Dancing until Death: The Dancing Plague of 1518 - History Key

Dancing until Death: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Many of us had really good times dancing, whether it was in the ’60s and ’70s, or in the electro-techno clubs from 2000. For sure, there are also ballrooms and classic event related to dance, or big events in open air, but the one we are going to introduce to you probably overcame them all.

Officially known as the Dancing Plague (or the Dance Epidemic) of 1518, it was a bizarre and probably unique phenomenon that happened in Strasbourg Alsace, during July 1518. A few hundred people (around 400) started some sort of dancing mania, dancing uninterrupted for many days in a row, almost reaching a month of continuous dance. Several of them have collapsed from the effort, dying of heart attack, stroke or more generally of exhaustion.

Engraving from 1642, by Hendrik Hondius portraying three women caught in the plague © Image Source: CVLT Nation

Mrs. Troffea, a woman who started a frenetic dance in a street in Strasbourg, triggered everything. What looked like an isolated act, quickly changed in a more complex situation. After a week, another 34 people accompanied Mrs. Troffea, and after a month the group reached around 400 people, mainly women. The situation had become quite strange, considering that for a period the plague killed around 15 people per day, but even stranger was the inability to understand the cause of this phenomenon.

We must say that what you have read so far is not enough, everything has become even stranger.

When the plague became a real problem, the authorities managed the situation in a very unusual way. Normally, the solution would have been related to “hot blood”, and the treatment related to the prescription of bleeding, but the problem was treated differently. The authorities encouraged the dancing, offering dedicated spaces for that and even by construction a dedicated wooden stage. They were convinced that the plague would pass only if the dancers would perform even more dance in a continuous day-night mode in order to make everything even more effective, musicians were hired to sustain the dancers.

Painting related to the dancing plague
Painting related to the dancing plague © Image Source: history.com

What caused this situation?

There are few explanations related to the plague’s cause, but none of them could be considered the official cause of the plague.

Food poisoning was taken into account, considering that on grains (such as rye) grows the toxic and psychoactive chemical products of ergot fungi, which is the substance from which LSD was initially synthesized.  Another explanation is related to a stress-induced psychosis on a mass level, considering that the area where the plague was reported was affected by starvation and diseases (including smallpox and syphilis). Seven other cases of dancing plague were reported in the same area, during the medieval era. A third theory is related to an induced religious ecstasy, caused by the veneration of Saint Vitus, the patron saint of epilepsy.

Some of you would say that the phenomenon could not be understood until the ’70s and the Boogie Fever, but the real cause of the 1518 plague has not been cleared. John Waller, author of “A time to dance, a time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518”, has carefully studied the problem, concluding that:

“That the event took place is undisputed, but historical records documenting the dancing deaths, such as physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the boogying rage, all “are unambiguous on the fact that (victims) danced. These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing” (John Waller for DigitalJournal.com)

Waller supports the theory related to anxiety and stress, which formed the plague’s trigger:

“Anxiety and false fears gripped the region. One of these fears, originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing” (John Waller for DigitalJournal.com)

What is certain is that not even a trained athlete could have resisted to that kind of dance workout.

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