Strange Events in History – The Dancing Plague of 1518

Dancing Plague of 1518

Let’s Dance

We’ve heard about Boogie Fever, but a Dancing Plague? It sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what happened to the residents of Strasbourg, France, back in 1518.

It began with one woman named Frau Troffea. She took to the streets one hot, July day and just started dancing in a frenzy of twists and twirls. She continued her dancing till night time, and didn’t stop until she collapsed of exhaustion.

Now, we could end there and it would still be an odd story. However, the really crazy part is that it didn’t stop. Frau Troffea picked back up right where she had left off early that next morning – dancing away in the streets. Even more strange was that within a week, others had started to join her in uncontrollable dancing.

The mass dancing stumped local doctors, who could only conclude that ‘hot blood’ was to blame. Instead of removing this hot blood through bloodletting, a common practice back then, doctors decided that the only prescription for this fever was more dancing. A stage was built, professional dancers were brought in, and a band was even hired. A full-fledged dancing marathon had begun.

By August of that year, some 400 townspeople had fallen victim to this Dancing Plague. It wasn’t all fun and games either. People continued dancing day after day, despite blistered and bloody feet. Many dancers collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Some even died from strokes and heart attacks.

The Dancing Plague didn’t end until September, when the dancers were finally pulled from the streets, loaded in wagons, and brought to a mountaintop shrine to pray the dancing away.

Was It All A Hoax?

A skeptic might think this all sounds too unbelievable to be real. Thankfully, a multitude of historical sources exist that confirm this event did occur, and that people actually did dance.

What’s more, this is not even the only case of compulsive dancing in Europe. While the Dancing Plague in Strasbourg might be the largest and best documented, similar manias took place in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

(And don’t get us started on the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic that took place in Tanzania in 1962.)

Clearly, these cases are authentic, but that still doesn’t explain the real question – why?

Dancing Plague Causes

So what could have caused people to literally dance themselves to death? No one knows for certain, but a couple possible explanations exist.

One modern theory is that the afflicted accidentally ingested a toxic mold that grows on rye called Ergot. This fungus is like an organic version of LSD, and can cause spasms, hallucinations, and seizures. While this seems like an entirely possible explanation, botanists would be quick to point out that Ergot is extremely poisonous. It’s more likely to kill people than to send them into a dancing craze.

A more likely explanation comes from the actuality that 16th century Europe was a tough place to live. Famine was prevalent across many regions. Diseases ran rampant. People were starving and begging in the streets. Many suffered from extreme levels of psychological distress.

Added to all this despair and turmoil is the fact that people from that time and region were also very superstitious. Many believed in a saint called St. Vitus, who they thought had the power to take over their minds and could curse them to dance compulsively. 

These factors combined have led some to speculate that the Dancing Plague was actually the result of a stress-induced psychosis that occurred on a mass level. Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) is a type of mass hysteria that can be caused by extreme levels of mental hardship and physical distress. Today, this remains the best possible explanation for what happened back in 1518.

Still, Mass Psychogenic Illness remains a poorly understood medical condition, and not everyone is convinced that this illness fully explains everything. Why did people continue to dance when they were in such visible misery? While people may ultimately debate the exact cause, there is no denying that for one hot summer, the citizens of Strasbourg, France, danced. Whether it was a big hoax, mass-hysteria, or just a really bad LSD trip, the events of 1518 remain one of the stranger footnotes in human history.

Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 138 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.