In the summer of 1518, a dancing epidemic gripped the city of Strasbourg, Germany. For months the cities inhabitants literally danced until they died. Whilst the events that unfolded over the summer of 1518 may seem like an excerpt from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we know for sure that this story happened. It’s a story that can easily be dismissed as having happened centuries ago, to people most unlike ourselves, too ‘backwards’ to understand the world around them. Yet, in order to fully understand these events it is important to put them into their own historical context and see the event from a sixteenth century narrative.
On 14 July 1518 a German woman named Frau Troffea began to dance. There was no music playing and she showed no signs of joy. Frau Troffea only stopped to sleep. When she woke up, she began to dance once more. By the third day onlookers began to gather to watch the spectacle. Most blamed ‘restless spirits’ or ‘demons’ and, eventually, by the seventh day, she was taken away by the church. After this, we know nothing of Frau Troffea, but back in the city more than thirty people had taken to the streets, seized by the urgent need to dance.
Much like Frau Troffea, the dancers did not want to dance, they were in pain, and it is reported that their heels bled copiously, probably with sinews torn to the bone. By August four hundred people had joined. Soon, some of the participants began to dance themselves to death and chronicles suggest that there were at least fifteen dying each day. After all, it was an unusually hot summer and the dancers seldom paused to eat, drink, or rest.
The city was gripped with confusion. Nobody had answers for the epidemic and the rich burghers, who ran the city, were not amused. The burghers decided that the best way to curb the dancing plague was by more dancing! Piper, drummers, more dancers, and strong men (ordered to hold the tired participants up) were all hired to keep the dancers dancing. This was all in the hopes that maintaining the frantic motion would help shake off their sickness. Of course, it did not. So, the burghers decided that the dancing had to be the result of ‘holy wrath’ as a consequence of sin. Therefore, dancing and music was banned, and penance was enforced. Still the dance continued. Eventually, the dancers were taken to a shrine dedicated to St. Vitus (the patron saint of dancers and entertainers) where their feet were placed in red shoes, and they were led around a wooden figure of the saint. The red was to represent the colour of St. Vitus and his burning feet, it was thought that this would lead God to protect the wearer and stop them from dancing.
Eventually, in September, the dancing plague ended. So bizarre was this event to the people of Strasbourg that the details were carefully recorded in both Latin and High German by a variety of different intellectuals. The most prominent record was by Paracelsus, who had visited the city in 1526 at a time when many of its inhabitants were still trying to make sense of what happened eight years previous. Whilst his contemporaries had claimed that the plague had been sent down by a wrathful heaven to punish sinners, Paracelsus had a different take. Keeping with his regular brand of misogyny and scepticism he blamed Frau Troffea, claiming that she had begun to dance in order to humiliate her husband. As a consequence, the other women did the same thing with one imitating the other. Twentieth and twenty-first century historians disagree with Paracelsus, though suggestions of diagnosis are few and far between. From a writer’s perspective there are only two real contenders in this case, though many diagnostic suggestions such as encephalitis, epilepsy, and tarantism (the bite of a tarantula) have been suggested.
The first realistic suggestion is ergotism. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that grows on rye and produces a chemical related to LSD. Essentially, it’s a very deadly food poisoning. Symptoms include nausea, abdominal cramps, hallucinations, twitching, and violent jerking. Unfortunately, none of these symptoms relate very closely to sustained dancing, and chroniclers were clear – the people of Strasbourg danced. John Waller, the author of A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 argues strongly against the diagnosis of ergotism. First, Waller suggests that it is simply not feasible for so many people to have reacted in the same way to ergot poisoning. Like many illnesses, people have a variety of symptoms and in varying degrees, all those affected in Strasbourg had the same symptom – sustained dancing. Second, while ergot can lead to delusions and spasms it much more often causes restricted blood supply to the extremities, this produces an awful burning sensation, gangrene, and an excruciating death. In the sixteenth century this was referred to as ‘St Anthony’s Fire,’ and crucially there were no reports of this illness from Strasbourg in 1518. Therefore, due to Waller’s research, it is safe to say that ergotism is unlikely in the case of the dancing plague.
The most credible explanation for the dancing plague is mass psychogenic illness, as a reaction to the troubles faced by the city at the time. Strasbourg had gone through a series of bad years, 1517 was even labelled by the cities inhabitants as ‘the bad year.’ A series of poor harvests had plagued the city triggering famine and deadly epidemics such as smallpox and the ‘English Sweat’, which had arrived suddenly and had indiscriminately ripped through Strasbourg. In other words, the people of Strasbourg were miserable and there was little hope for the future. In addition, Strasbourg was not the only dancing plague: there had been several other cases in preceding centuries, nearly all in towns and cities close to the River Rhine. With the arrival of the printing press and through the stories of merchants, pilgrims, and soldiers, it is more than likely that the people of Strasbourg knew of these events. It is therefore suggested that the dancers of Strasbourg were subconsciously re-enacting the stories they had heard in a mass psychological breakdown.
Waller takes this diagnosis of mass psychological illness further suggesting that the dancing plague could only have occurred in a culture steeped in a particular kind of supernaturalism. The people were consistently told by fiery preachers that their misery was due to sin and a lack of penance and prayer. Yet, no matter what the people of Strasbourg did to please God, hunger and sickness was rife. The people began to lose their faith and question their preachers. Waller argues that it was within this supernaturalist context that Frau Troffea and hundreds of her fellow citizens succumbed to the dancing plague. Waller describes events as a ‘pathological expression of desperation and pious fear.’
Other circumstances of mass psychological illness are surprisingly similar to the events of 1518. For example, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic in 1962 saw almost 1000 people experience uncontrollable laughter. It started with three girls at a boarding school in Kashasha, Tanzania and within the space of a few hours it had affected 95 of the 159 pupils. When the affected students were sent home to their families the laughter spread through their own villages and the phenomenon continued for eighteen months. It was theorised that the mass psychological illness was the result of stress, which is very similar to Waller’s understanding of the dancing plague. Therefore, mass psychological illness is the most likely cause of the dancing plague as it gives an explanation as to why so many people were affected.
The dancing plague of 1518 was the last of its kind in Europe and, whilst the dancing plague may never be fully explained or even properly understood, it can certainly be appreciated as one of the most bizarre events in early modern history. I feel it important to conclude that the dancing plague can only be understood in its own context, the fear of God, the hunger, and disease, a culmination of factors that modern day historians have never experienced.
Written by Eva Campbell
Donald, LJ, J Cavanagh, and J Rankin. “The dancing Plague: A Public Health Conundrum.” Public Health (London) 111, no. 4 (1997): 201-204.
Lanska, Douglas. “The Dancing Manias: Psychogenic Illness as a Social Phenomenon.” Neurologic-Psychiatric Syndromes in Focus – Part II 42 (2017): 132-141.
This Podcast Will Kill You. Ep 40 The Dancing Plague: Worst Dance Party Ever. Podcast audio. December, 2019. https://open.spotify.com/episode/1fWi5RkGMPgD31HNdTeLAq?si=5gFY9PA0RYS0d_QL8F8OiA.
Waller, John. “Keep on moving: the bizarre dancing epidemic of summer 1518.” The Guardian. July 5, 2018.
Waller, John. A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. Icon Books, 2009.