Unraveling the Tapestry of Bizarre Plagues in History: From Dancing Mania to Biting Nuns

Throughout history, humanity has faced various pandemics and plagues that have left an indelible mark on societies. While some are well-documented and widely known, others are shrouded in mystery, with bizarre symptoms and peculiar manifestations that defy conventional understanding. This exploration delves into some of the strangest plagues that have perplexed historians, scientists, and medical professionals over the centuries, including the enigmatic Dancing Plague and the curious case of the Biting Nuns. Honestly, after hearing about the Dancing Plague of 1518, I just had to know more about these famous episodes of strange behavior throughout history. So, without further ado, here are some of the most bizarre plagues in history.

It’s important to note that today, most of these strange encounters are credited to a phenomenon known as mass sociogenic illness or perhaps, it’s better known as mass hysteria, when symptoms of something spread across a community without any clear medical cause or reason why.

1. The Dancing Plague (1518)

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One of the most bewildering incidents in the annals of medical history is the Dancing Plague of 1518, which gripped the town of Strasbourg, Alsace (modern-day France). It began with a lone woman, Frau Troffea, who, seemingly without reason, started dancing fervently in the streets. To the amazement of onlookers, she continued to dance for days on end, and soon, others in the community joined her in this relentless dance.

The phenomenon quickly escalated into a mass hysteria, with hundreds of people participating in the compulsive dancing. Within a month, 400 people were dancing, most with the urge to do so until they dropped. Authorities were baffled and sought various explanations, from supernatural causes to astrological influences. Attempts to halt the dancing by providing musicians and organizing processions only fueled the frenzy. Authorities believed the trance-like dancing could be caused by “hot blood” or demonic possession and ordered the dancers to continue to dance to exorcise their demons.

Contemporary accounts describe the dancers as appearing entranced, unable to control their movements. Some succumbed to exhaustion, collapsing in fatigue or even dying from heart attacks and strokes. The episode lasted for several weeks, and the cause remains a subject of debate among historians and medical experts. Hypotheses range from ergot poisoning in contaminated rye grain to stress-induced psychogenic disorders.

At the time, many people credited this phenomenon to the Lele, mythical creatures (similar to Greek nymphs) that make people dance. The Lele are said to make people frolic and dance until they eventually lure them to their death.

2. The Biting Nuns (15th Century)

In 15th-century convents, an unusual and disturbing phenomenon surfaced—nuns biting one another. If this isn’t one of the most bizarre plagues in history, then I don’t know what is. Historical records recount instances where nuns exhibited bizarre behavior, including biting their fellow sisters. This perplexing behavior raised eyebrows among religious authorities and medical practitioners of the time.

The biting nuns were often accused of demonic possession or heresy, and some were even subjected to exorcisms. The explanations for this peculiar plague varied, with some attributing it to religious fervor and extreme ascetic practices. Others proposed that the biting was a form of mass hysteria or a manifestation of suppressed desires within the confines of convent life.

It started with a nun in Germany, and suddenly is spread throughout nunneries in Saxony and spread even as far as Holland and Rome. It eventually died down when authorities tried to exorcise the nuns, which didn’t work, and then threats of beatings followed. This quickly calmed down the nuns.

The biting nuns phenomenon highlights the complex interplay between psychological, social, and religious factors in understanding historical plagues. It remains a testament to the enigmatic nature of mass psychogenic illnesses that can grip communities, even those dedicated to religious devotion.

In another strange instance involving nuns, a nun began to meow like a cat which quickly turned into many nuns meowing at one another, sometimes for hours. This, too, was stopped by the positioning of soldiers who would whip any nuns they heard begin to meow. 

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3. The Sweating Sickness (16th Century)

During the 16th century, England experienced a series of outbreaks of a mysterious and deadly illness known as the Sweating Sickness. This malady struck suddenly, with symptoms including fever, headache, and profuse sweating. Afflicted individuals often died within hours of the onset of symptoms, and the disease left physicians and contemporaries puzzled, making it one of the most bizarre plagues in history.

The Sweating Sickness appeared in several waves, the most severe of which occurred in 1508, 1517, and 1528. The rapid onset and high mortality rate fueled fear and panic, and attempts to understand the disease were hampered by the limited medical knowledge of the time.

Modern scholars speculate that the Sweating Sickness may have been a form of hantavirus or a viral hemorrhagic fever. However, the precise cause remains uncertain, and the Sweating Sickness gradually disappeared without leaving a definitive mark on medical history.

4. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic (1962)

In 1962, a small village near Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania experienced an inexplicable and contagious laughter epidemic, making it one of the most bizarre plagues of all time. It all began with three schoolgirls who burst into laughter seemingly without cause. The laughter quickly spread, affecting the entire school and neighboring communities.

