Dance Until You Die: The Mysterious Dancing Plague of 1518

Written By Wise Healthy n Wealthy

In the summer of 1518, a peculiar phenomenon unfolded in Strasbourg that remains unexplained more than five centuries later.

Contemporary accounts agree that it started with one woman.

On July 14th, Frau Troffea started to dance outside her home. No music played. She danced to her own tune. The strangest part?

She never stopped.

Despite her husband’s pleas, Frau Troffea danced in a frenzy until night hit. Then, come morning, she was at it again. And again on the third day. On and on it went for as many as six days in total.

People gathered to watch. Locals thought she’d been cursed by Saint Vitus.

Indeed, they eventually sent her away by wagon to a shrine, hoping she might be cured. However, that “curse” must have been contagious…

Before long, scores of other town-members were dancing uncontrollably just like Frau Troffea. They danced until they could dance no more. Unable to stop, they continued through injuries and eventually collapsed from exhaustion. For many, this bizarre affliction even led to death.

To this day, despite a variety of theories, nobody knows why.

This is the story of the Dancing Plague of 1518.

Source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dancing Plague of 1518: What Happened?

That introduction covers the long and short of the story. 500 years ago, for some unknown reason, a woman from Strasbourg started a dance she couldn’t stop. Then, in the weeks that followed, hundreds of others suffered the same fate.

This wasn’t an ordinary dance. The afflicted moved in a frenzy. They were out of control, and obviously not in their right mind.

Local authorities had no idea what was happening or how to deal with it.

Clergymen saw no other explanation than a curse from the heavens. The ‘guild of physicians’ identified it as a “natural disease,” but their suggestion for treating it was to let the afflicted dance through the problem.

They thought these people had to dance. The more they did it, the quicker they’d be free of the sickness.

As a result, they started doing anything they could to help the dancers, well…dance. They built dance floors in guild halls and markets, and paid musicians to play music – anything to encourage the movement and, they hoped, bring it to an end as a result.  

The strategy didn’t work. Instead, it made matters worse.

They literally set the stage for more people to catch the illness.

Eventually, they changed tack. The pendulum swung and they banned dancing altogether. Soon after, they resorted to the approach they’d used with Frau Troffea: ship the sick to the shrine of Saint Vitus.

Apparently, that’s what did the trick.

One month after it started, the dancing plague was over. While there’s no official death toll, it’s thought hundreds may have died.

Source: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What Caused the Dancing Plague of 1518?

Nobody knows for certain. According to Britannica, the most accepted theory currently comes from a medical historian called John Waller.

He suggests the 1518 dancing plague, otherwise called choreomania, “was a form of mass psychogenic disorder.”

Apparently, this type of thing can happen at times of extreme stress. Furthermore, the symptoms often take the form of fears specific to the local community.

In early 16th Century Strasbourg, smallpox, syphilis, and ongoing famines would account for the stress component. And the dancing?

Waller references St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, and the contemporary belief that anyone who didn’t win his favour would face a very specific curse: they’d be forced to dance.

This isn’t the only credibly theory, though.

Others suggest the dancers could have consumed ergot-contaminated grain. In other words, they could have eaten bread made from rye flour contaminated by ergot – a fungal disease now known to produce everything from convulsions, psychosis, and other neurological effects.  

Had It Happened Before? Did It Happen Again?

Interestingly, the 1518 dancing plague isn’t the only reported instance of this happening.

It occurred on several occasions between the 14th and 17th Centuries, most often in mainland Europe. However, a Wikipedia entry on “dancing mania” says the first known outbreak came as early as the 7th Century.

The sickness recurred time and again until the 17th Century or thereabouts, when it stopped out of the blue.




Leave a Comment