The 13th Floor

Danse Macabre!: The Deadly Dancing Plague of 1518

Dance, dance, dance wherever you may be. And that’s just what they did in the town of Strasbourg, Alsace in 1518. In July of 1518, nearly 400 people gathered in the town and began dancing with no rest for over a month. Some of them even danced until they died.

Strasbourg, Alsace, now modern day Alsace, France, is located on the border of France and Germany. During the 16th century, it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. That July morning in 1518, Frau Troffea walked on into the street and began to dance. With no musical accompaniment, she silently began to twirl and shake moving her body to a tune only she could hear. This went on for about a week before others started to join. By August more than 400 had joined in, most claiming they were physically unable to stop

The local government was at a loss for answers as to what could be causing this mad outbreak of dancing. Physicians placed the blame on “hot blood”. However, instead of prescribing bloodletting, as was common at the time, they decided a better approach would be to let the ailment work its way out through more dancing. Officials of the town decided that they would construct a stage and hire a band to accompany the afflicted. It wasn’t long before this dance marathon turned deadly.

 

As the dancers moved night and day, they soon began to drop. Heart attacks, strokes, dehydration, and extreme exhaustion were taking their toll. As some reports from the period state, the dancing plague was claiming fifteen lives per day.  By September, there didn’t appear to be any end in sight. That’s when town officials decided enough was enough. Under close guard, the surviving dancers were taken to a mountaintop shrine where they were forced to pray to God to absolve them of their disorder. And somehow this stopped the dancing.

It seems fantastical and possibly the work of fiction, however, the historical record does exist. As for the cause, that still remains a mystery. There were those who believe that there was witchcraft or supernatural forces at work. One explanation places the blame on St. Vitus, a Catholic saint who people of the 16th century believed had the power to create a dancing plague. In 1518, Strasburg was ripe with famine and disease. It is believed that, under these conditions, the city was primed for a St. Vitus style hysteria. A less mystical explanation is ergot. Ergot is a toxic mold which grows on rye bread, that can cause spasms and hallucinations when ingested. The most scientific approach is that the town’s rye supply became infected, and thus they all suffered spasms and hallucinations from the toxic mold.

 

Whatever the cause, the events of 1518 were not an isolated occurrence. Other dancing plagues made their way across Europe for centuries. In 1374, a similar outbreak hit the many of the towns in what today is known as Belgium, France, and Luxemburg.  Thousands of residents of these villages located on the Rhine River spent days dancing in the streets until their feet were bloody. Although there are many theories there are no concrete explanations and no sign that it couldn’t happen again.

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