A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death
A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death

A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death

Wyatt Redd - October 28, 2017

In the 16th century, some of the citizens of Strasbourg began to act very strangely. They clasped hands and danced, spinning furiously as though moving to some infectious tune only they could hear.

Many danced like this for hours until struck with exhaustion, they collapsed with heaving chests onto the ground. There they lay until they had to strength to rise, only to begin dancing once again.

Some kept this up for hours and others for days. And some even danced so long that when they finally collapsed, they never rose again- at least, if some of the medieval sources can be believed.

This “Dancing Plague,” as observers began to call it, that struck the citizens of Strasbourg wasn’t the first example of compulsive dancing that affected the people of medieval Europe. Cases had been reported all the way back to the 7th century. But this outbreak was one of the largest.

For centuries, the mania seemed to spread across much of Western and Central Europe, forming what is undoubtedly one of the strangest episodes of mass hysteria in history. But what exactly caused people to begin dancing themselves to death? And what does it tell us about life in medieval Europe?

A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death
The Dancing Plague in Strasbourg. Wikimedia Commons

Incidents of spontaneous dancing outbreaks have happened throughout history. Usually, they were attributed to the influence of saints filling people with the joy of the holy spirit. Thus, medieval people often referred to them as “St. Vitus’s Dance,” or “St. John’s Dance.” These episodes often took place around the time of these saints’ feast days or near shrines dedicated to them. And the dancing procession would usually end at a church or shrine, where people prayed for the saint to cure them of their compulsion to dance. These religious episodes were documented fairly regularly throughout the Middle Ages.

They were also widely spread across Europe. The largest concentrations seem to have been around the Rhine Valley, which followed the mighty river from the Alps of Switzerland to the Netherlands. But there were also episodes in what is now Italy, where people had a different interpretation of what was causing them. There the dancing was called “Tarantism,” and was attributed to the poisonous bites of spiders that struck while people were tending their fields. The venom was supposed to have sent people into fits of ecstatic dancing until they collapsed in death. A popular dance called the “Tarantella” was even said to have been created to mimic these symptoms.

There were cases of spontaneous dancing outbreaks recorded in Bernburg in the 11th century when a group of peasants began to dance around a local cathedral and disturbing the Christmas Eve service. And in the city of Erfurt in 1237, a group of children assembled for a dancing procession that took them all the way to Arnstad. This particular outbreak is interesting because it occurred around the same time that the famous tale of the Pied Piper, a disgruntled rat-catcher who is said to have led the children of the children of the nearby city of Hamelin away with his flute, is supposed to have happened.

A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death
A Medieval Dance. Pieter Bruegel/ Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest outbreaks began in the 14th century in the city of Aachen in the Holy Roman Empire. This outbreak is also one of the best-documented by contemporary accounts which describe hundreds of people suddenly gripped by the urge to dance. Observers reported people jerking their arms and leaping in the air or grappling with intense hallucinations. Others are said to have collapsed foaming at the mouth or spontaneously died of heart attacks.

In the following few years, dancing mania gripped a number of cities. Outbreaks were recorded in Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren, and Utrecht. Other cases were observed in Zurich, as well as in cities in Holland and Italy. This may be one of the earliest examples of the mania behaving like a disease that could be spread by human contact, almost mimicking the pattern of other disease outbreaks at the time. But these incidents served only as a warning of things to come. And it was in the next century that the event that came to be known as “the Dancing Plague” hit Europe.

In 1518, a certain Frau Troffea began dancing through the streets of the city of Strasbourg. Within a few days, dozens of others joined in. Within a month, hundreds of people were dancing non-stop in the city. Contemporary witnesses noted that many of these dancers began to suffer what we might recognize today as strokes or heart attacks from the exertion. Some even report that up to 15 people a day danced themselves to death in a state of mania. Priests began to decry the seeming possession of these people in the cathedrals and local nobles began to worry that the plague would begin to spread across the entire city.

The leaders of Strasbourg began to gather and ask what they could do to bring an end to this dancing mania. At the time, Astrology was a much more prestigious field than it is today. And many in the city were convinced that the influence of the stars was to blame. But after consulting with some of the most learned Astrologers and physicians in the city, they came to the conclusion that what they were dealing with was not possession by the planets or demons, but an actual plague caused by an overabundance of “hot blood” among the dancers.

The city fathers decided that the best course of action was to simply let the people dance themselves out. Surely, most would grow tired within a few hours and stop. Thus, musicians were hired to accompany the dancers and the market was cleared to give them room to dance. But as time went on and dancers continued to die, the city decided they needed divine intervention. So, they gathered up the dancers and lead them to a nearby mountaintop shrine where they prayed that God would forgive their sins and free them of their illness.

A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death
Medieval Peasants. David Teniers/ Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, this tactic seems to have worked and the Dancing Plague vanished from Strasbourg as suddenly as it had arrived, although other outbreaks were recorded throughout the century. But what could have made these people dance until they collapsed? Over the years, many different theories have been proposed by historians. Some have argued that the answer lies in what they were eating. Ergot poisoning, a condition caused by eating a fungus that grows on rye could explain many of the symptoms. Ergot produces alkaloids that can lead to hallucinations and convulsions.

But most historians dismiss this argument. Many of the dancing mania outbreaks didn’t occur in the fall when autumn rains tend to lead to the growth of ergot. And the symptoms of ergot poisoning usually involve intense seizures that would make coordinated dancing difficult. If we are to accept that the events took place exactly as they are described, which of course is always a dicey proposition with medieval accounts, then the answer probably has more to do with psychology than with any physical condition. And when you consider the Dancing Plague as a function of psychology, two possible explanations emerge.

The first thing that one must consider when examining these episodes is the psychology of the medieval mind. Life in the Middle Ages was often brutal and short. Starvation and disease were constant threats, particularly for peasants, as was the threat of a violent death. And the horrific events of the Black Death that struck Europe in the 14th century were a cataclysmic reminder that mortality was always just around the corner. For medieval peasants, daily life was a constant source of anxiety and stress. And this stress created the perfect conditions for something called “mass hysteria.”

Mass hysteria is a condition where an entire group of people begins to exhibit similar symptoms of a psychological condition. There have been examples of episodes of mass hysteria throughout human history, often manifesting themselves as whole groups of people spontaneously developing physical symptoms such as seizures or fainting. The human mind is very susceptible to suggestion, particularly when one sees large groups of their friends or people in their community developing a similar group of symptoms. It’s easy to imagine how groups of medieval peasants, already dealing with the psychological stress of daily life, would suddenly fall victim to an episode of mass hysteria like the Dancing Plague.

Others have argued that the event was actually religious in nature. Groups of pilgrims, often gripped with religious fervor that manifested itself in dance, often traveled the countryside in the Middle Ages. These groups could have served to spread this religious dancing to the communities they came into contact with, which could explain why the dancing outbreaks behaved almost like a virus. But whatever the cause, the Dancing Plague serves as a reminder of the power that suggestion has over people. And it’s worth asking ourselves if we are really so immune to it today.