Annals in Weird French History: The Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518

Citizens of 1518 Strasbourg with the psychogenic disorder choreomania or ‘dancing plague’ dancing amid graves in a churchyard. Wikimedia Commons/public domain/author unknown

Of all the plagues that hit Europe during the Middle Ages, the epidemic known as the “Dancing plague” of Strasbourg is certainly the strangest and most enigmatic. Sometimes humorously referred to as the “world’s longest rave”, the contagious event reportedly saw up to hundreds of people crowd the streets of the old Alsatian city, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, to engage in frenzied motion for hours or days on end.

Most historians say the “plague” broke out during an especially sweltering summer in 1518, and didn’t abate until September that same year, nearly three months later. But what exactly did the “dancing mania” look like? Who, and what, started it? And do contemporary reports of people falling dead in the street from exhaustion, overheating and other ailments have any truth to them?

{Related: A Short History of Quarantines in Europe}

Keep reading to find out.

It All Started With a Lone Woman…

According to historian John Waller, the “epidemic” was sparked by a Strasbourgeois resident named Frau Troffea, who, contemporary accounts suggest, emerged from her home in the city center one hot July day in 1518, and began spontaneously dancing, though no music or other detectable stimulus triggered it. She continued for hours on end until she collapsed from exhaustion.

But she didn’t stop there. She resumed her frenzied, joyful motions a few hours later, and the next day, and the next. By the third day, Waller says, curious crowds had gathered to watch the woman, whose feet were now badly bruised and bloodied.

There was much speculation around what could have prompted her strange behavior, not least the possibility of demonic possession. But the opposite might also be true: her dancing might be divinely inspired. The crowds that had gathered to watch the curious spectacle seemed to settle on the latter interpretation, and Frau Troffea was hauled off in a wagon to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains.

{Related: A Self-Guided Tour of Medieval Paris}

The local authorities and wealthy burghers of Strasbourg were alarmed by what came next. Instead of it all stopping with Frau Troffea being honored for her ostensible divine inspiration, she had sparked a mysterious, music-less dance party in the sweltering late-medieval streets of the old Cathedral city.

According to various accounts, between 50 and 400 revelers (many of whom were women) took to the streets in the days and months that followed, hopping, swaying and leaping into the air and prompting fear and alarm among residents and authorities.

The “dancing plague” only subsided sometime in September of that year– and according to disputed accounts, led to significant illness and death.

Dance ‘Till You’re Dead: Myth or Reality?

Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portraying three people affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Drawing on historical city archives, and other materials, including contemporary accounts from the physician and alchemist Paracelsus, Waller’s book, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die, argues that strong evidence exists to confirm that the dancing plague led to deaths among some of the revelers– even upwards of 15 a day. Heat exhaustion and dehydration were probable causes.

Other historians are more equivocal about whether the evidence for such a deadly outcome really exists, with one underlining that many of the chronicles and archives that describe the dancing epidemic were in fact written in decades or centuries that followed, and thus might be less than reliable. It’s therefore hard to conclude whether the accounts of Strasbourg citizens “dancing till they’re dead” had much veracity– though it makes for a compelling story, of course.

What Could Have Caused It?

Many theories have emerged to try to explain the curious dance party– which, interestingly enough, wasn’t the first to break out in medieval Alsace and Germany, with previous episodes occuring mostly in towns along the Rhine River in earlier centuries. A “dancing mania” had reportedly also overtaken a few Strasbourg residents in 1374, just a few years after the Black Death had decimated much of its population.

Following the 1518 dancing plague, contemporary physicians speculated that the extreme heat and perhaps even the position of the stars and planets might have triggered the bizarre event. More religious interpretations revolved around demonic possession, malevolent curses that afflicted the dancers, or, as noted earlier, divine inspiration.

More modern theories have suggested that “dancing mania” might be the result of the ingestion of toxic mold or some other form of food poisoning. Still others speculate that it might simply represent early instances of stress-induced mass hysteria (or psychosis).

According to the second theory, such contagious social behaviors might erupt spontaneously as ways to cope with and respond to particularly stressful events, such as plagues, floods, starvation and other disasters. It’s the one that’s gained the most credibility among medical historians.

Whatever the causes (and historical truths) of the strangest, wildest dance party in European history, it’s an event that continues to capture our imaginations. It was even the subject of a short experimental film, “Strasbourg 1518″, by filmmaker Jonathan Glazer.

Conceived and aired on the BBC during the first Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 in the UK, the film “depicts lone performers around the world dancing till they drop” and draws interesting connections between the pandemic-fueled experience of collective isolation, trauma (and the desire to connect through screens and online spaces) and the earlier, famous episode of collective mania.

Other Weird Annals in French & Parisian History

Cimetière des Innocents, a defunct cemetery in Paris that was once overflowing with corpses.

For more strange chapters in French and Parisian history, read our account of how the Paris Catacombs were filled with the remains of an overflowing, putrid cemetery; then learn how Paris City Hall’s Square was once a brutal execution site in the capital.

Finally, learn about the odd legend of “alchemist” Nicolas Flamel, whose legend is attached to the oldest house in Paris.

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