The K Files, Entry #6: The Dancing Plague of 1518

In July of 1518, Frau Troffea began to dance.  She danced feverishly throughout the streets of the town, not stopping for approximately 6 days.  As she galloped and swayed unceasingly, several others joined into the brigade.  One month later, countless individuals would be dead.  This is the story of the Dancing Plague of 1518.

1642 engraving of the Dancing Plague by Hendrik Hondius.

Troffea’s dancing began in the town of Strasbourg, Alsace, an area of the Holy Roman Empire which is now laid to claim by France.  Historical records note that her dancing continued through the town for 4-6 days without stopping, and that by the end of this week, about 34 people had joined her.  The increase in the inexplicable behavior concerned those in power, who sought an answer from local physicians.  After ruling out possible supernatural and astrological causes, the town physicians determined that the behavior must be due to a natural ailment caused by “hot blood”, or a defect in the individuals’ bodily “humours”. 

The concept of humours, or chemical systems that regulate human behavior, is believed to date back to 500BC, when Egyptian and Mesopotamian medical theorists hypothesized that chemical elements such as earth, air, fire, and water had a profound effect on human health.  The lists of chemicals vary over the years and throughout different cultures, and can be seen spanning much of Western thinking in different forms, including Indian Ayurveda medicine.  The concept was not fully documented until the era of Greek physicians, and Hippocrates is credited with solidifying the idea as it applied to then-modern medicine.  Hippocrates’ list of humours involved the fluids or substances found within the human body, rather than without, and included blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile.  In his theory, later further developed by Aelius Galenus or “Galen”, each substance was connected to a specific human behavior, with blood being associated to social activity.  Typical treatment for blood-associated ailments would often include the process of bloodletting, to remove the excess of the ailed humour.

17th Century German engraving of the Dancing Plague

In this particular instance, however, physicians and government officials chose to take a different route.  Confronting an increasing number of strange cases, which reached what some historians say was approximately 400 human sufferers, officials decided to build a grand wooden stage in the town square, with the thought that the dancing victims would simply, for lack of a better term, “dance it out”.  They procured the use of guildhalls for this purpose, as well, and some historians even conjecture that musicians were brought in to aid the dancers by providing a soundtrack for them to move to.  Ultimately, the cure was no cure at all, and an estimated 15 people died per day from mere exhaustion before the plague finally died out somewhere around early September 1518.

The Dancing Plague of 1518 was not the only instance wherein this strange phenomenon of uncontrollable dancing occurred.  It was one of the larger recorded incidents in a string of events, a phenomenon known as “dancing mania”, which occurred in mainland Europe from the 7th to 17th centuries.  The earliest known instance occurred in the 1020’s in Bernburg, Germany when 18 peasant women began dancing feverishly around a church during a Christmas Eve service.  The first major outbreak of note occurred in Aachen in the Holy Roman Empire (currently Germany) in 1374 and included in excess of 1200 individuals.  Instances of dancing mania popped up all over Europe, affecting France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.  The phenomenon appears to have died out by the early 1600’s.

Several theories have been posed as to the cause of the spontaneous dancing mania.  One major supposition over the years was the psychedelic effect of ergot fungi, which was often found on the wheat grains used in baking bread.  Ergotamine, the main psychoactive component in ergo fungi, is an alkaloid substance from which the drug LSD was formulated, and is a powerful hallucinogenic.  However, John Waller, a contributor to the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, denies this theory, as it would be nearly impossible for so many individuals to experience the same hallucinogenic symptoms simultaneously.  Waller’s theory instead involves stress-induced psychosis, or a form of mass hysteria, brought on by severe starvation and possibly disease.  Other theories also involve mass hysteria, but instead suggest a source of a strong religious tenor, as many of the cases of dancing mania took place in areas of similar spiritual beliefs and traditions.

Ultimately, no one knows for sure the reasoning behind the strange Dancing Plague of 1518, nor the several related cases that took place for nearly a millennium.  Mass hysteria involving stress-related cases combined with religion has been at the root of many unexplained circumstances throughout history, including the infamous Salem Witch Trials.  Is this a feasible theory?  What do you think is the cause of the Dancing Plague of 1518?  Drop a comment below and tell me your theories.  And stay tuned for another entry in The K Files.

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