The Dancing Plague of 1518

Angry Saints, overheated blood or mass hysteria?

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Let’s go way back to Strasbourg, Northern France, July 1518. Despite the lack of musical accompaniment, Frau Troffea began to dance on the cobbled street outside of her home. Onlookers apparently enjoyed and clapped for her energy and, despite the pleas from her husband, Frau Troffea continued to dance for hours, until she finally collapsed of exhaustion before awaking the next morning and beginning the bizarre spectacle all over again on her swollen feet, with no food or water. Frau Troffea continued to dance with no rest for the next six days before frightened authorities sent her 30 miles away in a wagon to Saverne to be cured. However, some of those who had witnessed her performance began to mimic her and, within a week, 34 people had joined in the mania, reaching 400 dancers by the end of the month. At the height of the dancing mania, 15 people a day were dying from strokes, heart attacks and sheer exhaustion.

The city councillors and officials were mystified by this phenomenon, so consulted doctors of the cause and how to control this hysteria. The clergy claimed it to be the work of a vengeful Saint Vitus, but this theory was second to the guild of physicians, who thought the dance was a “natural disease, which comes from overheated blood”. Despite the cure for this usually involving the afflicted being bled, physicians instead recommended that the affected must dance themselves free of the illness. To assist this, the council ordered carpenters and tanners to construct temporary dance floors and to “set up platforms” in full view of the public. Dozens of musicians were brought in to play drums, fiddles, pipes and horns, and healthy dancers were brought in to encourage the afflicted; all with the sole intention of creating the optimal conditions for the dancing plague to exhaust itself. However, this just seemed to encourage even more citizens of Strasbourg to join in, so they had to rethink their strategy.

The city officials then ordered the stages to be removed and began to prohibit all dance and music until the next September, with one exception: “if honourable persons wish to dance at weddings or celebrations of first Mass in their houses, they may do so using stringed instruments, but they are on their conscience not to use tambourines and drums”. In addition to this, the council ordered the worst afflicted (the choreomaniacs) to be bundled into wagons and taken to Saverne, where Frau Troffea had been taken at first, and placed them under the shrine of Saint Vitus. They were to wear red shoes, sprinkled with holy water and painted with crosses of consecrated oil, and to hold small crosses. The ritual was carried out with incense and Latin incantations and, when it had worked, word was sent back to Strasbourg to send the remaining sufferers to be cured.

But if the dancing plague was not caused by an angry saint or overheated blood, what was the cause? In 1524, alchemist and physician Paracelsus visited Strasbourg to learn more about the phenomenon, and it was his opinion that Frau Troffea began the whole mania simply to embarrass and annoy her husband. Upon seeing her deception and understanding the trick, the other women of the town began to dance to annoy and embarrass their husbands too, encouraged by “free, lewd and impertinent thoughts”. Paracelsus classed this type of dancing mania as Chorea Lasciva (caused by voluptuous desires without fear or respect), alongside Chorea Imaginativa (caused by the imagination from rage and swearing). While these are some of the earliest known theories of the dancing plague, I think it's safe to say they no longer hold much weight and they seem quite ridiculous now.

A more rational theory comes from several modern historians, who have argued that the dancing plagues of medieval Europe (1518 was certainly not the first, but arguably the most famous) were likely caused by ergot. Ergot is a mind altering mould found on the stalks of damp rye, which was used for baking bread. It can cause twitching, jerking and hallucinations, is structurally related to LSD and is the substance from which LSD was originally synthesized. Ergot has also been implicated as the possible cause of the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials. However, this theory has mostly been debunked by historian John Waller; ergot can cause convulsions and hallucinations but also restricts blood flow to the extremities which makes it unlikely that someone poisoned by it would be unable to dance for several days in a row, nor would so many people react to the psychoactive element in the exact same way. Instead, Waller speculates that the dance was caused by stress-induced psychosis on a mass level. There are many possible reasons for this, including the fact that the affected region was riddled with starvation and disease, a string of bad harvests, political instability and the arrival of syphilis. This, coupled with the fact that the inhabitants of this area tended to be very superstitious and that there had been a many other unexplained dancing phenomenons in the same area between 1374 and 1518, meant that their suffering manifested in a hysterical dancing mania, because the afflicted believed it could, from previous experience and the power of suggestion.

What do you think? Stress induced mania or some of the earliest reported LDS trips? Let me know in the comments!

fact or fiction
Read next: Best Running Shoes for Women
Megan Hindmarsh
See all posts by Megan Hindmarsh