery in which it occurred, or the hypnotic suicidal impulse that arrested the dancers. The point is that it was random, spontaneous and an almost completely alien behaviour for docile peasants who were, after all, by no means strangers to suffering.
What, then, made the Strasbourgers dance to death? Was the need to escape so urgent, and the search for grace so crucial, that some inner, secret choreography, which seems to be imbedded in our DNA, was unwittingly activated? And what dark, unfathomable trigger made it so contagious? These were the crazed steps of a skeleton demanding to be let out of the flesh framing it, so that it could triumph over breath, and hope, and life.
More pressingly: what can the Strasbourg dance teach us about ourselves? Individualism in the Middle Ages was unheard of. So was revolt. For us, however, in an era when borders are transient, authority remote, gratification available in a myriad of ways and escaping as easy as a hypodermic syringe, a bottle or a tablet, anything goes – in fact, almost everything’s gone.
The image of the Strasbourgers, dancing frenziedly in apparent silence (but very obviously responding to a rhythm and tempo coming from within), throws up startling parallels with addiction, at least as I understand it. It tells me that unbearable pain is not a malady exclusive to the 20th and 21st centuries: people have always endured it, and have always sought a spiritual analgesic more powerful than religion, more available than wealth and more reliable than revelry. It tells me, also, that for all our advancements in medicine, our arrogance in discarding age-old value systems as obsolete, our ingenuity in technology and our delusions of agency in an acataleptic universe, there remains a territory in each one of us that we can only guess at, let alone explore and chart. It is a territory we share with every human who has ever walked the earth.
Since that is where the questions lie, it is also where the answers lie. Our work is in finding the lexicon and the courage to support what we discover there. The pain driving us to drink, to drug, or to pirouette ourselves into oblivion is the only co-ordinate we have to find our bearings.
Because while that territory, the pain we fear to probe, is the source of potential catastrophe – the darkness within us – it is also the portal to the best in us: a life drenched in sunlight, in which we can dance not an involuntary pas-de-deux with impending death, but in free rapture.
*For more on the Strasbourg dance, I recommend John Waller’s wonderful historical account, “A Time to Dance, A Time to Die” (Icon Publishers).
Gwen is a long-time friend of the Foundation & U-ACT and gives generously of her time and love to the projects and events that the two organisations are involved in.