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What the Heck Caused the Dancing Plague of 1518?

During our first episode of the Misfits and Mysteries Podcast, which comes out this Thursday, October 1st, I brought up the Dancing Plague of 1518 as an example of mass hysteria. At the time everything I said was based off of memory from a Weird History video I watched a number of months ago. I think this is a fascinating topic so I decided to write this blog to correct myself and more importantly because it’s a fun and interesting topic.

What was the dancing plague?

The Dancing plague began in 1518 when the residents of Strasbourg were struck with an uncontrollable urge to dance. The “longest rave” in history lasted until September of 1518 and claimed around 400 “victims.” The plague started when a woman named Frau Troffea began to uncontrollably dance in public with no music playing. She was having a solo non-stop dance party against her will for about a week when 36 others joined the party.

By August of 1518, around 400 residents were involuntarily dancing in the streets and at the height of the dancing mania, 15 residents were dropping dead a day from over exhaustion, strokes, and heart attacks. After consulting doctors and astronomers, the nobles of Strasbourg determined that the plague was a natural disease (not a demonic possession as I said in the podcast) caused by “hot blood.” To cure the dancing plague, the nobles ordered the construction of a giant stage and musical performance believing it would speed up the recovery process. Unfortunately, this plan completely backfired and actually encouraged even more people to start dancing. About a month into the dancing plague, it abruptly ended and the people of Strasbourg were able to stop dancing and return to their normal lives.

What caused it?

The dancing plague is certainly weird and to the best of my knowledge, a completely unique occurrence. While the dancing plague is a funny concept, it was actually pretty deadly and we're not really sure what caused it.

One explanation for the dancing plague is that it was caused by an actual physical ailment. Some experts believe that the uncontrollable dancing was caused by a mix of Epilepsy and Typhus. Another theory suggests that the uncontrollable dancing was actually spasms caused by consuming toxic mold found on damp rye bread. While these two theories provide good explanations, they do not adequately account for all of the behaviors displayed.

Another explanation is that the dancing plague was caused by “Cultural Contagion,” also known as mass hysteria. According to historian John Waller, the most likely explanation for the dancing plague was stress induced hysteria brought on by a mix of disease, famine, and superstition. There is a legend that Saint Vitus could place a curse on you that would force you to dance until you dropped dead. Basically all the stress of medieval life and superstition culminated in mass dancing hysteria.

This was a really fun topic to research and write about, so I hope you enjoy it. For more information about the dancing plague, check out the videos and articles I link to throughout the blog. And don’t forget to check out the Misfits and Mysteries Podcast every Thursday.

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