[Music: The What The Ghost? theme: Piano, in a minor key. The kind you’d associate with a haunting]
Hi there, haunts fans! I’m Georgie Barker, and this is another episode of What The Ghost?, your weekly insight into ghouls, ghosts, and ghastly goings-on.
We’ll be peering into the murky depths of history this week, unraveling the story of a deadly plague that spread terror across Europe for centuries. Terror…
[Discordant note on the piano]
[The music changes to a funky piece – and then is abruptly cut off by a chorus of screams, that then, too fade out]
Now, we all know there was nothing unusual about widespread illness in the Middle Ages, but this affliction was very different.
[A very light piano piece comes on in the background]
With a modern understanding of medicine, we can look back and explain away diseases like the Black Plague – though regular listeners will know to take that explanation with a protective sprinkle of salt.
[SFX: Someone coughing]
But even now, we’re as much in the dark about this epidemic as they were in the Dark Ages! And what’s so intriguing about this plague is how the infected were affected.
[Dramatic music; when Georgie speaks, there’s a deeper echo added to it]
They danced themselves to death.
[Music comes to a dramatic stop, punctuated by the flourish of a violin squeak]
That’s right, folks: Over hundreds of years, unconnected individuals would start up a jig, first drawing in a partner, then a troupe, then dragging the whole town into a frenzy of footwork until fever and exhaustion forced them to collapse! Sometimes, never to get up again.
The people of Europe called it choreomania, the “Dancing Plague,” but although it may seem supernatural, I’m sure there’s a rational explanation! Isn’t there?
[Dark, low note on the piano]
On a warm July day in Strasbourg, 1518, Frau Troffea stepped out of her front door and danced to the end of her street. She kept dancing as she made her way to the town center; her arms and feet whirled through the market square in time to music only she could hear. Her friends and neighbors laughed and clapped as they watched her step and spin across the city. They cheered her on all day and well into the night before she collapsed from exhaustion. But just a few short hours later, she was awake, and dancing once again. She was still dancing three days later, now in bloodsoaked shoes.
It was almost a week before she finally died. There are reports that her body kept moving in time to some mysterious melody, even in death.
[Low, ringing toll of a bell or something else metallic]
By that time, thirty-four people had joined her. Within a month, a crowd of four-hundred were manically dancing through the streets of Strasbourg without food, drink, or rest. As many as fifteen of them a day seemed to have no choice but to dance themselves to death.
It’s no wonder the townsfolk called it “The Devil’s Dance.”
[New music: more light piano music, but at a quicker tempo, invoking a sense of urgency]
On its own, this story would be strange enough. But what we’ll hear today definitely crosses the line into… (echoing) spooktacular.
[New music: bouncy and electronic]
Let’s hear a little bit about a friend of the podcast!
Being up close and personal with the supernatural all day can really wreak havoc with your nerves at night! That’s why I need the best possible mattress to help me drift off to sleep. Luckily, I have my Bedcetera mattress so I can rest in peace!
Its seven layers of high-tech latex foam keep me safe from the spectre of back pain, and the precision-engineered platinum alloy springs make my posture as good as ghoul!
And I’ve got great news! The generous folks at Bedcetera are giving all What The Ghost? listeners a spook-tacular deal! Just enter the code FRIENDLYGHOST at the checkout for a 5% discount.
Bedcetera: The only mattress that’ll keep the nightmares away! (sighs, under breath) God…1
[Music fades out]
You’re listening to What The Ghost?.
What happened in Strasbourg in 1518 might be the most famous and well-documented account of the Dancing Plague, but it’s certainly not the only one. There are reports of whole towns being compelled to dance into an early grave from as far back as the 7th century.
In 1374, the dance consumed a population so vast it covers what is now Northern France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. In Medieval Italy, crowds of people were unable to stop their friends eight feet from hurling themselves into the sea.
But one of the strangest cases occurred in 1237 in a town called Erfurt, Germany. Records from the time say that, for one day, a hundred children started feverishly dancing, moving as one all the way to Arnstadt, over twelve miles away, before all collapsing of exhaustion, their feverish movements stopped as suddenly as they started. Though the facts about the children of Erfurt are hidden in the depths of history, their story lives on in the fearsome tale of the Pied Piper.
