The Dancing Plague of 1518


Katherine Lu, Journalist/Editor

In July 1518, the residents living in the city of Strasbourg, which was at the time part of the Holy Roman Empire, experienced an uncontrollable and irresistible urge to dance. 

It started with a woman named Frau Troffea. Frau Troffea silently stepped into the street and began to twist and twirl and shake. Before long, people began to join her, dancing to the imaginary music.

By August, over 400 people had begun dancing alongside Troffea. The strange thing was, once they started dancing, they would not and could not stop dancing, even if they were injured or tired. Because of this inability to stop, many dancers collapsed from exhaustion. Some of them even had heart attacks or strokes.

Physicians at the time believed the outbreak was because of “hot blood”, and suggested that those with the dancing plague would simply need to dance their fever away. The town constructed a stage and brought in professional dancers and musicians, to no avail. The dancers only got better in September after they were taken to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.

The Strasbourg dancing plague isn’t the only dancing plague documented in history. There are records of similar incidents occurring in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, although those cases were not as severe or deadly, and did not last as long.

So, what could have caused over 400 Strasbourg residents to dance until they collapsed? Some historians believe it was because of stress-induced mass hysteria. 16th century Europeans worshipped a Catholic saint named St. Vitus, who had the power to curse people with a dancing plague. Along with the famine and disease spreading through Strasbourg in 1518, the superstition might have triggered an episode of hysteria that gripped the city. Another theory is that the dancers had fungal poisoning from ergot. Ergot is a toxic mold that grows on damp rye, which was used to make bread. When ingested, ergot causes the afflicted person to suffer from hallucinations and spasms.

The Strasbourg dancing plague of 1518 will go down in history as one of the most bizarre diseases ever. Even today, historians are still unsure of the exact reason behind it. After reading this, you may be worried about potentially getting the dancing plague. But don’t worry, it is extremely unlikely that you’ll suffer through the same fate as poor Frau Troffea.




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