The Strasbourg Dancing Plague Of 1518: When People Danced To Their Death

The Strasbourg Dancing Plague Of 1518: When People Danced To Their Death

The Strasbourg Dancing Plague Of 1518: When People Danced To Their Death

It sounded like a twist from fiction, but it has been well documented in historical records in the 16th century. The city of Strasbourg, France, was hit in 1518 by one of the strangest epidemics in history, the “dancing plague” or “dance epidemic.”

A lady, called Frau Troffea, took to the streets and began dancing sometime in mid-July for no obvious reason.

No music and no expression of happiness betrayed her face. It lasted between 4 and 6 days, and she didn’t seem to be able to prevent her insanity.

Within a week, more than 30 people had joined, dancing night and day on the streets of Strasbourg. And it didn’t stop there. Within a month, at least 400 citizens (mostly female) of Strasbourg were swept up in the phenomenon, dancing for days without rest, experiencing the madness.

Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Work-based on an original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, a Renaissance painter, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders.

As the situation got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned. Some of these dancers eventually died from heart attacks and strokes.

Many died from pure exhaustion. Physicians were called in to document the event and try to find a solution. With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead of announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by a condition known as “hot blood”.

In the 1500s, “hot blood” was usually considered as a process known as “bleeding” or “bloodletting”. During that period in time, doctors believed the withdrawal of “bad blood” could cure or prevent many illnesses.

The authorities believed and eventually decided that the only way the dancers would recover is if they danced it out of their systems.

A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. They even hired a band of musicians to provide backing music.

Groups of people absorbed in ‘dancing mania’ or a ‘dancing plague’

In August, as mysteriously as it began, the Dancing Plague was over leaving almost 400 dead and one truly strange event.

Modern researchers proposed numerous theories for the cause of the bizarre event, including poisoning, epilepsy, typhus and mass psychogenic illness.

Other theories have suggested the dancers were members of a religious cult (originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing), or even that they accidentally ingested ergot fungus, the organic version of LSD, a toxic mold that produces spasms, seizures, and hallucinations.

However, the main idea is that this was an outbreak of mass hysteria. According to John Waller (Michigan State University professor) who wrote two books on the event, the outbreak was caused by mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a manifestation of mass hysteria that is often preceded by extreme levels of psychological distress – a famine, caused by cold winters, hot summers, crop frosts, and violent hailstorms.

In addition to the wide-spread famine, smallpox, syphilis, and leprosy afflicted the populace, as well. Waller believes this series of events might have triggered the MPI.

Half bird’s-eye view of Strasbourg by Franz Hogenberg, contained in Georg Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum published in 1572.

Historical documents, including “physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” are clear that the victims danced.

“These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing,” Waller said.

None of the theories completely explain 1518 dancing and researchers still have no solid answer for this strange historical event.

This was not the first outbreak of compulsive dancing in Europe. Similar manias took place in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland though few were as large or deadly as the one triggered in 1518.