Historic Hysteria: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Delving into the outright bizarre today, we will be looking at the Dancing Plague of 1518. Arguably one of the strangest events in European history, to this day the exact cause of the plague and the symptoms its victims exhibited is still up for debate.

Black Death
Plagues occurred throughout Europe on several occasions, killing tens of thousands.

When one thinks of the great European plagues we imagine the horrors of the Black Death that rampaged across medieval Europe, indiscriminately decimating societies. High born or peasant, all were subject to the misery it brought to our towns and villages.

The Dancing Plague however appears quite comical at first glance. Its victims displayed signs of delirium, and their symptoms were a relentless need to dance and contort their bodies.

The event itself took place in the Alsace region – at the time a part of the Holy Roman Empire – and over 400 people are said to have fallen victim to this mania. The first alleged case of the Dancing Plague arose when a Strasbourg native, Mrs Troffea, began to dance in the street.

#Strasbourg
Strasbourg

Within a matter of days others in Strasbourg has joined Mrs Troffea and quickly the numbers began to swell. Within a month there were scores of people dancing for up to six days at time, resulting in death by exhaustion, heart-attack or stroke.

As the situation deteriorated, many concerned nobles in the Alsace region sought the advice of physicians and the clergy. Many believed the mania currently being exhibited on their streets were being caused by astrological events, or even witchcraft.

Print of Dancing Mania In Europe During Plague
A Depiction of the Dancing Plague

Physicians denied the notion of the supernatural, and instead believed the cause of this epidemic to be a natural one. ‘Hot blood’ was the prognosis, and in an even stranger turn of events, the physicians actually advised that those suffering continue to dance so as to wear off the effects of the affliction.

Authorities even went so far as to draft in musicians to assist in the affair. The reality however is that those affected by this bizarre ‘disease’ were pushing their bodies to the limit of human endurance.

When one considers the strain that long distance running, swimming or other forms of exercise have upon the body, then dancing near continuously for days on end without hydration or food is very dangerous.

There are a number of theories that point toward the source of this outbreak in 1518, which was not the first time a dancing epidemic had occurred. In the late 14th century, a similar event took place in modern-day Belgium and Luxembourg.

Ergot Mould Rye
Ergot mould can be found on rye crops and was believed to be the cause of the dancing epidemic.

One cause points toward ‘ergot’, a psychotropic mould that grows on rye crops. This substance is known to cause delusions and spasms, however it also cuts off blood supply to the extremities, making basic movement very difficult.

Another popular modern hypothesis is that the cause was simply mass-hysteria. The same general region had seen similar occurrences in the past, and on both occasions the regions in question were blighted by famine, disease and social & religious unrest. This was a particularly tumultuous time in European history, and with social upheaval also comes uncertainty and fear.

People in the 16th century were very spiritual and we see on many occasions that superstition can lead to hysteria, unrest and even violence. Historian John Waller hypothesises that whilst in a distressed psychological state the people of Strasbourg may have entered a trance, and the issue was exacerbated by the superstitious nature of their neighbours and peers.

Mass Hysteria Plague
Peasants tried to stop their peers from dancing, but often failed to stop the hysteria.

There is no denying that the Dancing Plague spread very quickly, and almost appears to take the form of a contagious disease. Spreading quickly throughout the peasantry the hysteria brought turmoil to Strasbourg, and it is an event that still baffles many to this day.

The centuries following this event would see a decline in supernatural beliefs across Europe, and subsequently events such as these rarely occur in the 21st century. This event, however, acts as a reminder of the strange ways in which the human brain functions and how society can quickly unravel under duress.

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