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dancing plagues and mass hysteria

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Dancing mania was a phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe from the 14th century through to the 17th century, in which groups of people would dance through the streets of towns or cities, sometimes foaming at the mouth or speaking in tongues, until they collapsed from exhaustion.

The year was 1374. In dozens of medieval towns scattered along the valley of the River Rhine hundreds of people were seized by an agonising compulsion to dance. Scarcely pausing to rest or eat, they danced for hours or even days in succession. They were victims of one of the strangest afflictions in Western history. Within weeks the mania had engulfed large areas of north-eastern France and the Netherlands, and only after several months did the epidemic subside. In the following century there were only a few isolated outbreaks of compulsive dancing. Then it reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths (Waller, 2008).

The Dancing Plague (or Dancing Epidemic) of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, France (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and over the period of about one month, most of the people died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Dancing to Death

The outbreak began in July 1518, when a woman, Frau Troffea, began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg.[1] This lasted somewhere between four to six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers. Most of these people eventually died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Historical documents, including “physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” are clear that the victims danced.[1] It is not known why these people danced to their deaths, nor is it clear that they were dancing willfully.

As the dancing plague worsened, concerned nobles sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood”. However, instead of prescribing bleeding, authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would only recover if they danced continually night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving.

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