Throughout history, there have been events so inexplicable that they defy rational explanations. One such event is the Dance Plague of 1518, a peculiar phenomenon that unfolded in the city of Strasbourg, which at the time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. This event has puzzled historians and scientists for centuries, leaving behind a trail of questions and theories. In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the origins, possible causes, and the profound impact of the dance plague on society.
The Dance Plague Begins
In the scorching heat of July 1518, the citizens of Strasbourg witnessed an extraordinary outbreak of dancing. It all began with a woman known as Frau Troffea. She stepped into the city’s bustling streets and commenced a never-ending dance. Her movements were relentless, and she danced with an inexhaustible energy. For nearly a week, Frau Troffea twirled, twisted, and shook her body in a seemingly uncontrollable dance, capturing the attention of those around her.
The most astonishing aspect of this spectacle was not Frau Troffea’s solitary dance but the fact that she couldn’t stop, even when her body showed signs of exhaustion.1 She danced past the point of pain, hunger, and shame, driven solely by an inexplicable force within her. There was no music to accompany her; her heart set the tempo, pushing her to continue.
Within days, something even more bewildering occurred. Others were drawn to Frau Troffea’s fervent dance, compelled to join in this inexplicable ritual. By August, more than 30 people had become part of this dance plague, and the number continued to rise. The once-silent streets of Strasbourg now echoed with the rhythmic sound of dancing feet.
The local physicians of the time were baffled. They attributed this bizarre phenomenon to “hot blood” and offered a curious prescription: the afflicted should dance to sweat away their fever. A stage was erected in the city to facilitate the dancing, professional dancers were brought in, and even a band was hired to provide musical accompaniment. However, as the dancing marathon wore on, it exacted a heavy toll on the participants. Many collapsed from sheer exhaustion, and some tragically succumbed to strokes and heart attacks.
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The Dance Plague Escalates
The city authorities became increasingly alarmed as the dance plague showed no signs of abating. In a paradoxical attempt to quell the phenomenon, they decided that more dancing was the solution. Guildhalls were provided for the dancers to gather in, musicians were enlisted to play for them, and professional dancers were hired to assist the afflicted individuals in their relentless dance.
This approach, however well-intentioned, only exacerbated the contagion. As August progressed, the number of victims swelled to as many as 400. The dancing had consumed them to the point where they were dancing on bloodied feet, and their limbs twitched uncontrollably. The city was in turmoil, struggling to comprehend and contain this inexplicable dancing mania.
It wasn’t until early September that the dance plague began to abate. The sufferers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine, where they sought absolution through prayer, marking the end of this bizarre episode.
The Widespread Dance Epidemic
While the Strasbourg dance plague stands out as one of its most significant and well-documented incidents, it’s crucial to acknowledge that it was not an isolated event. Similar dance manias occurred in various parts of Europe during the medieval and early modern eras, between the 10th and 16th centuries.
For instance, in 1374, a dance mania outbreak spread to several towns along the Rhine River.3 These events, though less extensive than the Strasbourg case, were no less baffling.
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Dance Plague Theories and Explanations
Numerous theories throughout history have been made in an attempt to explain this bizarre phenomenon. While the true cause remains elusive, several compelling explanations have been proposed:
Historian John Waller has proposed a theory centered around St. Vitus, a Catholic saint believed by 16th-century Europeans to have the power to curse people with a dance plague. Waller suggests that the prevailing hardships of disease, famine, and the fear of St. Vitus’s curse triggered a stress-induced hysteria that swept through Strasbourg.
Another theory posits that the dancers may have been religious cult members.2 This perspective suggests that their compulsive dancing was a form of religious expression or ritual, further complicating the mystery.
A medical theory proposes that the dancers may have inadvertently consumed ergot, a toxic mold that grows on damp rye and can produce spasms and hallucinations. However, this theory lacks concrete evidence to support it.
Perhaps the most widely accepted theory, proposed by John Waller, is that the dance plague was a form of mass psychogenic disorder. Such outbreaks occur under extreme stress, often taking shape based on local fears and superstitions. In the case of Strasbourg, the combination of famines, diseases like smallpox and syphilis, and the pervasive belief in St. Vitus’s curse all contributed to the city’s collective hysteria.
The dance plague of 1518 remains one of history’s most perplexing and intriguing mysteries. While numerous theories have been put forth, the true cause of this bizarre event continues to elude us. Whether it was the result of superstition, religious fervor, or a mass psychogenic disorder, the dance plague serves as a reminder of the mysteries that history sometimes presents, challenging us to uncover the hidden truths of our past.
Ultimately, the Strasbourg dance plague is a testament to human behavior’s extraordinary and sometimes bewildering nature, leaving us with a story that will forever captivate our imagination.
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- “What Was the Dancing Plague of 1518?.” History. Evan Andrews. August 2023.
- “The people who ‘danced themselves to death’” BBC. Rosalind Jana. May 12, 2022
- “dancing plague of 1518.” Britannica. Pat Bauer