Author: Glenn Tafe
The “Dancing Plague of 1518” was an event in which hundreds of citizens of Strasbourg, France danced uncontrollably and apparently unwillingly for days on end. The mania was said to have lasted for two months. The plague started when a women by the name Frou Troffea walked into the street and began dancing erratically, and seemed unable to stop. She kept dancing and soon collapsed from exhaustion. After taking a break she began dancing again and continued this way for days. The number of dancers began to increase, and the civic and religious leaders theorized that more dancing was the solution. They arranged for spaces for dancers to dance in, musicians, and professional dancers to help the afflicted continue dancing. It only worsened the contagion, and more than 400 people died because of the compulsion. Theories of the plague were that the afflicted may have eaten bread made from rye flour which contained a very dangerous fungal disease called ergot. Other theories include demonic possession, overheated blood, etc.
In this video posted by HistoryPod, he describes the history of the mania, and how it spread in the German city of Aachen. The people of the city began suddenly dancing in the streets and didn’t stop for weeks on end. Other names for the mysterious dancing include St John’s Dance, St Vitus’ Dance, or the ‘dancing plague’. Many of the victims danced until exhaustion, and foamed at the mouth and twitched their limbs until they recovered only to begin dancing again. Some died of injuries sustained from the dance, others died of cardiac arrest. Some speculated the cause of the ‘dancing plague’ was religion or punishment from Saints John or Vitus who were closely associated with both the cause and the cure. People also thought that the dancers were members of cults performing rituals. Its been noted that the disappearance of the outbreaks curiously coincided with the spread of Protestantism and its rejection of the veneration of saints.
In Aachen, Germany, in 1374, the worst outbreak of dancing mania was recorded. It was said to have spread to towns in Belgium and the Netherlands along the Rhine River. Many villagers danced in the streets to music nobody else could hear. The dancers seemed as if they were stuck in a trance, unable to control themselves. Some dancers screamed, and cried out in pain, but couldn’t stop. The dancing mania went on for weeks, affecting thousands of people. One theory of what caused the plague was the ergot fungus which grows on rye and grains. One of the key chemical components of ergot is lysergic acid, which is the ‘LS’ in LSD. This has been known to cause delusion, and hallucinations. Another theory was psychogenic illness or mass hysteria, which is a contagion of an idea or belief can spread through a population, usually during times of stress. Although many scientists, and psychologist have expressed their theories on the cause of the plague, “The Mystery of the Medieval Dancing Plague” is still unsolved to this day.
Sanj. “The unsolved mystery of the medieval dancing plague”. Guiness World
Records, 5 Dec. 2022. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2022/12/the-unsolved-mystery-of-the-medieval-dancing-plague-728701.
Links for Further Research:
“The Strasbourg Dancing Plague | A Short Documentary |
Fascinating Horror.” YouTube, uploaded by Fascinating Horror, 24th
April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPGqyiSutF8.
This video uploaded by Fascinating Horror, goes into further detail about the
Strasbourg dancing plague. He explains how a Catholic saint by the name St
Vitus was believed to be able to curse the sinful to dance themselves to death.
“What caused the deadly ‘dancing plague’ of 1518?” History Skills, https://www.historyskills.com/classroom/year-8/dancing-plague/. This article posted by History Skills goes into the probable causes/theories of the plague, such as a mass ritual or protest carried out by Catholics and Protestants since the city of Strasbourg was a religiously diverse city. Some historians believe that the dancing may have been a form of ecstatic religious experience or a protest against social and religious hierarchies.
“A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania” The Lancet, https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736%2809%2960386-X/fulltext. This article published by John Waller on February 21st, 2009, tells us of another incident of the ‘dancing plague’ outside a church in the German town of Kölbigk. The priest of the church was unable to perform mass due to the constant clapping, leaping, and chanting of the dancers. Due to this the priest cursed them to dance for their failure to listen, and the dancers began to regain control of their limbs