In the summer of 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace, a woman by the name of Frau Troffea took to the streets and started to dance. She continued to dance day and night without stopping. No one knows why she started but within a few days others started to join in. Within a week Frau Troffea had died, presumably from exhaustion and 34 others are reported to have joined her dancing in the streets.
This peculiar dancing plague continued to gain momentum and, a month after it started, there were supposedly 400 people dancing in the streets of Strasbourg. Reports from the time indicate that the dancers were doing so unwillingly, many people reportedly screaming in pain and begging for mercy. Men, women and children were all affected, although it seemed to affect women most severely.
The local authorities, perplexed at how to deal with this dancing epidemic, decided to prescribe ‘more dancing’ as a potential cure. The opened up two guildhalls and a grain market and built a wooden stage for the dancing to occur on. They even hired musicians to provide encouragement for the dancers to keep moving. The theory was that if the afflicted danced continuously day and night they would eventually tire and recover. This plan did not work well though, and many danced to their deaths, dying from heart attacks, strokes and exhaustion.
This is not the only cited example of dancing plagues in history and there are other reports of equally bizarre outbreaks. Almost 150 years earlier in 1374 dozens of towns in the valley of the river Rhine were affected by a similar malady that caused hundred of afflicted individuals to dance uncontrollably. Another strange example of a similar illness occurred in 1491 in a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. On this occasion, several nuns were affected and were compelled to act like animals and run and dance around in a frenzied state.
What Caused the Dancing Plagues?
There have been numerous different theories as to what the exact cause of these dancing plagues might have been. One very popular theory is that it was a form of mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a well-recognized phenomenon in which there is a rapid and spontaneous spread of hysterical beliefs within a population. There are many examples of this occurring and other examples include the famous Salem witch trials in the late 1600s and more recently the Mount Pleasant incident in Mississippi in 1976.
This would certainly seem to be a plausible explanation, particularly in view of the societal difficulties that were present at the time. A combination of generations of poverty, famine, and disease and zealous religious and superstitious beliefs may well have created the perfect environment for mass hysteria to occur in. Adding weight to this argument is the existence of a local belief in a saint known as St. Vitus, who was thought to have the power to take over the minds of people and inflict an awful, uncontrollable dance that would appear to be remarkably similar to the occurrence of 1518.
Another theory that has been suggested is that the afflicted had inadvertently ingested ergot, a type of fungus that grows on rye and cereals. Ergot produced alkaloids that are psychotropic and can cause hallucinations, bizarre behaviour and other neurological effects. Ergotism has also been suggested as the possible cause of the hysteria that occurred during the Salem witch trials.
A counter-argument to this is that people suffering from ergotism are generally very sick, are prone to seizures and can even suffer gangrene in their extremities. None of these features were described by witnesses of the Strasbourg dancing plague, and it would seem unlikely that dancing would be able to be sustained for long periods of time whilst suffering from these symptoms.
Other historians have suggested that the dancing plague may have been the work of a heretical cult, but again there is little evidence to support this theory.
As the superstition of the middle ages was gradually replaced by the scientific discoveries and cultural advances of the Renaissance reports of dancing plagues became less frequent. It may never be known for sure what caused these bizarre and peculiar outbreaks but they serve as a reminder of the strange and unpredictable nature of the human psyche.