Flashback – The Dancing Plague Of 1518

In addition, the council ordered those worst afflicted to be bundled into wagons and taken the three-day ride to the shrine of Saint Vitus, where Frau Troffea had been cured. Priests placed the choreomaniacs, who were, presumably, still thrashing about like landed fish, underneath a wooden carving of Vitus. They put small crosses in their hands and red shoes on their feet. On the soles and tops of these shoes, they sprinkled holy water and painted crosses of consecrated oil.9 This ritual, carried out in an atmosphere thick with incense and Latin incantations, had the desired effect. Word soon reached Strasbourg and more were sent to Saverne to be forgiven by Vitus. Within a week or so the stream of suffering pilgrims had diminished to a trickle. The dancing plague had lasted for over a month, from mid-July to late August or early September. At its height, as many as fifteen people were dying each day. The final toll is unknown but, if such a daily death rate was true, could have been into the hundreds.

If not an angry saint or overheated blood then what did cause the dancing plague? In the view of Paracelsus, Fra Troffea’s marathon jig was a ploy to embarrass Herr Troffea: “In order to make the deception as perfect as possible, and really give the impression of illness, she hopped and sang, which was all most distasteful to her husband.”10 Upon seeing the success of the trick, other women began dancing to annoy their husbands too, powered on by “free, lewd and impertinent” thoughts. This type of dancing mania was classified by Paracelsus as Chorea lasciva (caused by voluptuous desires, “without fear or respect”), which sat alongside Chorea imaginativa (caused by the imagination, “from rage and swearing”), and Chrorea naturalis (a much milder form, caused by corporal causes) as the three main forms of the condition.11 While the famously iconoclastic Paracelsus does deserve credit for placing the cause of the disease in the minds of the choreomaniacs rather than in heaven, he was also a misogynist whose diagnosis looks somewhat ridiculous now.

Portrait of Paracelsus, after Quentin Matsys, ca. 1530 — Source.

Several modern historians have argued that the dancing plagues of mediaeval Europe were caused by ergot, a mind-altering mould found on the stalks of damp rye, which can cause twitching, jerking, and hallucinations — a condition known as St Anthony’s Fire. However, the historian John Waller has debunked the ergot hypothesis in his brilliant book on the dancing plague, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die (2009). Yes, ergot can cause convulsions and hallucinations, but it also restricts blood flow to the extremities. Someone poisoned by it simply could not dance for several days in a row.

Waller’s explanation of the dancing plague emerges from his deep knowledge of the material, cultural, and spiritual environment of sixteenth-century Strasbourg. He opens his book with a quote from H. C. Erik Midelfort’s A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (1999):

Madnesses of the past are not petrified entities that can be plucked unchanged from their niches and placed under our modern microscopes. They appear, perhaps, more like jellyfish that collapse and dry up when they are removed from the ambient sea water.12

According to Waller, the Strasbourg poor were primed for an epidemic of hysterical dancing. First of all, there was precedent. Every European dancing plague between 1374 and 1518 had occurred near Strasbourg, along the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there were the prevailing conditions. In 1518, a string of bad harvests, political instability, and the arrival of syphilis had induced anguish extreme even by early modern standards. This suffering manifested as hysterical dancing because the citizens believed it could. People can be extraordinarily suggestible and a firm conviction in the vengefulness of Saint Vitus was enough for it to be visited upon them. “The minds of the choreomaniacs were drawn inwards,” writes Waller, “tossed about on the violent seas of their deepest fears.”13

Detail of painting based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year — Source.

One way to elucidate the dancing plague is to consider the trance states people reach today. In cultures around the world, including in Brazil, Madagascar, and Kenya, people enter trances deliberately during ceremonies or involuntarily during periods of extreme stress. Once entranced, their perception of pain and exhaustion is marginalised. Waller describes the spread of the dancing plague as an example of psychic contagion, and he draws a parallel with the laughing epidemic that engulfed a region of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) in the fraught postcolonial year of 1963. When a couple of girls at a local mission school got the giggles, their friends followed suit until two-thirds of the pupils were laughing and crying uncontrollably and the whole school had to be shut down. Once home, the pupils “infected” their families and soon whole villages were consumed by hysterics. Doctors recorded several hundred cases, lasting a week on average.

Of course, the dancing plagues have another parallel — modern rave culture. Though usually without the bloody feet and pleas for mercy of our sixteenth-century choreomaniacs, and often with a little chemical help, it is not uncommon for partygoers to dance for days with little break, forgoing sleep and food, sometimes shifting their feet with poise and balance, and sometimes leaping with none. Should one such reveller — perhaps fuelled by a particularly potent dancefloor potion — be transplanted onto the horse market stage of early modern Strasbourg half a millennium ago, they might not feel entirely out of place.

Ned Pennant-Rea is an editor and writer from London. He likes early modern literature and wrote his Master’s thesis on animals in Montaigne’s essays.

1. Quoted in E. Louis Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, trans. Ernest Classen (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952), 237.
2. From an astrological chronicle for Strasbourg published in 1636 by Goldmeyer, quoted in Backman, Religious Dances, 238.
3. Paracelsus quoted in Backman, Religious Dances, 313.
4. From Annales de Sebastian Brant (1899), quoted in John Waller, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die (London: Icon Books, Ltd, 2009), 109.
5. Quoted in H. C. Erik Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 35.
6. Quoted in Midelfort, History of Madness, 33.
7. See Ulinka Rublack’s commentary in Hans Holbein, The Dance of Death (London: Penguin Books, 2016), 128–9.
8. Strasbourg Municipal Archives, R3, fol. 72 recto, quoted in Midelfort, History of Madness, 35.
9. Specklin’s chronicle, printed in Alfred Martin, “Geschichte der Tanzkrankheit in Deutschland”, Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde 24 (1914): 121, quoted in Midelfort, History of Madness, 36.
10. Paracelsus quoted in Backman, Religious Dances, 313.
11. “Diseases that Deprive Men of their Reason”, in Four Treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus, transl. and ed. C. Lilian Temkin et al. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 181–2.
12. H. C. Erik Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 49, quoted in John Waller, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die (London: Icon Books, Ltd, 2009), xv.
13. Waller, Time to Dance, 104.


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