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 is still up for debate.

When one thinks of the great European plagues we imagine the horrors of the Black Death, which rampaged its way across medieval Europe. 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 took place in the Alsace region – which at the time was 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. 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 a 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.

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.

Potential Causes

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.

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. Thereafter, the issue was exacerbated by the superstitious nature of their neighbours and peers.

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.

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