The Dancing Plague of 1518

02Sep09

Dancing-Death-400X540“Somewhere amid the narrow lanes, the congested wharves, the stables, workshops, forges and fairs of the medieval city of Strasbourg, Frau Troffea stepped outside and began to dance. No music was playing and she showed no signs of joy as her skirts flew up around her rapidly moving legs. To the consternation of her husband, she went on dancing throughout the day. And as the shadows lengthened and the sun set behind the city’s half-timbered houses, it became clear that Frau Trofea simply could not stop. Only after hours of crazed motion did she collapse from exhaustion. Bathed in sweat with muscles twitching, she finally sank into a brief sleep. Then a few hours later she resumed her solitary dance. Within days, more than thirty people had taken to the streets seized by the same urgent need to dance. By early August 1518, the epidemic was spreading at an alarming rate.”

The Dancing Plague of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, France (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and over the period of about one month, most of the people died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion. The authorities were convinced that the afflicted would only recover if they danced day and night. So town halls were set aside for them to dance in, musicians were hired to play pipes and drums to keep them moving, and professional dancers were paid to keep them on their feet. Within days those with weak hearts started to die. By the end of August 1518 about 400 people had experienced the madness.

Dancing-EngravingHistorical documents, including “physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” are clear that the victims danced. It is not known why these people danced to their deaths, nor is it clear that they were dancing willfully. As the dancing plague worsened, concerned nobles sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood”.

During the initial outbreaks of the mania, religious ceremonies were held in an attempt to exorcise the demons thought to be causing the mania. People commonly prayed to St. Vitus for aid, and he soon became the patron saint of the dancers. At least seven other outbreaks of the dancing epidemic occurred in medieval Europe, mostly in the areas surrounding Strasbourg. In more recent history, a major outbreak occurred in Madagascar in the 1840’s, according to medical reports that described “people dancing wildly, in a state of trance, convinced that they were possessed by spirits.”

The Cause

Plan Strasbourg.JpgEugene Backman, author of the 1952 book “Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine,” sought a biological or chemical origin for the dancing mania. Backman and other experts at the time believed the most likely explanation was ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed unknowingly in bread, the mold can trigger violent convulsion and delusions but not, Waller says, “coordinated movements that last for days.”

While at Australia’s James Cook University, sociologist Robert Bartholomew proposed a theory that the dancers were performing an ecstatic ritual of a heretical sect, but Waller counters, “there is no evidence that the dancers wanted to dance.” “On the contrary,” he added, “they expressed fear and desperation,” according to the written accounts. [Source]

Historian John Waller thinks that the dancing epidemic was caused by mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a manifestation of mass hysteria that is often preceded by extreme levels of psychological distress. Waller states that famine had been prevalent in the region for some time, caused by very cold winters, very hot summers, crop frosts, and violent hailstorms. Mass deaths followed from malnutrition, and those who survived were forced to kill their farm animals, take out loans, and perhaps even beg in the streets. In addition to food shortages, diseases such as smallpox, syphilis, leprosy, and “the English sweat” (a new disease) afflicted the populace. This series of events might have triggered the MPI.

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41 Responses to “The Dancing Plague of 1518”

  1. 1 sams

    I didn’t know of this!! What a sight that would have been. Strange and sad at the same time.

    • The only problem is that if you saw it you might catch it!

      • but the thing is you wouldn’t catch it because if you read it all it was caused by bread and not by being around them

        • 4 tina

          Have you read the last paragraph of the article?

          ‘Backman and other experts at the time believed the most likely explanation was ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed unknowingly in bread, the mold can trigger violent convulsion and delusions but not, Waller says, “coordinated movements that last for days.” ‘
          they believed it was MPI, which you could probably catch if you had lived in approximately the same area as them at the time

          • 5 derry

            it only says that they BELIEVE it’s the mold

        • 6 Smittot

          he wrote the freakin article… i should hope he read it!

  2. 7 Kathleen

    I agree with sams.

  3. 8 imcrystalclear

    I had never heard of this either, but now I have something to research and read about. When I first started reading it I thought maybe she was bi-polar, but then when more people started having the same experiences I thought this is just too weird. Good article. Now, I must go and do some more research.

    • Fortunately there is a quite of lot of information on the subject around as it is a popular story.

  4. 10 steamengenius

    Congrats on this sight J!!! I LOVE listverse,especially the Bizarre and Unsolved Mystery list.I’m a total fiend for the macabre and you have perfected it with Cogitz!!! Keep up the sick work my friend.I can’t wait to see what you have in store!!!

    • Thanks 🙂 I can’t wait to provide more – I would love to write more than one article a day but I don’t want to burn out!

