Strasbourg Night Fever: When dancing was crazy and dancers were drowned

Strasbourg Dance Fever Durer“We’re cursed by these sick people who won’t stop dancing.” Thus complained the poet Sebastien Brant shortly after July 1518, when, as the scholar Elisabeth Clementz puts it — in the press packet for 1518, the Dance Fever, running through February 20 at Strasbourg’s Museum of the Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Arts of the Middle Ages — “the city of Strasbourg was confronted with a curious public health problem. Some 50 people began dancing in the streets until they were worn out. For the 21st century observer, the symptoms of this sickness, referred to as ‘St-Vitus’s Dance’ or ‘chorée,’ might seem strange. In reality, the term ‘St.-Vitus’s Dance’ (or ‘St.-Guy’s Dance’) was applied to numerous illnesses. For some, it was a matter of epilepsy…. [for] others… encephalitis. By the 17th century, Thomas Sydenham was describing it as a neurologic phenomenon. For the 19th century psychiatrist Witkowski, the woman who started the dancing was ‘subject to nervous attacks.’ With several other hysterics of the city, she dragged along with her children, the feeble-minded, the lazy, the vagabonds, and the imposters. Witkowski claimed there were numerous contemporary testimonies to the incident. But this was a myth.” Above: Albrecht Durer, “Dancing couples falling in a river as punishment for their disrespectful attitude during God’s Fete,” engraving pulled from Hartman Schedel, “Nuremberg Chronicle,” Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 1493. Folio CCXVII recto. Strasbourg, Prints and Drawings Cabinet. Photo: Strasbourg Museums, Mathieu Bertola. Click here for more art from the exhibition.

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