Dancing plague of 1518

Do you know about the dancing plague? Where as many as 400 people didn’t stop dancing for over 90 days till they died?

In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) were struck by a sudden and seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance..

A woman whose name was given as Frau (Mrs.) Troffea (or Trauffea) stepped into the street and began dancing. She seemed unable to stop, and she kept dancing until she collapsed from exhaustion.

She kept up her solo dance for nearly a week, and before long, 30 other people had joined in. By August, the dancing epidemic had claimed as many as 400 victims.

With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians blamed it on “hot blood” and suggested the afflicted simply gyrate the fever away.
The civic and religious leaders theorized that more dancing was the solution, and so they arranged for halls for the dancers to gather in, musicians to accompany the dancing, and professional dancers to help the afflicted to continue dancing.

It wasn’t long before the marathon took its toll, as many dancers collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Some even died from strokes and heart attacks. The strange episode didn’t end until September, when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.

Contemporary explanations for the plague included demonic possession and overheated blood. Investigators in the 20th century suggested that the afflicted might have consumed bread made from rye flour contaminated with the fungal disease ‘ergot’, known to produce convulsions.

 

Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like a myth, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records. It’s also not the only known incident of its kind. Similar manias took place in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though few were as large or deadly, as the one in 1518.

Salaudeen Olayinka

A lover of history

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