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The Dancing Plague of 1518

Updated: May 17

In Strasbourg France in 1518, a strange illness seemed to overtake the town. On an ordinary day a woman named Frau Troffea, suddenly ran out onto the street and began to uncontrollably dance. She continued to dance as if she was unable to stop herself for days on end until passing out from exhaustion. However, that wasn’t the end of this strange compulsion. As soon as Frau Troffea woke back up from her dance induced nap she went right back to shaking uncontrollably and continued to dance for an entire week, without stopping for food, water, or rest. As Frau Troffea danced, this “plague” began to spread; more and more people jumped out onto the street and also began uncontrollably dancing. More than 400 hundred people would join this crazed dance frenzy. Many would end up injuring themselves or worse dying and the dancing would last months.

So what caused this crazy “plague”? Well, science wasn’t quite what it is today, so what was the 1518 explanation for all this dancing? Physicians and authorities of the time suggested it must be “Hot Blood”. The cure? Keep dancing! Local religious leaders suggested a stage be built, professional dancers brought in, and the town even hired a band so the townsfolk had music to dance too. A non-stop dance party, sounds great right? Well, many of these townsfolk overcome with these compulsions would dance and flail until passing out or injuring themselves, then, just like Mrs. Troffea, get right back up and start dancing all over again injury or not! Some would even die from strokes or heart attacks. At the end of things there would be at least 100 dead. This bizarre phenomenon is surprisingly well documented in 16th century historical records and Strasbourg isn’t the only place it happened. Similar dancing spells have been recorded taking place in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though on a much smaller and less deadly scale.

So, what actually caused the towns people of Strasbourg to dance until they died? There’s a few theories. Modern medicine suggests that it may have been something as simple as moldy bread. Bread made from rye flour that had been contaminated with a fungal disease called ergot. Ergot is known to produce uncontrollable convulsions and hallucinations. According to historian John Waller, many 16th century Europeans may have thought it was St. Vitus, a Catholic saint who was thought to have the power to curse people, specifically with a dancing plague. This superstition combined with how terrible things were back then, disease, famine, etc. it may have caused a mass stress-induced hysteria. Others have theorized it may have been something as crazy as occult activity.! We'll probably never know for sure, but whatever it really was, Frau Troffea and the people of Strasbourg France never forgot the dancing plague of 1518.

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