Known infamously as the Dancing Plague of 1518, this bewildering phenomenon wasn’t a jubilant festival or a mass artistic expression, but a potentially lethal frenzy that struck fear and confusion into the heart of mediaeval Europe.
Why did men, women, and children dance joylessly and uncontrollably in Strasbourg in 1518, sometimes for days or even weeks on end, without any apparent reason? At the time, explanations ranged from divine wrath to the malevolent work of witches.
Yet, with modern science and historical investigation, there are now a gamut of theories, from ergot poisoning—a fungi-infested rye known to induce convulsions—to the psychological pressures of an oppressed society.
A number of key questions around this strange phenomenon have remained. What caused such a patent, and presumably painful, release of expression? Was it caused by religious fervour, overheated blood, the ingestion of poison, or, as some at the time, and even today believe, demonic possession? And did people actually die a dancing death?
Why this compulsion for dancing? Strasbourg, it seems, wasn’t the only place in Europe in which instances of this mysterious mayhem occurred. Outbreaks with similar oddities were chronicled as far back as the seventh century, while incidents were recorded in Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg, England and Switzerland.
After dancing, death doesn’t usually occur but in Strasbourg in 1518, rumours of fatalities linger to this day. The dancing plague mystery is one that has left the world baffled for over half a millennia. Let’s dive into the summer sunshine of late French mediaeval history as we attempt to shed light on one of the world’s most baffling oddities.
The Dancing Queen
The 1518 dancing epidemic started when one woman, believed to be called Frau Troffea, came out of her house and started dancing. After some hours, she collapsed from exhaustion. Yet, after a short rest, she is said to have started up again.
According to the narrative, her feverish, frenzied dancing continued for days. Soon, other Strasbourgeois joined in. Within weeks, it’s said something like four hundred people were dancing maniacally in the streets of Strasbourg.
While people were collapsing with extreme exhaustion and severe injuries, in consultation with local physicians, the city’s civic and religious leaders believed that the locals were afflicted with some sort of fever. Astonishingly, they agreed that more dancing was the solution to force the fever away.
Professional dancers and musicians were brought in from the surrounding towns to whip up a frenzy. Guild halls were commandeered and temporary stages were erected in the belief that shaking and moving with wild, demonic abandon would somehow exorcise the dancing disease from people’s exhausted bodies. The local councillors even paid local strongmen to keep dancers upright.
By the beginning of September 1518, the dancing plague came to an end, but the mystery as to why it started at all endures to this day.
What Caused the 1518 Dancing Epidemic?
The dancing plague mystery is one of the most peculiar events in European history, and over the years, several theories—both contemporary and modern—have been proposed to explain the bizarre phenomenon.
The Sixteenth Century Theories
Some believed that the dancing was a result of God’s wrath, punishing people for their sins. This was an era when such explanations were often invoked for phenomena that couldn’t be readily or easily understood.
Witchcraft or Demonic Possession
Others thought that the afflicted had been cursed or were victims of witchcraft. Demonic possession was also a commonly held belief during this period for various unusual behaviours.
Some physicians at the time believed that before the dancing, Strasbourg residents had ‘hot blood’ and that the dancing would help them to cool down.
The Modern-Day Theories
One of the most frequently cited theories is ergotism, caused by consuming grain (particularly rye) contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea. This fungus produces alkaloids that can lead to symptoms such as hallucinations, painful seizures, and gangrene. However, the continuous dancing observed in the 1518 dancing plague isn’t a typical symptom of ergotism, making some scholars sceptical of this theory.
Mass Psychogenic Illness
Also known as mass hysteria, MPI is the manifestation of physical symptoms without a clear cause, often stemming from stress or anxiety within a group. Given the social and economic hardships of the time (like famine and disease), it’s theorised that these factors could have led to a mass stress-induced event like the so-called dancing disease. MPI is a more favoured theory because outbreaks of mass hysteria have been documented in various cultures throughout history, often during times of stress and high anxiety.
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This is a disease caused by the bacteria responsible for rheumatic fever. It’s known to cause rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily in the face, feet, and hands, which some speculate might be mistaken for dancing. The term “Saint Vitus’ Dance” is a historical name for Sydenham chorea. Saint Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, and individuals with this condition appear to be ‘dancing’ because of the involuntary movements. The association with Saint Vitus likely has roots in mediaeval Europe when people would pray to him for relief from the disease. While Sydenham chorea is historically termed “Saint Vitus’ Dance” due to its dance-like involuntary movements, it’s distinct from the 1518 dancing plague mystery. The former is a medical condition tied to streptococcal infections, while the latter remains an unexplained event with only theories to explain its occurrence.
The Last Dance
Did the residents of Strasbourg die a dancing death that fateful summer? Some sources have suggested that as many as fifteen people a day died, which if simple maths is applied, would take the death toll into the realms of the high hundreds. This is highly unlikely, indeed contemporary sources don’t mention fatalities at all. The only sources that mention deaths were all written in later accounts.
Of course it’s not outside the realms of possibility that deaths occurred due to injuries from dancing or associated causes such as exhaustion, heat stroke or heart attacks, but there are no written records to substantiate as much. The concept of people dancing to their deaths certainly paints an arresting image, which might have been perpetuated over the centuries, whether or not it was accurate.
While there’s general agreement that the 1518 dancing epidemic did occur and that a significant number of people were affected, the exact nature of the event and its outcomes remain the subject of debate and conjecture. The number of deaths, if any, directly resulting from the dancing is not definitively known.
Aside from a few minor isolated incidents that occurred in the early years of the seventeenth century, the 1518 dancing epidemic was believed to be the last of its kind in Europe. As the belief systems that likely fueled these outbreaks waned, so did the probability of their recurrence.
Rhythms of Despair
The dancing plague of 1518 stands as a haunting testament to the mysteries of human history, a peculiar interlude in the chronicles of time where the boundaries of physiology, psychology, and societal pressures blur into an eerie ballet.
While the echoes of those frantic footsteps have faded with the centuries, it remains a reminder of the frailties and complexities inherent in the human condition. While today modern science aims to demystify the shadows of the past, certain enigmas like the bizarre dancing disease persist, ensuring any firm, quantifiable explanation is likely to remain out of reach.