  5. Good article! Years ago,I read about another case of extreme mass hysteria that occurred in the 1400’s or 1500’s or somewhere thereabouts, and I think it was in England. I thought I read about it in McKay’s Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds but I can’t find it at the moment. Some people in this town (women and men) became “possessed” by a religious fervor to such an extent they licked the wounds of lepers, ate filth, handled hot coals, allowed themselves to be pierced by swords, etc. Unfortunately, I can’t find the account now.

    • I would really love to know the name of that if you can think of it! It sounds fascinating.

    • 14 EARS

      “licked the wounds of lepers”

      wow. That is demented.

  6. 15 DC

    maybe they just liked dancing…jk, i was thinking whilst i was reading this that it was probably mass hysteria – the first person was probably genuinely dancing against her will and everyone else just got sucked into it. mass hysteria is very powerful. and wasnt ergot meant to have caused the symptons during the salem witch trial, except at some point a researcher realised the rye shouldnt have been growing at that time of the year (or something…). liking the site btw – its like everything i love about listverse has been condensed into cogitz 🙂

    • I think that Salem was mass hysteria too – brought on by an evangelical zeal.

      • 17 Looser

        great post jfrater. hey no offense or anything but could you maybe write longer articles? i love these but you get me all hooked on information and then…. nothing! could you maybe make them just a tad longer?

        • I will consider it 🙂

      • 19 Tsiamon

        I’ve spent a semester studying the Salem Witch Trials and it seems more likely that they were sparked by stress and hysteria, but not of the religious sort- You won’t find this information very forthcoming, but at the time, Salem was in the middle of a very violent war with the local Indian tribes. Evangelical zeal was nothing new; brutal wars added a fresh layer of hysteria.

  7. 20 Zenayda

    This is so strange. I don’t know enough about mass hysteria to say that’s what it was but honestly, it seems like the only logical explanation… Even that’s a stretch of the imagination but it’s simply so bizarre.

    • I do think it is a stretch as well (as I am not aware of other cases of mass hysteria leading to self-inflicted death) but it does seem the best solution so far.

  8. 22 Megan

    Ergot – causing mad dancing and witch hunting. What a nasty little thing.

    • Interestingly ergot is behind the discovery of LSD 🙂

      • 24 Smittot

        So it cant be that bad

  9. 25 Amanda

    I absolutely love this site! I love tbat with each article, I learn something new, even if I did already know about the subject. Great job! 🙂

    This dancing plague must have been a very odd site to see. …can’t imagine dancing to the death; how awful. Great article!

    • I can’t imagine dancing to death, but I do know that every time I dance in public I WANT to die 🙂

  10. 27 Nobkin

    I’m thinking that it’s definitely something uniquely environmental. It occured in only one portion of France, correct? Then, it’s fairly safe to assume that it is not some sort of communicable disease or else, a wider range of areas may have been “infected.” Nor do I think that it’s genetic, otherwise, fewer people would have been afflicted by the dance. I like the mold idea; if the people kept unknowingly eating the bread, then that could explain why the dances lasted for so long. I wonder what demographic of people were infected. The poor? The young? All demographics? It’s very interesting, thanks for such an awesome entry!

    • That does make some sense, but it did occur in other parts of Europe during other spates of the same disorder. That doesn’t mean you are wrong of course – it could just mean that the environmental issue moved around.

  11. I’m an avid fan of Listverse, and now of Cogitz… I can’t wait for you to post new lists and stories.

    @JFrater, on the subject, do you have any information about the Tarantella?

    Keep up the good work!

    • I am aware of the tarantella – it is very likely that it was the style of music played during the dancing mania as it was already in use prior to that for a cure for spider bites.

      Here is a video of two talented kids playing a tarantella:

      And here is a slightly more polished version with three adults:

  12. 31 Sabrina

    Now I have the suddenly urge to dance. Haha
    Good Article
    Happy Late Birthday!

  13. 32 charlie

    didn’t abba write a song about this?

  14. 33 empresszien

    Is this the same as Huntington’s Disease? I’ve studied this in my Neuro class and the description is the same as Huntington’s, even the part about St. Vitus. 🙂

    Really great info! I love ListVerse and now, Cogitz. 🙂

  15. 34 Demi

    Pardon me, but we all know this has to be said…
    BOOGIE FEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. 35 Nom_de_Guerre

    Not Ergot- Macarena.

  17. 36 saber25

    Just a request jfrater, could you please post more about science and facts articles on listverse? plus fascinating facts about houses or pictures of cool things. Keep it up!

  18. 37 Jennier

    the cure is more cowbell

  19. 38 supaflytnt

    could just be the first rave of 1518. good for them. i say dancing is a good of a way to go as any other…

  20. 39 dtaylor

    Whilst imagining their pain and bloody stumps, my mind auto-associated it with some of the recent shockers regarding people on PCP, Meth etc.
    Psychosis AND the LSD related Ergot seem to me, to be the logical answer. Mental health issues -obsessions, religion, fear and drugs/chemicals are responsible for many unimaginable, inconceivable horrors in this modern world too.

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