If you like a bit of obscure history, you might have heard of the so-called “Dancing Plague” of 1518, in which a maniacal fit of dancing spread from person to person across parts of Alsace. In all, some 400 people spontaneously—and seemingly unstoppably—began dancing over the course of the “plague”, with many of those dancing themselves to death from exhaustion.
As peculiar chapters from history go, the Dancing Plague has to be one of the strangest. The so-called “Laughing Plague” of 1505 is just as peculiar, but considerably less well known.
Just like the Dancing Plague that would follow it, the Laughing Plague broke out just as spontaneously, and spread across the area just as unstoppably.
According to most reports, an unnamed shepherdess in the tiny Moravian village of Otnice, in what is now the Czech Republic, spontaneously began laughing to herself while she sat spinning wool sheared by her husband and her eldest son. Laughter is contagious, of course, and so it wasn’t long before her husband and son, and the the families five other children, all soon took to laughing too. Only the joke never wore off.
As the days went by, most of the entire village of Otnice joined in the laughing, and within a week the plague had spread as far as the nearby city of Brno. By then, however, the joke was wearing thin: much as with the Dancing Plague, the older and frailer laughers among the population were soon dropping dead from exhaustion after days of near non-stop laughter—and as the plague became ever more unstoppable, some locals in Brno took to extreme measures to make sure they didn’t fall foul it.
One account claims a local blacksmith drove a nail through his palm in an attempt to stave off laughter. Another states that the local priest in Brno shielded at least a dozen local parishioners in his church, where he handed out hastily-made earplugs and spiked bands or “cilices”—meant to be worn around the arm or leg, where they dig painfully into the skin—to prevent any of them from finding anything too funny. One man is even claimed to have thrown his wife from a local bell tower in an attempt to provide himself with an event so tragic he was never likely to laugh, but mercifully that story seems to be a later invention.
Eventually, after almost three weeks of delirious laughter, the Laughing Plague dissipated just as mysteriously as it had started. It left as many as 40 people dead in its wake—and secured itself a place in the curious footnotes of history.