In the early 16th century a bizarre dancing plague arrived in the city of Strasbourg in modern-day France. The dancing mystified many people at the time, and they had various explanations for it. But do modern-day historians know how it happened? Mike Jones explains all…

 A depiction of a dancing plague in Molenbeek (modern-day Belgium) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

A depiction of a dancing plague in Molenbeek (modern-day Belgium) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

Several decades after the infamous Black Death had wreaked havoc all over Europe, the continent was plagued, once more, by a deadly epidemic. On June 24, 1374, Aachen, Germany was struck with a bizarre phenomenon that involved dozens of people suddenly starting to break into uncontrollable dance routines. Days passed and the consecutive days of uninterrupted dancing started taking their toll – the people affected were dropping like flies from exhaustion.

The disease became known as the “dancing mania,” a mysterious phenomenon that rampaged through European countries between the 14th and 17th centuries. Even today, scholars and historians are still puzzled by the epidemic, and there has yet to be a consensus among experts regarding a possible explanation. One thing is for sure – most people wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the dancing mania if it weren’t for one particular episode that took place in Strasbourg.

 

The Strasbourg Outbreak

In July 1518, the dancing mania settled in Strasbourg, in that time an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire. The hysteria started with a woman named Frau Troffea, who left her house and started twisting and twirling in the middle of the street. Not long after, dozens of other people joined her and, eventually, there were a little over 400 people all uncontrollably dancing.

Although this may bewilder most of us today, the people of early modern era Strasbourg deemed the phenomenon as nothing more than a mere, albeit a peculiar, form of entertainment.  Professional dancers joined the ones affected by the disease, and there was even a stage set up and a band hired to accompany their hectic movements. When question marks began to arise, the rest of the people had no choice but to consider the erratic behavior a result of fever.

The prolonged intense physical activity concluded with hundreds of people collapsing due to strokes, heart attacks, exhaustion, or dehydration. Since the outbreak in July, the dancers continued dying until those remaining were forcibly removed from the streets and taken to a shrine to pray for their recovery in September.

 

A Medical Enigma

Many theories have been suggested by experts, some of who have tried to tie the event to a scientific explanation. One of the most common theories blames the dancing mania on mass hysteria, a phenomenon that wasn’t uncommon during the era.

Some records were discovered that speak of an episode that took place in the late-15th century Spanish Netherlands, which involved several people displaying ‘devilish’ behavior that made many people believe they were possessed. They would run around the streets like dogs, climb trees and imitate birds, or even pretend to be cats by scratching at trunks.

This, along with the fact that disease and famine were violently gnawing Europe during the time, led researchers to believe that it might have been a stress-induced disease with neurological origins. It didn’t help that, at the time, people believed it to be the result of a curse casted by St. Vitus. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to consider it some form of medieval Nocebo effect that caused people to subconsciously dance solely because they believed that the curse was real.

Going by the laws of mass hysteria and moral panic, all it took was one person with a damaged psyche to ‘do the twist’ in order to increase the numbers of people affected by the dancing mania.

Of course, there are many other theories, some of which consider the possibility that amateur forced dancers were part of a religious cult and their worship routine involved these endless dance sessions. All it took was a couple of people to kick off the movement in order to get others to join in, purely because of the desire to be included in this alleged public activity.

 

Why it’s A Big Deal

Several centuries have passed since the last recorded episode of the dancing plague, so most of us look back at them as a series of slightly surreal moments in history. Outbursts of mass hysteria are considerably less likely to occur today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t.

In 1962, a disease swept all across Tanzania and caused several schoolgirls to suddenly break into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Similarly to how the dancing plague branched to other people, the laughter infected other people from the school and, eventually, from the village. Many of those affected also had trouble with loss of consciousness and respiratory issues induced by the seemingly endless series of giggles. A whole year and a half was necessary to completely put an end to the rampant laughter plague.

There aren’t too many events that modern day historians are still in the dark about, but the Dancing Plague of Strasbourg is certainly one of them. The big mystery comes from the fact that it is difficult to tell whether it was a medical, social, or psychological phenomena. Perhaps it was a confluence of all three at once, which is why this is one of the plagues that sparked the interest of experts from a variety of fields aside from medicine.

Can such an event ever happen again? The lack of a proper answer to this question is what makes the dancing mania so frightening.

 

What do you think caused the Dancing Plague of Strasbourg? Let us know below…