When you think of mass pandemics, you probably think of the usual suspects; the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and, of course, our own COVID-19 pandemic. You probably wouldn’t rank the Dancing Plague of 1518 among those, but you probably should – not because it was a massive pandemic that claimed thousands of lives, but because it’s simply one of the weirdest recorded incidents in history!
While there are multiple recorded outbreaks of dancing plague across Europe, the most famous occurred in the French town of Strasbourg in 1518. According to history.com, the epidemic was kicked off by a woman named Frau Troffea, who exited her home on a hot July day and began to dance in the streets, silently twirling and showing off her moves despite a lack of music to dance to. She danced all day to the point of exhaustion, with only a brief respite, and did the same again the following day, her feet growing bruised and bloody. Perplexed, the townsfolk gathered to watch and cheer her on, with around 30 others eventually joining her. Troffea kept dancing for a full week, pulling in more and more people with her.
The city council was understandably perplexed as to why so many citizens had just left their homes to dance uncontrollably in the streets and were unsure what to do. The dancers were in obvious pain, crying out for help and deliverance as they said they were unable to stop dancing. Despite exhaustion, dehydration and bruised and bloody feet, dancers would continue until they passed out or died from strokes or heart attacks. They decided to consult with physicians to try and determine the cause of this mysterious dancing mania. Physicians labelled it as the result of “hot blood”-according to medical science of the time, the body was composed of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Hot blood was an imbalance of the humors which caused the brain to overheat, resulting in the afflicted person going mad.
They decided on a remedy of more dancing in the hopes of burning out the dancers so they would eventually return to their homes. The city council hired a band to play in the streets, built a stage and even got extra dancers to fuel the excitement. This attempt failed, as the dancers just kept going past the point of exhaustion. According to history.com, approximately 400 total people caught the dancing mania, abandoning their homes to frolic in the streets.
Over time, seeing that their plans failed, the council turned to religion for answers. They decided the city was cursed with “St. Vitus’ Dance”, a curse from the patron saint of dancers for their sinful behaviour. In the extremely pious medieval ages, a curse from a saint was taken extremely seriously. The council began to crack down on sinful behaviour such as gambling and prostitution, and increased prayers and offerings to the saint for deliverance. They even outlawed and banned music in the hopes of getting the dancing to stop, but to no avail. Eventually, in September, the mania subsided just as quickly and mysteriously as it started, with people returning to their homes and resuming life as usual.
The Strasbourg case is the most famous, but other outbreaks happened across Europe between the 10th and 16th centuries. The other most famous incident took place in 1374 in the Rhineland, affecting between 500-1100 people. Thanks to an article published by The Indian Express, we can get a description of the incident taken from German physician Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker’s book The Black Death and The Dancing Mania (1888):
They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”
The dancing plague is fascinating because it’s one of the rare unresolved public health mysteries. While there are many potential causes for the outbreak, to this day nobody is sure exactly what caused it. The most common explanations are an incident of mass hysteria or a potential case of ergot poisoning, similar to what occurred during the Salem Witch Trials.
However, John Waller, a medical historian and an Assistant Professor of History of Medicine at Michigan State University, doesn’t think ergot is responsible. Waller, who published a book titled A Time To Dance, A Time To Die about the 1518 outbreak, believes it to be a case of psychological illness caused by a unique combination of social and psychological factors that resulted in extreme distress. Waller believes that the dancers must have been in a trance-like state, or else there was no way they could have danced continuously without any regard for their own health. A trance-like state which can induce a loss of self-control is known to occur in people who are under extreme psychological distress and who tend to believe in spirit possession, criteria which Waller believes the residents of Strasbourg certainly fit.
The years before 1518 in Strasbourg were trying times for the population. They were suffering from bitter cold, famine and diseases such as syphilis, plague and leprosy, all of which combined to create a negative psychological atmosphere within the city. On top of this, the population was extremely pious, holding a powerful pre-existing belief in the supernatural, especially in the ability of St. Vitus to possess them and force them to dance compulsively. This belief is perhaps the core cause of the epidemic; people fervently believed in the possibility of curses and possession, therefore making themselves more susceptible to being influenced by these beliefs and entering a trance-like state. Once they entered the trance, they acted according to their beliefs: dancing for days on end. So once Frau Troffea began to dance uncontrollably, it lent credibility to the belief that the curse was real; it turned into an epidemic because, with every additional victim that took to the streets to dance, that credibility was further increased.
Waller believes that the dancing plague died out because the supernatural beliefs that made it possible disappeared. During the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517, Strasbourg converted to Protestantism, eliminating the worship of St. Vitus that the plague was based on. Eventually, as times changed, the widespread belief in the power of the supernatural that characterized Medieval Europe was replaced by the science and rationality of the Enlightenment, effectively starving the dancing plague out of existence.
Today, the story of the residents of Strasbourg who danced themselves to death is a testament to the power of suggestion over the human mind. It’s comforting to know that there’s almost no chance the dancing plague could strike today; in a world of exceedingly deadly diseases, this is one less pandemic we have to worry about.