[Music: Wind instrument, one of those long, drawn out tremulous sounds major Western television networks love to use when depicting ancient Eastern or African cultures]
I’d always assumed the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a fairytale, but it seems there’s more to this legend than meets the ear. After all, we know by now that legends have long roots in history; perhaps there was more to the Pied Piper than I’d imagined.
[Music: Light flute and high mallet percussion in a mid-paced waltz]
The first written record of the tale appears in the town chronicles from 1384. It states simply, “It is one hundred years since our children left.”
[Same wind instrument as before, cutting off the flute waltz]
[Flute waltz re-enters]
So, we know that the children left in 1284, forty-seven years after the children of Erfurt, a town nearly two hundred kilometres away from Hamelin, made their fretful journey to Arnstadt. A stained glass window was placed in the church of Hamelin in 1300, showing the children following a brightly colored man playing a pipe. That window is the earliest record we have of the Pied Piper’s story, and is also the only record that shows the piper.
I have to wonder, if we had images of the children of Erfurt, would they also show a brightly colored musician leading the youngsters away from the town? Fans of What the Ghost? will know that children are much more open to the supernatural than we are as adults. It’s hardly rare for people to experience unexplained phenomena. Unexplained, that is, until their children describe what they alone can see.
[SFX: The bright, loud laugh of a child]
But was the paranormal really responsible for the Devil’s Dance? Could there be a more rational explanation?
Find out after this message (slight sigh) from our valued sponsor.
[Music: Bright and bouncy again]
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[Music fades. Georgie sighs]
Welcome back to What The Ghost? with me, Georgie Barker. Before the break, we heard about the mystery of the Devil’s Dance and its link to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
[Music: A quavering note]
Though the circumstances are certainly spooky, we don’t need to look to the paranormal to find an explanation.
[Music: A haunting, almost metallic intro, leading a flute]
The time when the dance was at its height was a period of extraordinary hardship across Europe. It’s hard for us to imagine now quite how difficult life was in the late Middle Ages. Local famines were widespread, and weather was cruel in a time when heavy rain could be the difference between life and death.
With no real understanding of what caused disease, the average life expectancy for millions of people was less than thirty years. And for most people, a life of serfdom meant that those thirty years would be spent in backbreaking servitude, struggling to survive while you worked for the profit of your local landowner.
[SFX: Coins jingling]
Life had been pretty sweet in Western Europe for the centuries before 1280, when wheat crop yields started to drop. Until then, the climate had been good and populations were booming – but when food production couldn’t keep up, prices started to climb. And just a few years later, the weather started to turn.
Winters were severe, and summers were cold and wet. Crops failed from Ireland to Germany. Many cities and towns lost a quarter of their population, and even King Edward the Second had trouble finding food. Crop levels didn’t recover until 1325, and not soon after, the Black Death first hit Sicily. It ran through countries like a fire that couldn’t be stopped, and would be killing people across the continent for the next three hundred years.
At the same time, political upheaval was everywhere and warfare was changing, with gunpowder, longbows, and new, deadlier siege weapons to worry about.
[SFX: Someone yelling “Owwwww” somewhat exaggeratedly]
Whether it was a bloody death on the battlefield, a gruesome fatal disease, or watching yourself and your friends slowly starve, trauma could be present in every day of people’s lives.
Do we really need to look to the supernatural to explain the odd behaviour of these medieval townsfolk? Hardship and hunger can play odd tricks on the mind. Compulsive behaviour is far from uncommon during difficult times, and the combined emotional and physical stress that Medieval Europeans lived through could well have led to hallucinations, whether a – spectral strain of music or even a whole crowd of dancers, so, really there were only one or two.
Some psychologists propose that certain kinds of psychosis can even be contagious. Could mass hysteria account for the way that dancing mania swept through communities?
While stress and trauma may well have been necessary conditions for the dance, it’s hard to believe that’s the whole story. Medieval Europe was a difficult time and place to be alive, but it’s far from the only culture to be struck by severe ongoing hardship. And while we might understand how individual towns and villages might experience bouts of mass mania, what was it about these people at this time that made their supposed psychosis take the same form, from 13th-century Italy to 17th-century England?
In fact, it takes a certain amount of twisting the facts to make this account fit at all. Take the most well-documented case of Strasbourg, starring Frau Troffea. Many historians would have us believe that the dancing mania there was a direct result of the hardship following the Black Plague – which had hit the town over two hundred years earlier.
