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It’s the fifth centenary of one of the most bizarre chapters of human history

There are several events taking place around the world this year which are commemorating the fifth centenary of one of the more bizarre chapters of human history: the three-month-long manic dance rave of the dark ages.

That has quite a ring to it.

It’s the year 1518 in the French city of Strasbourg and a large-scale epidemic has struck the people.

One that causes mass outbreaks of uncontrolled dancing.

As Men at Work would say, “we can dance if we want to”.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1500s, by Hieronymous Bosch.

The problem was, many of them didn’t want to dance, but they just couldn’t help it.

According to historic accounts, the dancing plague began with one lone woman stepping outside her house and jigging for several days on end.

Flash forward three months and the streets of Strasbourg are in chaos with hundreds of frenzied town-folk dancing uncontrollably in the streets.

Some danced themselves to death; accounts record cases of people simply collapsing and perishing on the spot.

John Waller, author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 discusses the phenomenon with the Guardian.

He presents what might have been the cause for such an odd occurrence.

“For some time, ergotism looked like a good contender.

“This results from consuming food contaminated with a species of mould that grows on damp rye and produces a chemical related to LSD.

“It can induce terrifying hallucinations and violent twitching. But it is very unlikely that sufferers could have danced for days.”

More likely, Waller expounds to The Guardian, the people of Strasbourg were stuck with a case of “mass hysteria” – a psychogenic illness stemming from, in this case, strong religious notions about sin.

There is a painting in Cologne Cathedral that depicts men joylessly dancing beneath the image of St Vitus; it represents an idea that perhaps took root in this particular French region at the time – that St Vitus “could punish sinners by making them dance”.

This “dance” caused people to enter a dissociative mental state – a manic illness compelling the suggestible to dance for days on end.

Waller says that “their visibility ensured that other cityfolk were rendered susceptible as their minds dwelt on their own sins and the possibility that they might be next.”

I wonder if that first woman had any idea what she was starting… I’d like to know what she was all about.

It’s certainly a story that takes “rave” to a new level.

Strasbourg’s Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame has a special exhibition running and a TV documentary is reportedly in production.

I predict/hope a three-day dance street festival is somewhere in our future?

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