The laughter episodes persisted for weeks, leading to the closure of the affected school and the dispersal of students to curb the spread. The epidemic eventually subsided, but the precise cause remains elusive. Some theories suggest mass psychogenic illness, while others propose environmental factors or toxins as potential triggers.

I will say, it’s close symptoms and name to Tascha’s Hideous Laughter from Dungeons and Dragons has not gone unnoticed to me.

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic serves as a modern example of how psychological factors can contribute to the manifestation and spread of mysterious and uncontrollable behaviors within a community.

5. The Writing Tremor Epidemic (1892)

In 1892, an unusual and puzzling epidemic known as the Writing Tremor Epidemic struck a community, leaving its residents grappling with a bizarre affliction. The phenomenon began when several individuals in a small town started experiencing uncontrollable tremors while attempting to write. This peculiar affliction quickly spread, affecting people across various age groups and social backgrounds.

Those afflicted by the Writing Tremor found it increasingly difficult to perform even the simplest writing tasks. Attempts to pen a letter or sign a document resulted in chaotic and illegible scribbles due to the involuntary shaking of hands. The epidemic had a profound impact on daily life, disrupting communication, commerce, and education within the affected community.

Medical professionals of the time were perplexed by the Writing Tremor, and various hypotheses were proposed to explain the unusual manifestation. Some suggested a psychogenic origin, pointing to stress and anxiety as potential triggers for the tremors. Others explored environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins or contaminants in local water sources.

Efforts to contain the epidemic included isolating affected individuals, implementing changes in writing techniques, and even experimenting with alternative forms of communication. However, the Writing Tremor Epidemic gradually subsided, leaving behind a legacy of mystery and prompting ongoing debates among historians and medical researchers.

The Writing Tremor Epidemic, one of the most bizarre plagues, serves as a poignant example of how seemingly mundane activities can become profound challenges when afflicted by an unexplained epidemic. The convergence of physiological and psychological elements in this mysterious plague underscores the intricate nature of human health and the complexities involved in unraveling the mysteries of historical medical phenomena. As with other enigmatic plagues, the Writing Tremor Epidemic remains a testament to the ongoing quest for understanding the intricate dance between the human mind and the mysteries of afflictions that have, at times, defied explanation.

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Other Well-Known Accounts of Mass Hysteria

Other well-known accounts of mass hysteria have been even darker, such as the Salem Witch Trials, where the people of Salem turned against those who were ‘odd’ and not part of the normal society, which tends to be a common theme amongst witch hunts. And it’s important to note that witch hunts were no knew phenomena at that time, nor have they been a thing of the distant past, with some still occasionally occurring amongst groups in more remote and tribal locations such as in Papua New Guinea.

Conclusion

History is replete with accounts of strange and perplexing plagues that have challenged the understanding of medical professionals and historians alike. From the inexplicable Dancing Plague of 1518 to the curious case of the Biting Nuns, these incidents highlight the complex interplay of psychological, social, and environmental factors in shaping the course of mysterious illnesses.

While modern science has shed light on some historical plagues, many remain enigmatic, serving as a reminder of the limitations of our understanding. The dance of history continues, and these peculiar plagues remain woven into the tapestry of human experience, challenging us to unravel the mysteries that persist across time and cultures.

Malorie Mackey is an actress, published author, and adventurer. Malorie grew up in Richmond, Virginia where she loved sports, the outdoors, animals, and all forms of art. She took to acting at a young age, so it was no surprise when she decided to go to college for theatre. While in college, Malorie studied body movement with the DAH Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, voice in Herefordshire, England with Frankie Armstrong, and the business of theatre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Malorie moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles after receiving her BFA in Theatre Performance from Virginia Commonwealth University. Upon arriving in LA, Malorie participated in the Miss California USA 2011 Pageant where she won the “Friend’s Choice” Award (by popular vote) and received a beautiful award for it.

While living on the West Coast, Malorie accumulated over 40 acting credits working on a variety of television shows, web series, and indie films, such as the sci-fi movie “Dracano,” the Biography Channel show “My Haunted House,” the tv pilot “Model Citizen” with Angie Everhart, and the award-winning indie film “Amelia 2.0.”

Throughout her experiences, Malorie found a love for travel and adventure, having journeyed to over a dozen countries experiencing unique locations. From the lush jungles of the Sierra Madre mountain range to the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, Malorie began adventuring and writing about her unique travels. These travel excerpts can be found on VIVA GLAM Magazine, in Malorie’s Adventure Blog, in Malorie’s adventure show: “Weird World Adventures” and in the works for her full-length travel book.

In 2022, Malorie was thrilled to become a member of the Explorer’s Club through her work on scientific travel. Her experiences volunteering on archaeological and anthropological expeditions as well as with animal conservation allowed her entry into the exclusive club. Since then, Malorie has focused more on scientific travel.

Malorie’s show “Weird World Adventures” releases on Amazon Prime Video in the Spring of 2024! Stay tuned as Malorie brings the strangest wonders of the world to you!

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