We don’t have to look far for another possible explanation, though: Just as far back as episode ninety-seven and our discussion of the Salem Witch Trials. That’s right, the most popular story among modern historians is that the Devil’s Dance was nothing more than a widespread bout of ergot poisoning.
[SFX: Synthy, echoing strings]
For newer listeners, ergot is a psychoactive fungus that grows on rye, used to make the bread that many people lived on almost exclusively in the Middle Ages, right through to Tudor times. A loaf infected with ergot would lead to hallucinations, delusions – and muscle spasms. Eat enough bad bread, and you could find your movements were out of your control.
[SFX: The wobbly sound you get from shaking a thin sheet of metal up and down really quickly]
But could fungus poisoning really keep you dancing for up to twenty miles? Although ergot might have been partly responsible in some cases, dancing mania affected areas that didn’t grow rye at all. And in the middle of a Medieval famine, if you didn’t grow a crop, you didn’t eat it. What’s more, ergot poisoning could only have struck during the wet season it needs to grow – but there’s no correlation between rainy periods and outbreaks of the Devil’s Dance at all.
But, before we dive any deeper –
[Music: the bouncy tune that signifies it’s time for an ad!]
Let’s hear our final message from another one of our sponsors.
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(really fast) I-went-out-with-someone-I-met-online-once. (exhale) We didn’t have a lot in common; I mentioned the podcast, and he spent the rest of the night complaining about the Ghostbusters remake. But we had Thai food, so it was an okay date. I got the tofu Massaman curry.
Anyway, records of towns struck by dancing mania start to dwindle in the 17th century, but the story doesn’t quite end there.
[Music: The creepy atmospheric music from the previous content segment]
There have been recent sightings of people behaving in a similar way to those taken by the Devil’s Dance. Although it hasn’t affected entire towns – that we know of – a few people claim to have seen groups of ten or twenty people moving in a way that can best be described as, well, (echoing) creepy.
They describe the dancing bodies as behaving… inhumanly. At first glance, or out of the corner of your eye, the dance steps appear as contortions, as limbs crack and bones warp, the skin pulled taut as it stretches over impossible angles. Of course, on closer inspection, almost all the witnesses admit that what appeared to be deathly writhing was in fact lively but ultimately mundane choreography, even if it did leave the viewer unsettled.
Of course, drugs, stress, and plain old exhaustion can play all sorts of tricks upon the mind, and an energetic dancer can throw some pretty dramatic shapes, so it’s not surprising that hallucinations of breaking bodies are common. And let’s not ignore the fact that sightings spiked around 2004, when flash mobs were considered the height of cutting edge fun?
What is mysterious, though, is the number of odd reports from the graveyards of towns that were affected by the dance. Historians, police officers, and city planners who exhume the bodies find them looking mutilated or mutated. Reports describe skeletons with too many bones, limbs that are too long, and joints that bend in a way that the best doctors claim they should not.
Although there are plenty of people who claim to have seen the Devil’s Dance, if you know where to look, none of them can coherently describe how the dance goes. Most eyewitness accounts start plainly enough, but they tend to tail off into ramblings when they try to lay out the steps and moves they’ve seen. Could it be that all these people are spontaneously joining a dance so complex it defies description? Or is there some mysterious power that keeps witnesses’ minds vague?
Whatever the secret of the Devil’s Dance, keep an eye on your feet next time you find yourself on the dance floor. The music may stop, but who knows if you will?
[SFX: Villainous laugh track]
[Music: The What The Ghost? Theme]
That’s it for this week’s episode of What The Ghost?! Join us next time when we’ll be at the Edinburgh Fringe, hearing about a comedian who literally died on stage – and now haunts the back room of the pub where only the acts can hear him heckle.
Don’t forget to subscribe for future episodes of What The Ghost?, leave us a review, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at OhMyGhostness and download our lockscreen and ringtone at www.wtghost.com.
Thanks for listening, and remember: Stay out of the shadows!
[Music hits its final chord]
[SFX: Many voices overlaid, saying ‘Ooooo’]
I’m trying to transcribe this as if I was Georgie’s transcriptionist, so I can’t make this joke on the page, but I cannot emphasize enough how apathetic and forcedly cheery Georgie is when reading this ad. Also, I heard footnotes work well with screenreaders, but if this ends up being an accessibility issue, let me know, and I will give up on the gag and put it directly in the main description! ↩
Somehow more apathetic than the first ad while still managing to play bright and cheery! ↩