An Irresistible Urge to Dance: Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518

Today in Strasbourg, Place en Cathedral is the place to visit…

The gorgeous, soaring late-Gothic architecture from the famous structure that provides the square its name overlooks the throngs of passing tourists and locals. At one point, however, the Cathedral also stood sentry over a town caught within the throes of the mysterious, incurable sickness. This sickness came to be called the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518.

On a warm July day in 1518, a German housewife named Frau Troffea stepped from her home and onto the cobblestone square

Raising her arms above her head, she started to dance in earnest, as if enjoying wonderful music that just she could hear. Initially, her dancing was regarded with amusement in the windows of neighbouring half-timbered houses. She was an antic providing a low-dose antidote towards the weariness that came from living in Strasbourg. At the time, the town was overtaxed, rife with syphilis and also the sweating disease, and regularly experienced famines.

Reports differ as to whether or otherwise she continued to dance or whether she slept from exhaustion, however the next thing is certain: her dancing caused others to join in. By the end of the week, Frau Troffea have been accompanied by over thirty other people. It was as if they might suddenly, inexplicably, hear the music she was dancing to.

Within two weeks, hundreds of people had become suffering from the urge to dance

They danced wildly, frequently dying of exhaustion or heart attacks. As many as 15 people were dying each day. The city council didn't know what to model of it. Although four or five other incidents of what would become referred to as the “dancing plague” were documented between 1021 and 1518. Once the dancing plague found Strasbourg, there was still no known cure.

Officials met and determined it's caused by “hot blood,” an imbalance from the humours that led the mind to literally overheat and melt into madness. Somewhat appallingly, they decided the best plan of action ended up being to encourage more dancing.

Structures were enacted for people to bop on and bands of musicians were hired. Understandably, this made even healthy people begin to dance, plus they themselves became afflicted too. They danced on bruised and bloodied feet, screaming with pleas to let them stop.

When it became clear that they'd chosen the wrong plan of action, city officials changed tactics. Assuming Strasbourg had been cursed by Saint Vitus, the patron of dance, they scapegoated the city's less-savoury citizens. Sex workers and gamblers were expelled, brothels and casinos shuttered. They enacted a ban on dancing and tore down the stages they'd erected, sending musicians home. But still, the folks of Strasbourg danced.

After 30 days, quite as suddenly as it had started, the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 ended

400 people had died at that time, and accounts differ in regards to what built them into stop. One states that one day, the dancers simply stopped dancing. They returned to their homes, fell asleep, and recommenced their lives as if nothing had happened.

Another states that city officials took the dancers to a church and made them pay homage to Saint Vitus with the hope that he would cure them. There aren't any known reports by survivors from the plague to detail their personal experience.

The Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 poses a tantalizing mystery to travel history buffs. What, exactly, caused the affliction? Ergotism, a mould based in the commonly consumed rye bread of the time, would explain the spasms and tremors, but not the dancing, or its apparent contagiousness.

Over time, the accepted answer was that Strasbourg was gripped by mass hysteria in 1518, likely caused by the strain of just living during that period of time. It is a curious mixing of illness with a social phenomenon that's hard to explain, only one expert did identify 3 ways to stop an episode of mass hysteria. Perhaps rather ironically, it features the exact opposite of exactly what the city councilmen chose to do during the time of the outbreak.

How to treat an outbreak of mass hysteria

  1. Isolate the afflicted from the healthy.
  2. Communicate that things are in check to the healthy population to settle their nerves.
  3. Do not provide the afflicted validation, i.e., don't setup structures for individuals to bop on or hire musicians.

As you can observe, the response of the city council for this fascinating history anecdote was rather useless. However, the fact remains: this was a real event that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Today, it's hard to assume a dancing plague striking, even though you visit Place en Cathedral.

However, sometimes, for a glass or two on the square on the hot day in July, you might just begin to feel yourself swaying slightly in your seat, moved by a few unseen capacity to communicate using your body. And when you need to get a greater insight into a brief history of the city, take this self-guided Strasbourg walking tour.

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