In July of 1518, a woman known only to history as Frau Troffea began dancing in the streets of Strasbourg, Alsace (modern-day France), attracting a crowd of onlookers. She continued until she collapsed, slept for a while, then got up and began dancing again. By the end of the week, over 30 others had joined in the dance, participating until they dropped and then getting up and dancing again. All the while the dancers reported apocalyptic visions of drowning in a sea of blood, recoiling at the sight of the color red and onlookers’ fashionable pointed shoes.
This was not the first case of what became known as a dancing plague, sometimes called a dancing mania. Various historical chronicles report as many as seven such plagues occurring throughout western Europe, the first occurring as early as 1017 and the last in the 17th century. Although some of these events are apocryphal, the 1374 and 1518 dancing plagues are well and consistently documented enough to merit belief in their veracity.
If contemporary accounts of the 1518 plague in Strasbourg are to be believed, it was by far the largest known to history, afflicting as many as 400 people over the course of two months. Some sources claim that a number of people died as a result of this excessive dancing—as many as 15 a day at the height of the so-called plague.
But why? These unusual events have baffled scholars both medieval and modern, and many have attempted to explain their cause.
Frau Troffea’s contemporaries were already beginning to speculate over the plague’s origins. Notably, they referred to it not as a plague or a mania, but as a “curse,” suggesting supernatural origins. The Swiss physician and part-time theologian Paracelsus, who extensively documented the plague as he passed through Strasbourg in 1526, entertained this idea.
Although reluctant to assign responsibility to his Christian God for this cruel and horrifying spectacle, he suggested that the afflicted began dancing out of sin. Perhaps Troffea enjoyed the lascivious types of dancing that were common at festivals of her time, and began performing in the street to spite her more chaste husband. Then, Paracelsus posits, a vengeful spirit cursed Troffea and the others to dance until they grew blisters on their feet, in order to teach them a lesson about Christ’s suffering.
This idea was obviously influenced by Paracelsus’ own morals and religious beliefs, but he also put forth an explanation that was more in line with the prevailing scientific knowledge of his day. The theory of humorism held that the body’s wellness was defined by an equilibrium of four fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. All illness and affliction was said to result from an imbalance of these substances. By Paracelsus’ thinking, a person’s blood could become overheated and enter into the “laughing veins,” where it would cause a ticklish sensation. The afflicted would feel an unbearable urge to laugh and flail their limbs about until the blood settled down. So in Paracelsus’ theory, dancing was not only a sickness, but also a cure.
Of course, humoral theory would soon be outdated. However, the city officials who were called upon to deal with the plague must have come to a similar conclusion. Their first attempt in subduing the chaos was to hire musicians and professional dancers, and to reserve guild halls for the dance’s venue, even constructing a stage. When the plague could not simply be danced away, the officials then turned to banning music and dancing, establishing a fine for any caught performing in public.
Without a satisfying historical explanation, many in the 20th and 21st centuries have turned their gaze backwards and attempted to determine the cause of the dancing plague with the advent of modern science. One common theory proposes that the dancers had unknowingly ingested a hallucinogenic fungus called ergot, which grows invasively on stalks of rye.
Outbreaks of ergotism were not unheard of in the medieval era, but this theory holds little water as an explanation for the wider phenomenon of dancing mania. For one, not every dancing outbreak occurred in a region where rye was a staple crop. But more importantly, there are two types of ergotism: convulsive and gangrenous. The same spoiled crop can affect different individuals in different ways. While the convulsive type could explain the dancers’ jerky movements and terrifying visions, gangrenous ergotism causes no such symptoms, and there are no contemporary reports to suggest a concurrent outbreak of this type.
Sociological explanations for the dancing plague also abound. Legends of powerful forces who could curse people to dance until they died were common along the Rhine. The story of the Pied Piper, a scorned rat catcher whose music leads children to their deaths, originated from nearby Hamelin. It has been suggested that the dancers so strongly believed they were compelled to dance that they did so, even though there was nothing physically wrong with them. Perhaps they believed it was a demon who doomed them, or perhaps it was Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and epilepsy, who was thought to have the ability to curse those who spurned him. It has even been suggested that the dancers were members of a heretical sect devoted to worshiping Saint Vitus through dance.
A final theory suggests that the dancing plague was a psychological response to a period of great strife and difficulty. Times in 1518 Strasbourg were tough. The climate over the few years prior had swung wildly between too hot and too cold, leading to a series of dismal harvests. Most people could not subsist on their own crops and had to buy food, which was brought to market by churches and monasteries that had hoarded it in excess. When they ran out of money, the poor would have to borrow more from the same churches, and pay their debts back with enormous interest. The bubonic plague and leprosy had returned to Germany, and syphilis had newly arrived. The social order was in a state of upheaval, with the nobility and clergy shakily sharing power with emergent guild leaders.
So what was a starving populace to do? In 16th-century Alsace, people of all social strata turned to dance for release. Holidays, life accomplishments, the arrival of new priests; all were celebrated with wanton dance parties.
Mass psychogenic illnesses have been known to occur around times of tragedy, so it is entirely possible that Frau Troffea, broken by starvation and grief, turned unconsciously to the only relief she knew. Those who witnessed the spectacle, similarly suffering, might have been convinced that they were cursed just by watching and took to the stage.
The party broke up by September of 1518. City officials bundled the dancers into wagons, carted them to the nearby shrine of Saint Vitus, outfitted them all in red shoes, and had them circle around the shrine while offering up coins to the incensed saint. Whatever the cause, this seemed to alleviate their symptoms.
While this seems to lend credence to the theory of religious fervor, it is impossible to know just what caused the people of Strasbourg to start dancing in the first place. Perhaps it was hallucinogenic fungus, the power of suggestion, or psychological trauma. It may have been a combination of multiple factors, or even something entirely different. Whatever the answer may be, the subject of the dancing plague is likely to continue to confuse and intrigue historians for years to come.