Untangling Strasbourg’s 1518 Dancing Plague Mystery

Engraving by Hendrik Hondius depicting three individuals afflicted by the plague, inspired by the original artwork of Pieter Brueghel – Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Over 500 years ago, a strange sickness afflicted the citizens of Strasbourg, an area that would eventually become a part of modern-day France. Hundreds of people found themselves dancing until they literally dropped to the ground, yet no clear explanation has emerged.

In the following paragraphs, we will delve into the captivating events of this mysterious phenomenon and explore the various theories and hypotheses that attempt to shed light on this enigmatic historical occurrence.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Today, it’s described as a dancing plague or “choreomania,” and it all began with a woman named Frau Troffea.

On a scorching July day, she walked into the town square and started to dance – and she didn’t stop. She danced for nearly a week without any music, and many others soon followed suit. By August, hundreds were dancing in unison, unfazed by bleeding feet and aching limbs.

Local physicians struggled to explain this captivating phenomenon. Some attributed it to “hot blood” and suggested that the dancing was a way to literally shake off the fever.

Strasbourg’s town leaders, despite their lack of understanding, wholeheartedly embraced the situation. They went so far as to construct a stage, hire a band, and invite professional dancers to join the fray.

The massive dance fever of 1518 stands as the largest recorded incident of infectious dancing overtaking a group of people. Yet, it’s not an isolated occurrence. Similar events have also transpired in Switzerland, Holland, and Germany.

What Caused the Dancing Plague?

Years after the Strasbourg incident, the physician Theophrastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus, renowned for his work on the role of chemistry in medicine, wrote several treatises on the event. One of these was titled “The Diseases that Deprive Man of His Reason,” which explored ailments like St. Vitus’ dance, falling sickness, melancholy, and insanity, along with their appropriate treatments.

Paracelsus suggested that the dancing plague occurred because people’s “laughing veins” had the potential to cause a “ticklish feeling” that clouded their judgment and forced them into a frenzied state. Simultaneously, the doctor wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea that religion, and more specifically, people’s sins, contributed to the problem. He posited that those most severely afflicted were “whores and scoundrels who took pleasure in guitar and lute playing.”

More Practical Theories

Nobody knows precisely what caused this dancing fever. However, historian John Waller suggests that the explanation lies with the Catholic saint St. Vitus.

Many 16th-century Europeans believed that St. Vitus could curse people with a dancing plague.

In 1518, disease and famine were ripping through Strasbourg, and the stress may have caused mass hysteria among the townspeople.

Some theorists also suggest that the dancers were part of a cult, and others think they have ingested a toxic mold called ergot, which grows on damp rye grains and can cause spasms and hallucinations (it also contains lysergic acid or LSD).

Dance Mania Lives On

Today, the closest people have gotten to a dancing plague is the famous flash mobs that occasionally pop up in public spaces. However, a few creatives have released works that hearken back to the 16th-century phenomenon.

For example, the indie rock band Florence + The Machine released an album titled “Dance Fever,” and author Kiran Millwood Hargrave published a book called  “The Dance Tree.” Both of these creations seem to pay homage to this intriguing phenomenon. Furthermore, these works delve into themes related to rapture and restraint, two subjects that were undoubtedly subjects of heated debate during medieval times.