The dancing plague of 1518.

The Dancing Plague of 1518; A Plague That Made You Dance Till Death

People could not stop dancing on the streets of the Holy Roman Empire and eventually died due to exhaustion and heart attacks.

I could not believe my eyes when I read about the dancing plague. It sounded strange to me as no ailment, or mental disorder can make hundreds of people dance collectively until death. I don’t believe in magic or curses but discovered that this plague was considered witchcraft back in the olden days.

In around 1518, the residents of the Holy Roman Empire experienced something unique and strange. They started dancing for no reason at all. As per various reports, they had an uncontrollable urge to dance. Quite a lot of people got infected by the dancing plague. Multiple individuals called it a ‘death dance’ as it guided infectees towards their demise. People could not stop dancing on the streets of the Holy Roman Empire and eventually died due to exhaustion and heart attacks.

Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague.
Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The backstory of the dancing plague:

Similar cases were reported in Europe in the 7th century. However, the outbreak in the Holy Roman Empire was massive and took uncountable lives. The plague spread throughout Europe over the centuries, forming what is undoubtedly one of the strangest episodes of mass hysteria in history. Individuals reported witnessing people that danced until exhaustion. However, these people did not die from the plague.

It was believed that the people who danced like maniacs were possessed by a holy spirit. Hence, people of the olden days used to lead them towards a church or a cathedral. There were cases of uncontrollable dancing outbreaks recorded in Bernburg in the 11th century when a group of workers started to dance around a local cathedral during the Christmas Eve service. The aforementioned religious episodes were documented regularly throughout the Middle Ages.

Who started the plague in the Holy Roman Empire?

The plague began when a woman called Frau Troffea stepped into the streets and began dancing. She kept dancing for a week without any sort of break. The people of the village considered her a manic back when she fell victim to this plague. However, multiple people joined her and began dancing on the streets of Strasbourg. The victims ultimately died as they could not stop their feet. The said epidemic commenced in July of 1518 and claimed over 400 lives by the end of August.

Quite a few people suggested calling in professional dancers so they could all dance together and collectively cease dancing. The village hired a massive band of musicians and dancers and arranged an event for the infectees. Numerous individuals got infected as they could not stop or curb the virus.

The dancers that participated in the event collapsed due to exhaustion and bloodied feet. Some even passed away from strokes and heart attacks. The locals of the village eventually started calling it witchcraft and burned the infectees. The people of the olden days had no other option as this strange plague was taking multiple lives throughout the Holy Empire.

Medieval Peasants.
Medieval Peasants. David Teniers/ Wikimedia Commons

Theories and claims:

According to John Waller, the people of the 1500s believed that the infectees were cursed by St. Vitus, a Catholic saint. Moreover, one of the modern-day theorists claims that the said disease rapidly spread throughout Europe, and it caused people to come up with strange theories and solutions. For example, certain infectees were dubbed as the followers of an anonymous cult. Hence, the locals transferred them to a mountain.

Furthermore, there is another theory regarding the dancing plague that revolves amid the history enthusiasts; they believe that the infectees accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mold that grows on damp rye and produces spasms and hallucinations.

All in all, multiple people were infected by this plague. No one truly knows why, though. Quite a lot of individuals came forth with various bizarre ideas that were related to curses or magic. However, we should consider the fact that life in the Middle Ages was quite brutal and short. Multiple incidents scarred people’s minds. Starvation and disease were constant threats, particularly for peasants, as was the threat of violent death. Moreover, people had this perception that they’d die due to the Black Death Plague that struck Europe in the 14th century. Hence, life was a constant source of anxiety and stress. Hence, this created the perfect conditions for something called mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a medical condition in which an entire group of people starts to display similar symptoms of a psychological condition. It could be mass hysteria that struck Europe multiple times in the past. We don’t have any accurate pieces of evidence, though.

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