Both before and after the Renaissance, cities and towns in Europe were reportedly hit by epidemics of dance. Before you envision the scenes as something like a charming Broadway musical, know that the people affected by these odd epidemics truly believed themselves to be unwillingly forced to dance either by a supernatural curse or by some other strange disease. Of the areas affected by the peculiar dancing plagues, the city of Strasbourg suffered one of the worst cases and, thankfully for us, the bizarre event was well-documented and discussed by the historians and scholars of the time.
In July, 1518, the dancing plague of Strasbourg began when a certain Frau Troffea took to the street and spent the whole day in dance. She rested for only a few hours of sleep before continuing her dancing for another long day. She reportedly kept up this relentless schedule until her feet bled and she collapsed from exhaustion—and even then, she picked herself up and continued her dancing. Before long, other citizens of Strasbourg felt irresistibly drawn to the dance and they joined Frau Troffea in her daily routine. By August, there were reportedly no less than 400 people engaged in an endless dance on the streets of the city.
With hundreds of people dancing well past their physical limits, the leaders of Strasbourg knew their city was facing a major problem. At first, they thought that the epidemic could be brought to a quick conclusion by encouraging and supporting the dancers, hoping those affected would simply dance whatever was ailing them out of their systems. With this in mind, the officials of Strasbourg had a stage built, hired dance instructors, and even recruited musicians, turning the dancing plague into something like a music festival. Yet, as September neared and no end to the dancing was in sight, the leaders of Strasbourg began interpreting the dance in new ways. Some, through the ancient medical idea of bodily humors, believed that too much hot blood was the cause of the hysterical dancing. Others, inspired by the witch-crazed atmosphere of the Colonial Age, believed the dancing was the work of the Devil. Both sides, however, apparently agreed that the best way for the dancers to cool off their blood or rid themselves of demons was for the affected people to be forcibly sent off to a mountain shrine in order for them to pray for healing.
Either through prayer, or simply from the government crackdown on the dancers, the epidemic ended around September and the city finally returned to normalcy. The dancing fever, however, had by then taken a heavy toll. No formal death count was apparently recorded, but while the dancing plague was in full swing, several of the dancers were said to have dropped dead on a daily basis from over-exhaustion, heart failure or strokes.
Now that the understanding of medicine and psychology has progressed, several theories have been proposed to explain the bizarre dancing plague of Strasbourg. One of the early hypotheses was ergot poisoning. Ergot fungus, which can grow on cereals such as rye, can cause hallucinations and spasms when ingested. Yet, as the dancers showed no signs of bodily sickness or poisoning, this theory has been disregarded by many. One of the newest interpretations of the event is that the dancing plague was a case of mass-hysteria, or a psychogenic disorder, caused by an unhealthy atmosphere of stress and fear. The psychological pressures of famine, disease, and possibly the legend of St. Vitus (a saint who was said to miraculously make people dance), might have combined to produce the Dancing Plague of 1518.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Danse de noce, painted by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564–1638), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).