What Was the Dancing Plague of 1518?


Throughout the history of the human race, there are a lot of inexplicable episodes of mass compulsion and obsession. Phenomenon such as mass delusions and panics tend to occur in people who are under extreme psychological distress and to those who believe in spirit possession. One great example of this mass hysteria is the events that occurred in Strasbourg in 1518 known as the Dancing Plague. It is a phenomenon where an involuntary communal dance festival ended with deadly outcomes. Let’s take a look on what started the dancing plague of 1518.

How Did it Start?

The dancing plague began in July of 1518 when a woman named Mrs. Troffea suddenly began to dance enthusiastically in a street in Strasbourg. The woman’s dancing was said to last somewhere between four to six days. After a week, 34 other persons had joined Mrs. Troffea and just within a month, there were about four hundred people, most of them are female,  were dancing in the street relentlessly with no music or songs and for no particular reason. Some of the people who joined the dancing had bloody feet and some died from exhaustion, stroke, and heart attack. One report stated that the dancing plague killed almost fifteen persons a day. But sources from the city of Strasbourg during the time of the events did not mention the number of deaths, even if there were fatalities.

Historical documents show that there were cathedral sermons, physician notes, local and regional newspapers, and notes that were issued by the Strasbourg city council which proved that the victims actually danced. However, the reason for their dancing is still unknown.

As the phenomenon worsened, concerned citizens sought the advice of some local physicians. They ruled out supernatural and astrological causes and they said that the dancing plague was a natural disease that was caused by hot blood. But instead of prescribing medicine to stop the plague, physicians encouraged the people to do more dancing. In fact, they even made guildhalls, a grain market, and a wooden stage to dance on. The authorities believed that the dancers would snap out of the dancing plague id they danced to their heart’s content through night and day. They even paid musicians to keep the dance going because they believed that it will increase the effectiveness of “the cure”.  Unfortunately, their plan did not go as well as they thought it would because after they applied the policies, the number of the people affected by the phenomenon skyrocketed to the point that people danced in more public places and the dancing plague increased. In September of 1518, after a full month of non-stop dancing in which countless people died, the dancing stopped just as fast as it started and people returned to their senses and went back to their normal lives as if nothing happened.

What is the Reason Behind the Dancing Plague?

Historian John Waller explained that the dancing plague was more likely caused by a Catholic saint named St. Vitus. Religious 16th century Europeans believed that St. Vitus had the power to curse people specifically with a dancing plague. The people’s belief of St. Vitus were combined with the horrors of famine and disease which were both tearing through Strasbourg in 1518. The St. Vitus superstition might have triggered a stress-induced hysteria that took hold of most of the people of the city. However, other theories suggest that the participants of the dancing plague were members of some religious cult. While others claim that the people who were affected by the dancing plague accidentally consumed ergot, a toxic mold that grows on moist rye and it has an ability to produce spasms and hallucinations.

The dancing plague in 1518 that occurred in Strasbourg might sound like a legend but it is a well-documented event, it even exist in the 16th-century historical records. However, it is not the only dancing plague that happened in history. The same phenomenon also happened in Holland, Switzerland, and Germany although none of them were as deadly and as large as the Strasbourg dancing plague was.

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