Whilst our Medieval Medicine event this week is focusing on physical health, we thought it important to share insight into the mental health of the population during medieval times. Joe is part of our Visitor Services team and he has written this week’s blog:
The medieval period was a time of intense social and political turmoil: war, disease and famine were rampant, and this led, understandably, to huge amounts of stress and mental pressure for the most vulnerable in society.
We’ve all felt what it’s like to need a day off after a really stressful time at work so imagine what it’s like when your work is year-round, back breaking labour and your stresses are starvation, war and some of the worst diseases to ever afflict humanity! So today we’re going to highlight some of the times when these pressures boiled over in medieval Europe and show what happened when the peasants had simply had enough.
The Jacquerie Revolt
The 14th century was not a fun time for the French. A failing, ongoing war with Edward III of England, civil war amongst rival claimants to the throne and, of course, the dreaded Black Death had all wrought a horrible toll on the country, especially on the peasant population.
Up to half of the population had been lost to the plague of 1347-1351 with many villages and communities simply vanishing to the terrible disease and this was directly following a terrible famine that had struck Europe at the turn of the century.
The French government was tenuously maintaining control until the fateful Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The French army suffered an embarrassing defeat to a numerically inferior force resulting in the capture of the French king, John II and a crippling yearly ransom that destroyed the French economy. The peasantry had had enough and rose up in revolt.
The revolt was recorded by Jean Le Bel and preserved in history by chronicler Jean Froissart who describes just how vicious the revolt was: towns were burnt down, castles stormed, and nobles dragged from their homes and killed. One account describes peasants dragging a noble from his house in full armour only to be cooked on a spit and eaten!
The English Peasant’s Revolt
Whilst the French undoubtedly came out worse during the 14th century, it certainly wasn’t a good time for English peasants either! The Black Death wrought equal misery upon the peasant population and taxation for the war effort was oppressive. These factors, as well as recurrences of plague in the later 14th century, led to a massive peasant uprising in 1381.
The revolt in England was more organised than in France, with charismatic leaders like Wat Tyler taking the reigns and directing public hysteria at key targets. This meant that the revolt was far more concentrated on certain regions with clear goals in mind and devastation was on an even larger scale.
One particular incident saw the peasants capture the Tower of London, execute many of the nobles inside including king Richard II’s personal physician and nearly resulted in the death of John of Gaunt’s son, the future Henry IV!
The revolt was eventually stopped with its leaders beheaded but imagine if they had succeeded in killing the young Henry: no overthrow of Richard II thus no Henry IV or Henry V, no battle of Agincourt which would have meant no Henry VI, no Wars of the Roses and no Richard III, possibly not even a Tudor dynasty following! Had Henry’s guards not protected him, the entire course of English history could have been changed by a peasant mob!
The Dancing Plague of Strasbourg
Mass hysteria can take on many forms, not all as violent as open revolt. Indeed, Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Alsace in France) saw bizarre instances of hysteria caused predominantly by a series of failed harvests, exorbitant grain prices and hoarding by the clergy.
Wannabe rebel leader Joss Fritz attempted multiple bundschuh (peasant uprisings) that he hoped would result in the toppling of the feudal system… all of which were leaked by his friends before they even started!
More bizarre were reports of people seeing the ghosts of warriors marching from the hills of Alsace to scream at members of the clergy. The laity concluded that purgatory was overflowing with good men who had been condemned there by a corrupt church and its tenants were spilling out into the mortal world to seek revenge.
All of this stress and unrest came to a head in July 1518 when Frau Troffea, an unassuming, hardly considered wife to a boorish husband, started dancing without music. Onlookers to her dancing in the town square of Strasbourg at first laughed at the seemingly innocuous sight, but the laughter switched to horror when they realised something: Frau Troffea wouldn’t stop. She danced for hours only stopping when her body gave out and she fell asleep, only to awaken a few hours later to begin her solo performance anew. Her feet blistered, she became visibly exhausted. Eventually the clergy stepped in, carting her away to a nunnery to recover. It seemed as though the strange occurrence was nothing more than an oddity.
However, Frau Troffea was evidently not alone in her hysteria as soon more people began to mimic her bizarre ballet. At first dozens took to the streets, then hundreds, then possibly even thousands. The authorities in Strasbourg were like children in the face of this baffling plague: what on Earth were they to do? They settled on providing a stage and musicians for the dancers which, to literally no one’s surprise, didn’t work. Eventually the dancing died out but not before dozens lay dead from exhaustion.
The dancing plague of Strasbourg has gone down in history as one of the most unusual incidents in European history and all explanations aside from mass hysteria have failed to offer any real solution to the mystery of its origins.