The Plague That Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death

On an otherwise unremarkable July day in early 16th century Strasbourg (now in France), a woman known as Frau Troffea ran into the street and began dancing. There was no music being played, and it wasn’t a holiday or day of celebration, yet, for reasons unknown, she felt compelled to dance. She continued her solo dance performance for almost a week, when several dozen other residents of Strasbourg joined her. Roughly a month later, there were nearly 400 people dancing in the streets of the city.

This incident became known as the Dancing Plague of 1518, and, though it sounds funny, it actually ended up claiming some lives. Several dancers died from stroke or heart attack, and a handful of others died from exhaustion. Apparently, some of the dancers did not take any breaks to eat or drink, leading to dehydration in many.

thedevilsdavenport.files.wordpress.com
thedevilsdavenport.files.wordpress.com

The city authorities and local physicians ended up worsening the situation at first by deciding that the dancers would only recover from their mania if they kept dancing. They hired professional dancers and musicians to help keep the seemingly crazed dancers going. They also set aside locations for them to dance. It wasn’t until September, when authorities realized their efforts at a cure were failing, that the dancers were carted away to a nearby healing shrine. Only after this did the mysterious dancing plague cease.

What’s even stranger is that this was not an isolated incident in Europe. At least ten other incidences of epidemic dancing took place in different locations in Europe, going back over a hundred years before the Strasbourg incident. The 1518 plague is the best documented, though.

Many historians have tried to discover the cause of these compulsive dancing epidemics. Ergotism has been suggested as a cause. This illness occurs when people ingest ergot, a fungus that grows on rye. It can cause delusions and strange behavior. But it also affects blood supply to the arms and legs, which would have made frenzied, long-term spells of dancing impossible.

The best explanation for the dancing plague is that this was an episode of mass hysteria. This was a stressful time for the people of Strasbourg, as famine and disease were rampant. It is possible that the extreme conditions that existed caused stress-induced psychosis. This caused the first dancer to take to the streets, and then others followed. Events snowballed, and the incident became one of mass hysteria. It also helped that the Catholic inhabitants of the city believed in the curse of St. Vitus, which was said to cause frenzied dancing.

This was the last recorded case of dancing plague in Europe. Once the severe conditions eased, it did not happen again. It has also been suggested that conversion to Protestantism and the rise of rationality helped end these plagues, since people no longer believed in things like St. Vitus’ curse. Whatever caused the end of dancing epidemics, their existence shows just how powerful psychological stress can be.

Next Article
ADVERTISEMENT
  • The unstoppable Iron Mike

    If you thought Iron Man was indestructible wait until you hear about Michael Malloy or Mike The Durable as his friends liked to call him. Malloy was a firefighter who lives in New York City during the 1920s but by 1933 he was homeless and had fallen deep into the clutches of alcoholism. You see...

    Read More
  • You Want To Live Forever? Start By Getting A Dog.

    Next time you find yourself screaming at your dog in anger because the young puppy chewed up your shoes, tore down your curtains or ruined your sofa, do keep this in mind: Buddy may actually be adding years on your life! In Sweden, researchers followed over 3 million people over the age of forty for...

    Read More
  • The Town That Respectfully Maintained The Grave Of A Toilet

    General George Smith Patton was a highly decorated senior officer of the United States Army, he is best known for commanding the U.S Third Army during the Allied liberation of Normandy in June 1944. His military exploits are well noted and documented, in fact, he is seen as one of the greatest war generals to...

    Read More
  • New Evidence Shows Menopause Treatment Not a Cancer Risk

    An exciting major new study has found that taking hormone replacement therapy to counter the symptoms of menopause does not increase a woman’s risk of early death. Researchers in the early 2000s discovered a link between women taking HRT for over five years and a higher risk of cancer. It even detailed how patients could...

    Read More
  • The Mysterious tale of Lucky Lord Lucan

    Some claim it to be one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th Century and when you dive into the story it really just begs the question - what in the world happened to Lucky Lord Lucan? On November 7, 1974, Lord Richard John Bingham the Seventh Earl of Lucan murdered his wife’s nanny by...

    Read More
  • A French Noblewoman Who Became a Ferocious Pirate Legend

    During the height of the Hundred Years War between England and France, one French noblewoman became feared throughout France for her ferocious never-ending appetite for revenge. Jeanne de Clisson with the help of the English outfitted three warships and caused havoc to any French ships crossing the English channel. Some may say privateer but at...

    Read More
  • The Native American Who Saved the Pilgrims

    Many of us are familiar with the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, but have you heard of Squanto, the Patuxet Native American from Cape Cod Bay that saved the Pilgrims from disease and disaster? Squanto was a young man when, in 1614, he was abducted by Spanish conquistadors. He was forcefully taken by ship back...

    Read More