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Dance ’til You Drop: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Over 1000 years ago people in Kölbigk, Germany began dancing outside of a church on Christmas Eve. The priest, upset with the boisterous activity outside, ordered the dancers to stop and when they did not comply he cursed them to continue dancing for an entire year. Until the next Christmas these 18 dancers did not stop. Once they could finally control their limbs again, the dancers fell, exhausted into a deep state of sleep. A sleep that some did not wake from. This story may seem completely impossible to us today. However, in the Middle Ages compulsive dancing was something that seems to have happened with some degree of regularity, even if this exact event may not have happened exactly as reported.

Les pèlerins de Saint Jean qui dansent à Meulenbeeck by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Fast forward about 500 years and we come to an event of “choreomania,” or uncontrollable dancing, that has been well documented. In another small German town along the Rhine River, Strasbourg, Frau Troffea began her own dance in July of 1518. For almost an entire week she kept her dance up and while at first people were only watching with curiosity, eventually others began to join her. By the next month hundreds of new dancers joined in with zero explanation of their actions, some dancing until they expired. 

As many people do, the residents of Medieval Europe turned to religion to attempt to cure the afflicted dancers. Christianity, the most widely practiced religion in the region at the time, provides patron saints for followers to pray to for help and comfort in various situations. The preferred patron saint for those in Germany at this time and for those troubled with the unstoppable dancing was St. Vitus, a martyr who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries and the patron saint of dancers. Many people took pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Vitus outside of the city in the hopes that they would be able to pray to the saint and find a cure for the afflicted dancers. However, these journeys gave little help as the dancing continued until it stopped as mysteriously as it began.

De Bruiloft Dans by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1566.

Over the years there have been many who have tried to uncover the root of the issue in Strasbourg that led to this mania. One such theory is ergotism, a condition brought on by a mold that grows on the stalks of rye and causes hallucinations and spasms in those who have eaten contaminated flour. This absolutely was something that could have happened but the biggest issue with this theory is that these outbreaks of “choreomania” occurred in places with different climates and crops all along the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. With that idea ruled out historians have looked to other explanations for the choreomania. A contemporary of this particular dance plague, the physician Paracelcus, had a few interesting ideas when it came to the outbreak of dance. One of these being the idea of a person having blood in their “laughing veins” prompting a “tickling feeling” that would start in a person’s extremities and move to their head and only stop once the blood was calmed. Call me crazy but I’m not so sure he was right with this one.

Another idea posited by Paracelsus was that Frau Troffea’s dancing was an elaborate ploy to annoy and embarrass her husband. Once other women saw the success of their neighbor they began dancing to embarrass their own husbands. This is, admittedly, a very creative theory from someone who, one can only imagine, was a real misogynist. What Paracelsus did not account for with this theory is that men were affected as well as women. So, unfortunately, he went 0-2 on these theories. To his credit, he did, however, theorize that this uncontrollable dancing could have originated in the mind and imagination of people.

Portrait of Paracelsus, after Quentin Matsys, ca. 1530

Most modern historians believe the cause of this mysterious dancing compulsion comes down to something that everyone experiences: stress. In times of extreme stress people can react in peculiar ways. In 1518 Strasbourg was experiencing a string of events that could have led to extreme uncertainty and stress among those living there. First, there were bad harvests; people weren’t sure where their next meal would come from on a regular basis. Second, they were experiencing political instability within the Holy Roman Empire. Combined with the religious upheaval that was happening throughout Europe with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation there were many moving parts in the lives of people in the region. Finally, there was disease in the form of smallpox and syphilis spreading among the population of Europe. Any one of these could have increased the stress of the people of Strasbourg. Having all three of these factors led to incredibly unstable and stressful lives. 

In that final, most accepted theory, the uncontrollable dancing of Frau Troffea and those who joined her was the mind and body’s reaction to all of the stressors that the residents of Strasbourg were experiencing. In times of great stress, not unlike those the world has experienced over the last 3 years, perhaps we will see these dancing plagues continue; the dancers’ bodies and minds working to find ways to ease their stress in any way possible.



By: Hanna Gish

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