Vitmor Gomes recently shared on Quora one of the most fascinating Medieval stories I’ve heard: the dancing plague of 1518.

The dancing plague of 1518 | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Image source: Quora

In July 1518, in the town of Strasbourg, Alsace (now France), something unexpected happened.

A housewife, called Frau Troffea, came out of her home onto the street and started dancing. People, including her husband, found it odd but no one gave it much attention.

She literally danced all day, only stopping when she fell asleep due to exhaustion. The next morning, as soon as she woke up, she started dancing again.

This time people did pay attention as this was highly unusual, and they formed a crowd around her to see her dance to no music. At this point, her feet were already bruised and bloodied but she didn’t appear to be willing to stop.

Within the next 4 days, something even weirder started happening. 34 people also started dancing non-stop.

Within 4 weeks it is believed that up to 400 people were dancing uncontrollably.

Those who weren’t affected had no idea what to do as they saw their dancing neighbors screaming in pain and begging for help, seemingly unable to stop their killer moves.

Because it was summer at the time, up to 15 people a day were dying because of the heat, dehydration, and exhaustion.

If You Can’t Beat Them…

The city council asked for the help of local physicians to stop the madness and eventually they diagnosed the poor dancers with “hot blood.”

“Hot blood” meant that the brain was overheated, which caused madness. But they couldn’t use their remedy, bloodletting, since people couldn’t stop moving for long enough to have a bit of their blood drained.

So the council hired musicians and brought more people into the town in order to have a party and try to tire the dancers out.

It seemed to be working as the dancer’s moves were slowing down, but the hired musicians decided to change the pace and play a more upbeat song, causing the villagers to get back on the previous groove.

It’s a Sin

Seeing that this wasn’t working they decided that this wasn’t a case of “hot blood”, it was something far worse: a curse on the city. A curse put upon it because of all the sinners in it.

So the council closed down all gambling houses and brothels and banished from the city all those whom they considered to be a sinner. They were so desperate that they even made music and dancing illegal.

As you probably expected, this did nothing to stop those bloodied and bruised feet from dancing.

At some point, realizing that playing music wasn’t curing or helping, the council actually had the ‘dancers’ hospitalized, which at some point, actually did help.

This lasted all the way till September.

What Caused It?

While the Council believed the city had been cursed by St. Vitus, other theories have been put forward – none of them particularly convincing.

  • The first theory is that the story’s not real – or, at least, that no one actually died. The reports of death come all from a single book, which uses much later sources. So, the whole thing may have been a case of urban legend.
  • Mass hysteria is the theory proposed by most. However, it is unlikely it could have led to so many deaths.
  • The ergot theory is also popular. People poisoned by ergot – a psychoactive fungus found in rye and similar crops – may develop Akathisia – a neurological condition where the sufferer can’t stand still. However, the consistent way of movement and the century-spanning occurrence, especially along the rivers Rhine and Moselle, who had different crops and different climates, point against it. Also, we have heard of no cases of ergot having a similar effect.
  • Sydenham’s Chorea could be a good candidate for an explanation. Also know as St. Vitus’ dance, Sydenham’s chorea is a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands, and feet. It is an autoimmune disease that results from childhood infection with Streptococcus. However, Sydenham’s chorea is more common in females than males and most cases affect children between the ages of 5 and 15 years of age. Also, adult onset of Sydenham’s chorea is comparatively rare, and the majority of the adult cases are recurrences following childhood Sydenham’s chorea, so the gender, age, and general description of the manic dance seem to be hinting against it.

The Long Dance

An interesting outbreak happened in 1237 in Germany, where a large group of children marched about 20km from one place to another, all the time jumping and dancing – a striking similarity to the Pied Piper fable (which originated around that time).

And surprisingly enough, this happened quite a few times, all throughout Europe. There were similar outbreaks in 1247, 1278, 1375, 1381, 1428, and probably more that weren’t documented. There were cases where people not only danced but had delusions and cases where the afflicted were all children.

Thankfully, the dancing mania seems to have been ‘eradicated’ about the middle of the 17th century and it’s been centuries since the last reported case of The Dancing Plague. Although my young self’s visits to the 80s’ Discos seemed eerily familiar to the affliction!