What Caused The Dancing Plague of 1518?

On the 14th of July, 1518, a Strasbourg resident named Frau Troffea stepped onto the streets and began an unending dance. This continued for hours, culminating with her lying on the ground, exhausted and convulsing. Astonishingly, she resumed her dance the very next day, and the pattern persisted.

Her odd behavior became contagious, with around 400 townsfolk eventually dancing alongside her for approximately two months.

The catalyst behind this involuntary, persistent dance remains enigmatic. By the time it ceased, nearly 100 participants had tragically passed away. Historians continue to explore the intricacies of this event, now termed the dancing plague of 1518.

Though accounts of this dancing anomaly, often referred to as “dancing mania”, might vary, they provide significant insights. When Frau Troffea initiated her unjoyful dance session, her body eventually gave in to exhaustion, and she would rest profoundly.

However, this cycle was unyielding, even as her feet became battered. Observers surmised that perhaps a devilish force, as retribution for her sins, had overtaken her.

Yet, some locals interpreted it differently. The regional legend spoke of St. Vitus, a Sicilian saint from 303 A.D. He was believed to inflict a dance curse upon those who angered him.

After enduring relentless days of dancing, Frau Troffea was moved to a spiritual location in the Vosges Mountains, possibly to seek forgiveness for perceived wrongdoings.

However, this did not stem the epidemic. Rapidly, around 30 townspeople mirrored her actions, dancing with unmatched fervor everywhere. Reports indicate that, at the height of this dancing plague, around 400 residents took to the streets.

For two full months, they danced, with some falling victim to heart ailments, strokes, and utter depletion.

Some narratives suggest that the plague’s peak saw 15 deaths daily, resulting in an estimated 100 fatalities from this perplexing incident.

Given the bizarre nature of the tale, some skeptics have understandably raised eyebrows. To truly understand the 1518 dancing plague, one must discern between historical truths and possible exaggerations.

Modern-day historians validate the occurrence based on substantial literature from that era. One such documentation is the Opus Paramirum by Paracelsus, a doctor who reached Strasbourg nearly a decade post the event. Additionally, the city’s archives contain ample references to the plague.

An archival piece by Daniel Specklin, a then-prominent architect, offers a detailed narrative. It reveals the city council’s hypothesis that a “heated cerebral fluid” sparked this dancing compulsion. Their initial remedy was, paradoxically, to encourage dancing, possibly believing that sheer exhaustion would end it.

They sanctioned spaces for the dance, enlisted musicians for continuous tunes, and, as some say, employed sturdy men to aid the faltering dancers. However, when the dancing seemed perpetual, the council pivoted. They imposed religious penance, and prohibited public dance and melodies, speculating a divine retribution.

According to archival data, the delirious dancers were eventually ushered to a shrine in honor of St. Vitus in the adjacent town of Saverne. Here, their wounded feet were adorned in red footwear, and they were guided with a carved effigy of the saint.

After weeks, the continuous dancing astonishingly ceased. Yet the true cause of this plague, and the effectiveness of the remedies employed, remained enigmatic.

Even half a millennium later, the root cause of the 1518 dancing plague remains a topic of debate among historians. Some contemporary theories suggest that the dancers might have been under the influence of a hallucinogenic mold called ergot, which thrives on damp rye and can yield chemicals akin to LSD.

However, while ergotism (potentially a factor in the Salem witch trials) can induce hallucinations and convulsions, it typically reduces blood flow, making prolonged vigorous dancing seem implausible.

Historian John Waller offers a different perspective. He views the plague as a manifestation of mass hysteria in medieval times.

Waller, the principal scholar on this event and author of “A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518,” postulates that severe distress from factors like acute poverty, diseases, and famine might have driven Strasbourg’s inhabitants into a stress-triggered psychosis.

This group-wide psychological response could have been intensified by prevalent regional beliefs, particularly the tales of St. Vitus and his power to induce dance. Notably, prior to Strasbourg’s event, at least 10 unexplained dancing episodes had occurred over the centuries.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew notes that some of these episodes involved dancers engaging in indecent displays, mimicking farm animals, or becoming aggressive towards onlookers who refrained from joining.

Most instances emerged near the River Rhine, where St. Vitus’ tales held significant sway. Waller references U.S. anthropologist Erika Bourguignon’s “environment of belief” concept, suggesting that regions deeply rooted in supernatural convictions might be more prone to these outbreaks.

Such beliefs could drive individuals into a dissociative state, temporarily disabling their regular conscious thoughts and leading to irrational behaviors. According to Waller, a collective reverence for higher powers might predispose communities to embrace extreme actions influenced by others’ altered mental states.

If Waller’s hypothesis about a widespread psychological affliction is accurate, then the dancing plague serves as a chilling testament to the intertwined capabilities of human psychology and physiology in generating disorder.