1518’s Dancing Plague: A Historical Mystery


Few historical occurrences are as mysterious and strange as the Dancing Plague of 1518. This mysterious incident took place in Strasbourg, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire (modern-day France). It left many people feeling strangely forced to dance erratically for days at a time. For ages, the phenomena has baffled scientists, historians, and medical professionals, leading to a plethora of ideas regarding its nature and cause. This essay explores the historical background, eyewitness reports, theories, and cultural effects of the 1518 Dancing Plague.

Context of History

In Europe, the early 16th century saw a great deal of turmoil. Not even the well-known Rhineland city of Strasbourg was an exception. Numerous socioeconomic challenges, such as hunger, illness, and political unrest, were plaguing the city. The people’s hunger and poverty had been made worse by crop failures brought on by the severe winter of 1517–1518. The area also had frequent outbreaks of syphilis and smallpox, which contributed to the overall depressing and unsettling mood.

In July of 1518, against this background of pain and uncertainty, an odd thing started to happen. Frau Troffea, a woman, entered the streets and started to dance passionately. Her movements were wild and unrestrained, neither graceful nor regular. She appeared unable to stop dancing for hours on end, according to witnesses, despite her obvious exhaustion and misery. Dozens more had joined her by the end of the week, dancing wildly in the intense summer heat.

Firsthand Recounts

Records from the present day offer a clear picture of the events as they happened. The story of the physician Paracelsus, who visited Strasbourg soon after the plague subsided, is one of the main sources of information.

He said that the dancers were uncontrollably moving and in a trance-like state, unaware of their surroundings. According to some stories, the unrelenting dancing caused up to 400 people to collapse from weariness, and some even died from heart attacks and strokes.

The phenomenon first perplexed the city authorities. Thinking it was a curse or a divine retribution, they sought advice from local medical professionals and clergy. The dancing was thought to be caused by an excess of hot blood, according to the prevalent medical thinking of the period, which was based on humoral pathology. In an attempt to get the sick to “dance out” their fever, the authorities thus chose to support the dancing. Even farther, they employed musicians and To help with the procedure, they even went so far as to set up stages and employ musicians.

Potential Justifications

Many ideas have been developed in an attempt to explain the strange and sad occurrences surrounding the Dancing Plague of 1518. These explanations fall into the broad categories of socio-cultural, psychological, and medical ideas.

Medical Hypotheses

An early medical theory proposed that the dancers were afflicted with ergotism, a disorder brought on by eating rye tainted with ergot, a fungus that yields hallucinogenic alkaloids. Ergotism, sometimes referred to as St. Anthony’s Fire, can result in burning in the limbs, spasms in the muscles, and hallucinations. Although this argument makes sense, it is unable to explain the unique urge to dance or the fact that similar episodes of dancing frenzy were documented in other regions of medieval Europe.

A different medical theory contends that the dancers were the victims of psychogenic disease or mass hysteria. When a number of people display physical symptoms without a known physical explanation, it’s referred to as mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI). This condition is frequently brought on by psychological stress. It is plausible that the Dancing Plague was a sign of widespread psychological discomfort given the dire circumstances and general fear of sickness and starvation in Strasbourg at the time.

Theories of Psychology

The psychological theories place a strong emphasis on how stress and suggestion can start a dance obsession. The start of the Dancing Plague may be interpreted as a sort of collective catharsis or escape for the people of Strasbourg, who were going through a period of great misery. Frau Troffea was the first to dance, and it’s possible that her frantic dancing inspired others to follow suit out of a mix of fear, suggestion, and empathy. This is known as social contagion.

In addition, there were a lot of superstitions and religious beliefs prevalent in medieval Europe. Dancing was sometimes associated with divine possession or retribution. In addition to the stress and tension of everyday life, the intense religiosity of the time

might have produced an environment conducive to such an outbreak. Once the dancing got going, it could have taken off quickly thanks to the collective unconscious and the power of suggestion.

Cultural Socio-Theories

The Dancing Plague can also be seen in light of the sociocultural environment of the early 16th century. During this time, there was a general belief in the paranormal and demons and saints had an impact on daily life. The dancers may have been disciples of St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and epileptics, according to one interpretation. St. Vitus was frequently called upon to treat neurological conditions in medieval Europe, and some people think that the dancers were participating in a traditional act of penance or devotion.

The importance of festivals and social gatherings is highlighted by another socio-cultural paradigm. Communities frequently used traditional celebrations as a coping mechanism during difficult times. The severe psychological and social stresses of the time may have caused the dancing madness to progressively spiral out of control, beginning as an unplanned form of collective expression.

The Reaction and Context

The Strasbourg authorities, who had at first welcomed the dancing as a treatment, soon came to the conclusion that their strategy was ineffective. They looked for other options as the number of dancers increased and the death toll rose. Eventually, the municipal council outlawed music and dancing in public, putting an end to the spontaneous performances and relocating the affected people to a neighboring shrine honoring St. Vitus. They were forced to partake in religious rites and offer prayers for release there.

The epidemic eventually passed, but not before leaving a deep impression on the city’s and the surrounding area’s communal memory. The 1518 Dancing Plague came to serve as a warning about the vulnerability of the human psyche under duress. It also emphasized the shortcomings.

Cultural Impact

The Dancing Plague of 1518 has continued to capture the imagination of people through the centuries. It has been referenced in various works of literature, art, and popular culture, symbolizing the mysterious and uncontrollable forces that can drive human behavior. The event has inspired numerous interpretations and adaptations, from paintings and novels to documentaries and academic studies.

In modern times, the Dancing Plague has been examined through the lenses of psychology, sociology, and medicine, offering insights into the nature of mass hysteria and the impact of collective stress on communities. It serves as a historical case study for understanding how societies cope with crises and the ways in which psychological and cultural factors can influence human behavior.