Bop till you drop – on Theresa May, Brexit, and the Dancing Plague of 1518

An Irishman’s Diary

Those extraordinary videos of Theresa May in South Africa set me thinking, for some strange reason, of the involuntary dancing plagues that afflicted parts of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The medieval phenomenon has been variously attributed to extreme stress, mass hysteria, and the accidental ingestion of mind-altering substances. It was similar to St Vitus’s Dance, a recognised disorder that causes rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements, and is so named for the celebrations that used to be performed around statues of St Vitus, the patron saint of dancers.

In any case, it was a mania that spread throughout communities, and once people started doing it, they couldn’t stop. I hesitate to suggest that the British prime minister’s tortured-looking Brexit Shuffle – she was in South Africa to announce her first trade deal of the brave new era – was the result of stress or overexcitement, nor that it’s likely to set off an epidemic among leavers.

But as it happens, this summer marks the 500th anniversary of the most famous historic example of the condition: the Dancing Plague of 1518. And in an alarming precedent, that too began with a single woman.

The scene – interestingly for Europhiles and Eurosceptics alike – was Strasbourg, where one day in July of that year, a certain Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. This continued, day and night, for a week, during which 100 others, mostly female, joined in. By month’s end, there were 400 at it. But by now, dancers were dying regularly, at a rate of 15 a day, from exhaustion and cardiac arrest.

For a while, the city fathers though they could control the craze by providing safe spaces for dancing, and even musicians. That only encouraged it, however. And so it continued, until September, when the mania just burned itself out.

In a 2008 book about the events, historian John Waller noted that the people of Strasbourg had been under acute stress at the time, "after a succession of appalling harvests, the highest grain prices for over a generation, the advent of syphilis, and the recurrence of old killers such as leprosy and the plague".

So, disastrous as the Brexit negotiations may be, that alone hardly explains the prime minister’s transformation into a human (but still wooden) Maypole, never mind providing conditions for a mass outbreak. Besides, if a form of the mania does descend on Britain, it might have a more recent, and relevant precedent: the Native American “ghost dance” of the 19th century.

Back then, beset on all sides by European settlers, the surviving Indian tribes fell under the spell of a man named Wovoka, a religious leader also known as the Paiute Prophet. During a solar eclipse in 1889, he had a vision of the resurrection of the dead, the expulsion of the white oppressor, and the restoration of the buffalo – by then almost extinct – on which the indigenous peoples had long depended.

To help bring this about, his followers had to invoke the spirits with a special dance, performed for days on end. It became a mass movement for a time, and made settlers nervous. But as we know, it didn’t work. The white man wasn’t going away, and the buffalo weren’t coming back, never mind the ancestors.

Although the leading Brexiteers tend to be more cowboy than Indian, their desperate optimism of about the new world that awaits when the European oppressor is expelled does sometimes sound like the preachings of the Paiute prophet.

Worryingly, on several levels, Jacob Rees Mogg has even started talking about the buffalo, or at least about cattle.

Earlier this summer, he mentioned the threat of a post-Brexit UK slapping tariffs on Irish beef, thereby destroying the industry at a stroke, as a way of bringing the EU to its senses.

And of course he has also spoken breezily of the return of inspections along the Border, “as we had during the Troubles”, although it remains an article of faith among Brexiteers that the same Border will continue to be as frictionless as now.

History suggests the prospect of securing the Border, even with friction, is about as realistic as policing the boundary between this world and the one inhabited by our dead ancestors. But in visions, everything is possible.

Getting back to Theresa May’s dancing, we must hope that – terrible as it was to see – it remains an isolated outbreak. It is in any case hard to imagine Jacob Rees Mogg joining in, even to celebrate an African trade deal. It that does happen anywhere soon, we’ll know the plague has returned.