Five hundred years ago in July, a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundred became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days, until unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Ned Pennant-Rea on one of history’s most bizarre events.
On a hastily built stage before the busy horse market of Strasbourg, scores of people dance to pipes, drums, and horns. The July sun beats down upon them as they hop from leg to leg, spin in circles and whoop loudly. From a distance they might be carnival revellers. But closer inspection reveals a more disquieting scene. Their arms are flailing and their bodies are convulsing spasmodically. Ragged clothes and pinched faces are saturated in sweat. Their eyes are glassy, distant. Blood seeps from swollen feet into leather boots and wooden clogs. These are not revellers but “choreomaniacs”, entirely possessed by the mania of the dance.
In full view of the public, this is the apogee of the choreomania that tormented Strasbourg for a midsummer month in 1518. Also known as the “dancing plague”, it was the most fatal and best documented of the more than ten such contagions which had broken out along the Rhine and Moselle rivers since 1374. Numerous accounts of the bizarre events that unfolded that summer can be found scattered across various contemporary documents and chronicles compiled in the subsequent decades and centuries. One seventeenth-century chronicle by the Strasbourg jurist Johann Schilter quotes a now lost manuscript poem:
Many hundreds in Strassburg began
To dance and hop, women and men,
In the public market, in alleys and streets,
Day and night; and many of them ate nothing
Until at last the sickness left them.
This affliction was called St Vitus’ dance.1
Another chronicle from 1636 relates a less happy ending:
In the year 1518 AD … there occurred among men a remarkable and terrible disease called St Vitus’ dance, in which men in their madness began to dance day and night until finally they fell down unconscious and succumbed to death.2
The physician and alchemist Paracelsus visited Strasbourg eight years after the plague and became fascinated by its causes. According to his Opus Paramirum, and various chronicles agree, it all started with one woman. Frau Troffea had started dancing on July 14th on the narrow cobbled street outside her half-timbered home. As far as we can tell she had no musical accompaniment but simply “began to dance”.3 Ignoring her husband’s pleas to cease, she continued for hours, until the sky turned black and she collapsed in a twitching heap of exhaustion. The next morning she was up again on her swollen feet and dancing before thirst and hunger could register. By the third day, people of a great and growing variety — hawkers, porters, beggars, pilgrims, priests, nuns — were drinking in the ungodly spectacle. The mania possessed Frau Troffea for between four and six days, at which point the frightened authorities intervened by sending her in a wagon thirty miles away to Saverne. There she might be cured at the shrine of Vitus, the saint who it was believed had cursed her. But some of those who had witnessed her strange performance had begun to mimic her, and within days more than thirty choreomaniacs were in motion, some so monomaniacally that only death would have the power to intervene.
The more citizens this unusual plague afflicted, the more desperate the privy council became to control it. The clergy held it to be the work of a vengeful Saint Vitus, but the councillors listened instead to the guild of physicians, declaring the dance to be “a natural disease, which comes from overheated blood.”4 According to humoral theory, the afflicted must therefore be bled. But the physicians instead recommended the treatment given to past victims of this bizarre disease. They must dance themselves free of it. A sixteenth-century chronicle composed by the architect Daniel Specklin records what the council did next.5 Carpenters and tanners were ordered to transform their guild halls into temporary dance floors, and “set up platforms in the horse market and in the grain market“ in full view of the public. To keep the accursed in motion and so expedite their recovery, dozens of musicians were paid to play drums, fiddles, pipes, and horns, with healthy dancers brought in for further encouragement. The authorities hoped to create the optimal conditions for the dance to exhaust itself.
It backfired horribly. Being more inclined to a supernatural than a medical explanation of the dance, most of the onlookers saw in the frenzied movements a demonstration of the magnitude of Saint Vitus’ fury. None being free of sin, many were lured into the mania. The Imlin family chronicle records that within a month the plague had seized four hundred citizens.6
The privy council ordered the stages to be pulled down. If the choreomaniacs must continue their disturbing movements then they now must do so out of sight. The council went further, prohibiting almost all dance and music in the city until September. This was no small thing for a culture in which communal dancing was central — from upright burghers performing their restrained, delicate steps in the so-called bassadanza, to ale-laden peasants leaping with hearty abandon to let off steam.7 Sebastian Brant, a Strasbourg chancellor and author of The Ship of Fools (1494), detailed the exception to the ban: “if honourable persons wish to dance at weddings or celebrations of first Mass in their houses, they may do so using stringed instruments, but they are on their conscience not to use tambourines and drums.”8 Presumably strings were deemed less likely than percussion to bring on the mania.