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An engraving by Pieter Brueghel the Elder showing three women afflicted with the plague | Wikipedia | Public Domain

The mystery of the dancing plague of 1518

An engraving by Pieter Brueghel the Elder showing three women afflicted with the plague | Wikipedia

In the summer of 1518, a woman emerged from her house in the French town of Strasbourg and started dancing. Within a week, hundreds had joined her. They danced day and night, seemingly oblivious to the fact they were dancing the skin off their feet. Many danced until they collapsed. Some may have even died. What on earth was going on?

Many believe this was the origin of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story.

The 1518 Dancing Plague of Strasbourg was just one of many spontaneous outbreaks of dancing that occurred throughout Europe from the 7th to the 17th Century. The history books are full of accounts of large groups of people breaking into dance. One of the earliest known cases occurred in the French town of Berberg in the 1020s where a Christmas Eve service was ruined by a group of peasants suddenly jumping up and singing and dancing for no apparent reason. In 1237, there was another outbreak in the German town of Erfurt. On this occasion, a large group of children took it upon themselves to leap and dance the twenty miles to the nearby town of Arnstadt, much to the bafflement of the residents of both towns. Many believe this was the origin of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story.

The outbreaks continued to pick up pace throughout the 13th Century, most notably in 1278 where the dancing antics of about 200 peasants on a bridge over the River Meuse caused it to collapse, leading to many casualties.

The 14th Century saw further outbreaks of dancing mania, by far the biggest being in the German town of Aachen in Germany in 1374 that spread like wildfire across the country reaching as far as Italy and Luxembourg. The following two years saw outbreaks occur in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Dancing mania hit the town of Augsburg in 1381, and in 1428 the plague reached Switzerland with outbreaks in Zurich and Schaffhausen that claimed the life of a monk.

The plague of 1518 was one of the biggest outbreaks ever recorded, and its cause has been debated for centuries.

As the mania took hold, the leaders of Strasbourg turned to the city’s doctors for a cause of the outbreak. Medicine was still very much in its bloodletting, leeches and carrying-around-a-lucky-rabbit-foot-to-ward off-the-plague phase at this point in history, which explains why the doctors confidently diagnosed ‘overheated blood’ in the brains of the dancers. It was an exceptionally hot summer, so it stood to reason that people’s brains were boiling in their heads.

After accepting this diagnosis without question, the town’s burghers decided that the best way to bring the plague to an end would be to encourage even more dancing, presumably so the people afflicted could dance off the excessive heat inside their heads. To encourage this, the dancers were corralled into an area of the city centre and a stage was set up next to the horse market for them to get it out of their systems. Pipers and drummers were brought in to encourage even more dancing and big burly men were hired to prop up any exhausted dancers who dropped to the floor before the ferocious heat in their brains had been properly boiled away.

Surprisingly enough, this approach didn’t work.

With the dancers showing no signs of stopping, the city leaders arrived at the conclusion that they had made a mistake by turning the city centre into an open-air dance hall. They decided that the plague was in fact caused by that classic one-size-fits-all explanation of the time – the wrath of God. Bearing that in mind, a new approach was required. In a radical about face, music and dancing were banned in favour of a period of penitence. The poor unfortunates afflicted by the plague didn’t notice the change in policy and carried on dancing away on their crippled and bloody feet.

With the ban being universally ignored, it was decided that the dancers should be taken to a nearby shrine dedicated to St. Vitus. At the time, St. Vitus was seen as a rather vengeful saint who was known to throw down a dancing curse on those who displeased him. To placate St. Vitus, each dancer was forced into a pair of red shoes for reasons unknown and made to dance around the saint’s effigy in a nearby grotto. Finally, after several days of this, the people stopped dancing. The plague was over, but what on earth was the cause?

At the time of the 1518 outbreak, Europe was a deeply religious society and most unfortunate events such as floods, famine and plagues were explained away as acts of divine intervention. To the modern mind, the idea that God or the curse of St. Vitus was the cause seems absurd, but to someone in the 16th Century who very much believed that God and the saints directly intervened in their daily lives, there was nothing ridiculous about it. God was everywhere and saw everything, and divine intervention was nothing to scoff about.

In these more enlightened times, we dismiss the idea that these mass dancing events were the work of an angry God or a vengeful saint, so what was the cause if it wasn’t the work of a furious deity?

One theory put forward to explain the phenomenon is mass food poisoning. Rye was a staple cereal of the region where most of the dancing outbreaks occurred, and a species of mould known as ergot grows on rye. If consumed in sufficient volume, it can have strong hallucinogenic effects not dissimilar to LSD. So, did terrifying hallucinations cause the outbreak? It seems highly unlikely. Ergot is usually killed off quite quickly in the stomach and only becomes a problem if ingested over a long period of time leading to an affliction called ergotism. Unless stomach ulcers are present, it’s quite difficult for ergot to enter the bloodstream. While many people in 16th Century Europe were undernourished and thus in danger of suffering from ulcers, it’s highly unlikely they were present in sufficient numbers to cause mass hallucinatory outbreaks.

‘stress-induced psychosis’

The most plausible explanation is that the plague was caused by a form of mass hysteria. The people of the region already had it in their heads that God was displeased with them, and that made them very open to suggestion. These were people who had just come through several terrible years of disease and starvation that had left them highly stressed and incredibly superstitious. Seeing other people dancing and being told by those in charge that they were doing it because God wasn’t happy with them could have led others to join in for fear that not doing so would make their lives even worse. Before long, four hundred people were all suffering from what psychologists now call ‘stress-induced psychosis’ – a collective madness that spread through the population, causing them to dance until they collapsed. In this theory, it wasn’t God making them do it so much as the fear of God – a powerful force in the mind of 16th Century man that could drive him to do the most extreme things that today we find very hard to understand. If dancing mania was caused by mass hysteria, it explains why it was so prevalent throughout centuries of deprivation and why it eventually died out as living conditions and medicine improved.

Life would gradually get better for the people of the region and outbreaks of mass dancing would die out completely in Europe by the 17th Century. The dancing plague of 1518 was one of many such outbreaks that occurred for centuries and remains one of the strangest episodes in the history of the continent.