One of the most bizarre incidents of 1518 – “The Dancing Plague” is unforgettable in the history of humankind. The residents of the city of Strasbourg, France (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), in July 1518, was struck by a sudden and uncontrollable urge to dance, where the people even ‘danced themselves to death’!
This outbreak commenced when a woman, named Frau Troffea began dancing fanatically in the street in Strasbourg, which lasted about four to six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined her, and by the end of the month, the number of dancers had increased to a whopping 400, dancing for days without any rest.
What caused Strasbourg’s three-month dancing plague?
There is an explicit mention of this incident in the historical documents, local and regional chronicles and even in the notes issued by the Strasbourg City Council. But, to this day, no one knows what exactly caused the dancing plague, although, various theories are explaining what may have happened.
According to the local physicians, the plague was a “natural disease’ caused as a result of ‘hot blood’. In an attempt to fight with fire, the authorities encouraged ‘continuous dancing’ as the only cure for the tormented movers. Thus, a like stage was constructed, and even musicians were hired, in the hope that the mania would soon burn out. Unfortunately, it only gathered more dancers, and many of them collapsed, and some even died of heart-attack, stroke and sheer exhaustion.
Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, was the first to write about Frau Troffea and was the first to use the term ‘Choreomania’ to describe the dancing sickness. Since Troffea’s husband absolutely hated to see her dance; Paracelsus believed that she started dancing merely to annoy her husband and felt that the unhappy wives were the main cause of the dancing plague.
He insisted that the sufferers should be locked up in a dark room and only be allowed bread and water. However, there is no evidence that whether this cruel treatment was successful or not in stopping the epidemic.
According to the historian, Dr. John Waller, the dancing was a “stress-induced psychosis” on a mass level. Having suffered severely from famine, the region was in an ongoing crisis. Many had died of starvation. The whole area was infected with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis. Waller believes that the stress was intolerable, which resulted in the mass psychological illness.
Waller’s theory is interesting and far more plausible than other opinions, including the one that ergot fungus caused it. Ergot is poisonous and far more likely to kill people than starting an impromptu dance among the starving ones.
It was only in the early September when the mania began to decrease, putting an end to the three-month-long epidemic. Although the Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like something peculiar and bizarre, it is not the only one of its kind. Similar such incidents took place in Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Madagascar, though none were as large or as deadly, as the one of 1518. Who knew that even dancing could trigger such a mass hysteria!