The Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague

-By Disha Suresh

It is easy to lose oneself to the ecstasy of dance while several other people are around. But, it is quite rare to hear of people dying due to excessive dancing. This was the case during the Dancing Plague of 1518, in the French city of Strasbourg, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The plague involved several hundred people dancing in the streets for no apparent reason. This plague struck for three long months, under the scalding heat of the summer sun.

The cycle was apparently started in July 1518, by a woman named Mrs. Troffea, who started dancing until she collapsed. Then, after resting, she continued to dance and was joined by 30 more people, who danced for weeks until they were injured. The councilors of the city came up with a foolproof plan to put an end to the madness – more dancing. The mania took a wild turn when 400 people danced with lutes, pipes, and drums at public places. It is documented that their boots were soaked with blood and that it seemed like they had no awareness of their actions while dancing. After an alarming amount of death, the authorities realized that their plan had become counterproductive, so they banned music and dancing in public places until the epidemic died out.

Doctors of that time theorized that the dancing was a result of “overheated blood” in the brain. Others firmly believed that this was an indication of demonic possessions. However, research in the 20th century suggested that the town had eaten rye bread that had been affected by a fungus named ergot, which is closely related to LSD. Psychologists believe that this phenomenon was a result of a mass psychogenic disorder, resulting from extreme stress and hidden fears. These stemmed out of famines, the presence of diseases such as smallpox and the low life expectancy. Conclusively, the plague of 1518 was the strangest mass phenomenon which has little to no explanation even in the present day.