Dancing Plague of 1518
In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), were struck by a sudden and seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance. The hysteria kicked off when a woman known as Frau Troffea stepped into the street and began to silently twist, twirl and shake. She kept up her solo dance-a-thon for nearly a week, and before long, some three-dozen other Strasbourgeois had joined in. Muscles twitching and full of sweat, Frau slept for a few hours before waking and starting her bizarre dance all over again. On the third day of her dance, her shoes were soaked with blood She was exhausted, but there was no rest for her weary body. By August, the dancing epidemic had claimed as many as 400 victims. Some of those affected collapsed or even died of heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.
The outbreak began in July 1518 when a woman, Mrs. Troffea, began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. This lasted somewhere between four and six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female. Some of these people would die from heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion. One report indicates that for a period, the plague killed around fifteen people per day. However, the sources of the city of Strasbourg at the time of the events did not mention the number of deaths, even if there were fatalities.
Historical documents, including “physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” are clear that the victims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, some even to their deaths.
As the dancing plague worsened, concerned nobles sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead of announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood”. However, instead of prescribing bleeding, authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would recover only if they danced continuously night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving.
Modern theories include food-poisoning caused by the toxic and psychoactive chemical products of ergot fungi, which grows commonly on grains in the wheat family (such as rye). Ergotamine is the main psychoactive product of ergot fungi; it is structurally related to the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) and is the substance from which LSD-25 was originally synthesized. The same fungus has also been implicated in other major historical anomalies, including the Salem witch trials. Waller speculates that the dancing was “stress-induced psychosis” on a mass level since the region where the people danced was riddled with starvation and disease, and the inhabitants tended to be superstitious. Seven other cases of dancing plague were reported in the same region during the medieval era.
Some speculate that fairytales may have been loosely based on the dancing plague, namely “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” collected by the Brothers Grimm. The Pied Piper played his flute and the music was so irresistible that the children were compelled to follow him, dancing all the way. It is speculated that this might be an allegory for the dancing plagues, possibly heightened by the fact that food was scarce and migration seemed the only viable option.
The Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like the stuff of legend, but it’s well documented in 16th-century historical records. It’s also not the only known incident of its kind. Similar manias took place in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, though few were as large—or deadly—as the one triggered in 1518.
Paracelsus, a physician, and alchemist visited Strasbourg in 1526, just a few years after the dancing plague incident. He became the first to write about Frau Troffea, and he was the first to use the term “choreomania” to describe the dancing sickness. Paracelsus had his own opinion on the cause of the dancing plague. It turned out that Frau Troffea’s husband absolutely hated it when she would dance. Paracelsus and some of the people of Strasbourg believed that she started her dance simply to annoy her husband. Paracelsus broke down the dancing sickness into three causes. First, it was born out of the imagination. Second, people may have joined in the dance out of sexual frustration. Finally, there may have been bodily causes for some of the people who exhibited uncontrolled dancing. Ultimately, Paracelsus felt those unhappy wives were the main cause of the dancing plague.
Another, earlier dance mania overtook Germany in the 1300s, immediately after the Black Death. Men and women took to the streets and convulsively danced, to everyone’s horror. They would leap about, foaming at the mouth, and appeared to be possessed. The mania spread from one person to another. Some of the victims were swaddled, and they recovered for a short time only to fall into the mania once again. Victims claimed that during the dancing fits, they were clueless about their surroundings. They heard nothing, saw nothing, but were compelled to move about, screaming and dancing, until they would pass out from total exhaustion.
The Saint Vitus’s Dance is often lumped in with the dance manias, but it was not a true dance. While Saint Vitus was the patron saint of dancers, those affected by Saint Vitus’s Dance had a disease that caused their bodies to twitch or jerk. Now known as Sydenham’s chorea those who had the disease were taken to the Chapel of St. Vitus in the hopes that they would be cured. The Catholic church insisted that those infected with Saint Vitus’s Dance visit the chapel. Anyone who refused to undertake the journey was excommunicated.
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