In what must rank as one of the strangest contagions ever recorded, hundreds of people in Strasbourg were seemingly caught up in a contagious case of dancing mania, dancing in the streets for days without rest. Many continued to dance until their deaths from exhaustion.
The ‘Dancing Plague’ first broke out in July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire but now part of modern France. A woman, whose name is recorded as a Mrs Troffea, was the first to catch the contagion, beginning to dance vigorously in the streets. She continued for up to a week, and for most of that time, many of the people that passed her discounted her actions as those of a madwoman. After a week, however, 34 other people joined her in her frenetic dance. By the end of July, around 400 people had joined the dance, the majority being women.
Dancing wildly and endlessly in the warm summer sun of France, many of the dancers would ultimately collapse of fatigue or heat stroke. Several are recorded as having died from heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion. One contemporary chronicler at the time recorded that at its peak, the dancing plague was responsible for up to 15 deaths a day. German antiquarian Johann Schilter, who witnessed the events, wrote that men and women continued dancing day and night in marketplaces and streets, eating and drinking little or nothing. While Schilter wrote that the majority of dancers eventually recovered and the sickness left them, other chroniclers reported that the infected eventually danced themselves to death.
As the plague continued, Strasbourg authorities consulted a wide range of physicians and scholars in an attempt to make sense of the strange contagion. Discounting a paranormal explanation, the senior physicians of the city drew the conclusion that the afflicted were suffering from a physical malady, specifically that of ‘hot blood’. Believing that the only way for them to recover was to allow them to continue dancing until the illness left their systems, they, bizarrely, urged the city government to increase the effectiveness of the cure by encouraging the dancers. Musicians were hired to play for the afflicted, buildings were opened up to be used as dancing halls, and a wooden stage was hastily constructed.
This attempt at a cure proved to be a total disaster. Not only did the infected continue dancing, but the additional measures undertaken by the city authorities appeared to only further fuel the spread of the malady. Panicked nobles eventually attempted a new tactic, bundling Troffea, who was thought to be responsible for the outbreak, into a wagon and driving her over thirty miles to the shrine of Saint Vintus in Severne. The patron saint of dancers and performers, members of the clergy believed either that the shrine had the potential to heal the contagion, or that the dancing sickness had its origins in a curse from Saint Vintus. There it is believed that Troffea was successfully cured, but the hundreds of other infected continued to dance.
Reversing their initial efforts to encourage the dancing, the city’s privy council instead ordered a blanket ban on all dance and music for two months. Allowances were made for music and dancing at weddings, but only using stringed instruments, with all percussion being banned totally. Following the successful treatment of Troffea, authorities began transporting more of the infected to the shrine of Saint Vintus, where priests would anoint them with holy water and oil. The cure proved effective, and more dancers were taken to the shrine. By early September, the plague eventually petered out.
As strange as the incident was, what is perhaps even more surprising is that it was not an isolated case. Similar outbreaks were recorded throughout Europe, with incidents beginning in the 7th century before stopping abruptly in the 17th century. Recorded cases include 18 infected during a Christmas eve service in Bernburg, Saxony in around 1020 and a large number of children in Erfurt in 1237. A huge outbreak that began in Aachen, Germany eventually spread across a large portion of western Europe, reaching France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Luxembourg. Further outbreaks continued throughout the 14th century. Almost all of the recorded outbreaks occurred close to either the Rhine or Moselle rivers, although the reason why that might be remains a mystery.
Modern researchers have presented a number of theories in an attempt to explain this bizarre contagion, although there is no common consensus on any particular explanation, and they remain only theories. Perhaps the most popular explanation is that the afflicted were suffering from ergot poisoning, a toxic fungus that can occur naturally on rye or wheat. Chemically similar to LSD, Ergot can cause convulsions, hallucinations, changes in behaviour and gangrene.
However, historian John Waller, a Professor of the history of medicine at Michigan State University, discounts this explanation, arguing that ergot poisoning would not cause symptoms that lasted for several days, as well as observing that people that had accidentally ingested a psychedelic substance would be highly unlikely to all react in the same way. Waller prefers the theory that the dancing was caused by stress-induced psychosis, exacerbated by starvation or disease, as well as the initial behaviour of Troffea and other progenitors of the infection being interpreted by the superstitious people of the region as a supernatural curse, convincing them to join in in the hopes that it would spare them worse harm from an angry god or entity.
A similar explanation is that the dancing was a result of a mass psychotic illness, often termed mass hysteria. Outbreaks of mass hysteria are well documented, affecting children and adolescent women most frequently. It was particularly common in the stressful and oppressive environment enduring by factory workforces during the industrial revolution.
Another possible explanation is that the incidents were simply staged, with some historians believing that the initial symptoms demonstrated by Troffea were an attempt to publicly humiliate her husband. Another theory is that the dancing mania was in truth a cover for cults that followed Roman or Greek deities that were worshipped in an elaborate dancing ritual. Banned in the region at the time, the suggestion that the dancing was involuntary and beyond the participant’s control presented an effective cover story.