The dancing plague of 1518

Its fascinating how not only clothes, accessories & architecture follow a pattern of fashion and trends – diseases do to. Diseases that occur during a specific period of time, and then disappear from history completely. Its seems that sickness is just as much a part of social history as culture is.

In July 1518 a woman named Frau Troffea began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. And she didn’t stop – in fact she kept dancing like a mad hatter for almost a week. The disease “Dancing Plague” had struck Strasbourg. Within a week, 34 more people had joined in Frau Troffeas manic dancing. Within a month around 400 people were dancing.


A depiction of dancing mania. Apparently Bruegel the elder witnessed another outbreak of Dancing Plague in Flanders 1564. This is a copy by his son, Brueghel the younger.

The city of Strasbourg were shocked – physician notes, cathedral sermons, local, regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council all concluded that people were in fact dancing themselves to death. And as the plaque got worse, concerned nobles tried to find the cause behind this strange sickness hitting their town. Local physicians ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood.”


Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. An engraving by Hendrick Hondius (1642) after a drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1564).

How did the authorities react to this conclusion? Not to try to calm down the affected, no. Instead they encouraged more dancing, thinking people couldn’t hold up the mad moves for more than 24 hours. They provided the sickos by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and constructing a wooden stage. They even provided paid musicians to keep the dancing going to wear the people out! Unfortunately it didnt help the situation and hundreds of people died from heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion.

In fact Dancing Plagues, also known as choreomania, St John’s Dance and St. Vitus’ Dance, hit Europe many times during 14th and 17th centuries. The first major outbreak was in Aachen, Germany, in 1374 and then it just spread over Europe. There are many theories around the cause behind these outbreaks – some believe that that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St. Anthony’s fire in the Middle Ages. Other more macabre theories think that it was simply staged, perhaps by religious cults disguising their heretic dancing rituals as hysteria. What we do know is that this is one of the first recorded forms of mass hysteria. Perhaps a combination of stress, pious fear, famine and religious anxiety triggered this mass psychogenic illness, as psychologist John Waller suspect, in his very interesting article on the subject.

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