When something defies all we know about human physiology and raises questions about the psychology of our species, it’s going to get a lot of attention. Which explains why a very bizarre incident that took place nearly 500 years ago was so well-documented.
That doesn’t stop skeptics from questioning the veracity of ancient reports about a “dancing plague” that afflicted Strasbourg, Alsace (in what is now eastern France). If what was written can be believed, it was the most epic rave ever. And it went on for so long that people died.
The dancing plague all started when a woman identified only as Frau Troffea stepped out of her house in early July 1518 and began dancing. After nearly a week of the woman’s nonstop flailing, a group of about 30 people had joined her. Reports say that as many as 400 people eventually began dancing in the street, but it was hardly the celebration imagined by Martha & the Vandellas in their 1964 hit song of that title. The melee continued for more than two months, causing people to drop over from heart attacks, strokes and exhaustion.
Some skeptics point to the endurance of modern-day marathon runners and how they, despite their lengthy training, are still spent after a few hours of running. How then could people dance almost continuously for more than a week, or longer?
Explanations of the dancing plague vary. Some say that Strasbourg’s shufflers suffered effects of the psychotropic mold ergot (think organic LSD), which grows on stalks of rye. Others shoot that theory down as preposterous. While ergotism can bring on delusions and spasms, other symptoms include decreased blood supply to the extremities, which would have made it very difficult for people to boogie like they were.
It has also been posited that the dancers, living in a region that was part of the Holy Roman Empire, were driven to dance by religious fervor. They could have been members of a heretical sect (though no written accounts support that) or pious people who believed they had incurred the wrath of Saint Vitus. According to a Christian church legend, the Sicilian saint, martyred in 303 A.D., could send down uncontrollable dancing plagues if angered.
Based on accounts from onlookers, the dancing was neither willful nor jubilant and those in motion seemed to be in agony. The town’s citizens were convinced that the dancers were compelled to dance even as they begged for it to stop.
Doctors at the time ruled out astrological or supernatural causes and reached a consensus that the cause was physical. They said the people were suffering from “hot blood.” Remarkably, officials took even stranger steps to find a cure. Perhaps thinking that the dancers just needed to get it out of their systems, noblemen encouraged the dance. They provided guildhalls for the people to dance in, enlisted musicians to play musical accompaniment and, according to some sources, called on professional dancers to come in and partner with those afflicted to keep them on their feet.
What is known about the dancing plague has come from historical doctors’ notes, church sermons and regional and local reports from the time. The choreographed contagion is also mentioned in 16th century notes issued from the Strasbourg city council.
Experts say there is enough literature to corroborate the occurrence. There is no doubt that it happened, they say, unlike accounts of up to 10 other outbreaks of dancing epidemics that may have erupted prior to 1518 in other cities of present day Belgium, northeastern France and Luxembourg, according to a report by the BBC in the United Kingdom.
The Strasbourg plague began to fade away in late August 1518, with some of the remaining living dancers seeking relief from the curse in a shrine. At its peak, the epidemic claimed the lives of 15 men, women and children a day, and as many as 100 people may have danced to death over a nearly two-month period, according to historian John Waller, an associate professor at University of Michigan’s Lyman Briggs College.
In his 2008 book, “A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518,” Waller, considered one of the leading authorities on the subject, suggests it was mass hysteria brought on by horrific conditions in Strasbourg at the time—extreme poverty, disease, and starvation—that caused Strasbourgians to dance from stress-induced psychosis. His explanation of a mass psychological illness seems the most plausible of the bunch, and is a prime example of how the human mind and body can work together to create chaos.
Be careful on the floor the next time you follow Lady Gaga’s directive to “Just Dance.”