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What Caused Hundreds In 16th Century Europe To Dance Until They Died?

Black and White print by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Die Wallfahrt der Fallsuechtigen nach Meulebeeck Pieter Bruegel the Elder / Public domain

In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea walked into the middle of a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. She kept dancing for one week until she dropped dead. She wasn’t the only one.

By August, more than 400 hundred people in Strasbourg had danced themselves to death. And they weren’t alone: similar phenomena had and would occur in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.

To this day, historians still aren’t sure what happened. They have come to call the incident the Dancing Plague.

What People Thought Was Going On

For the citizens of Strasbourg, the sudden advent of the dancing plague was, well, concerning. There was no rhyme or reason to who got sick: people would just start dancing, and then they would dance until they died. (If that phrasing sounds familiar, yes, I did borrow it from Hocus Pocus.)

At a loss for what to do, physicians first recommended more dancing. They thought that citizens had “hot blood,” which they could burn away if they gyrated vigorously enough. The town brought in a band, a stage, and professional dancers to accompany the afflicted with no success. People continued to drop dead.

When science didn’t provide any answers, leaders turned to religion. Religious leaders in the area hypothesized that the town had been cursed by Saint Vitus, a local Catholic Saint. Of course, nothing about Saint Vitus’ involvement in the dancing plague has ever been proven, but the phenomenon did ease at last in Strasbourg when town leaders brought the dancers to a nearby mountaintop shrine to pray for help.

What Was Going On

To this day, historians and scientists alike remain confounded by the dancing plague. There are enough accounts of the disease to assure us that it did happen but few hints to what was going on.

One thought is that citizens the condition was caused by acute stress and hysteria. 1518 was a tough year for Strasbourg, even before the dancing plague swept through the city. Disease and famine were rampant. According to this theory, when religious leaders suggested the town had offended Saint Vitus, people snapped, and mass shared hysteria ensued.

Another supposition is that the dancers were members of a religious cult, perhaps one dedicated to Saint Vitus. They danced to attract divine favor in a world that seemed stacked against them.

The most widely accepted explanation is that the dancers ate bread that was poisoned with the fungal disease ergot, which can cause convulsions not unlike dancing. At the time, most people in Strasbourg made their bread using rye flour. Ergot is a toxic mold that can grow on damp rye flour. It’s possible that a large portion of the town ingested ergot from a contaminated batch of bread. This theory would also account for the outbreaks of the dancing plague that occurred in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.

No Certain Answers

The Dancing Plague remains one of the strangest phenomena to sweep through Europe in the sixteenth century. What caused hundreds of people in unrelated cities to walk out their doors, start dancing, and never stop?

We may never have the answer, but it remains interesting to theorize about what happened.

What do you think is the most likely explanation? Let us know in the comments.

Hayley Milliman Hayley Milliman
Hayley is a former Teach for America teacher turned curriculum developer and writer. Over the past five years, she's written hundreds of articles on everything from education to personal finance to history. She's the co-author of the book  Females. Read Full Bio »