The Dancing Plague: A Bizarre Epidemic

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The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Walker
The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Walker

The Dancing Plague: A Historical Mystery

In the summer of 1518, a strange phenomenon swept through the city of Strasbourg in Alsace, now part of modern-day France. People began to dance uncontrollably in the streets, unable to stop until they collapsed from exhaustion. This bizarre event came to be known as the Dancing Plague, and it remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious episodes in European history. In this article, we will explore the origins, causes, and aftermath of the Dancing Plague, as well as its cultural and historical significance.

The First Dance: Frau Troffea and the Beginning of the Plague

In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea (or Trauffea) stepped into the street and began to dance. She continued to dance without pause, seemingly unable to stop, until she collapsed from exhaustion. After resting for a while, she got up and resumed her frenzied activity. This strange behavior lasted for days, and soon others joined her. Within a week, more than 30 people in Strasbourg were similarly afflicted.

The Dancing Plague quickly spread throughout the city, affecting people from all walks of life. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women – all were seized by an uncontrollable urge to dance. Some danced alone, while others formed groups and danced together. The dancing was not limited to daytime hours, but continued into the night, often by torchlight. It was said that the dancers’ feet bled and their shoes were worn to shreds, but they did not feel pain. They danced until they collapsed, and then got up and danced again.

The Strange Symptoms of the Dancing Plague

The symptoms of the Dancing Plague were strange and varied. Some dancers were said to have foamed at the mouth and screamed, while others laughed uncontrollably. Some were said to have had visions and experienced ecstatic states. Some dancers claimed that they could only be cured by music and singing, while others sought the help of religious figures.

The Dancing Plague was not limited to Strasbourg, but spread to other cities in the region, including Colmar, Basel, and Frankfurt. In some places, it lasted for several months, and in others, it burned out quickly. The number of dancers was estimated to be in the thousands, and it is said that hundreds of people died as a result of exhaustion or heart failure.

Theories and Explanations for the Dancing Plague

Copper engraving by Hendrik Hondius (1573 - 1649)

Copper engraving by Hendrik Hondius (1573 – 1649)

The Dancing Plague of 1518 has remained a mystery for centuries, and various theories and explanations have been put forward to explain this strange phenomenon. Some of the most notable theories are discussed below.

Mass Hysteria

One of the most popular theories about the Dancing Plague is that it was caused by mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a condition in which a group of people shares a common delusion or anxiety. This theory suggests that the dancers were caught up in a kind of trance and that their frenzied behavior was a result of their collective belief in the power of dance. This theory is supported by the fact that the Dancing Plague was a group phenomenon, with many people dancing together in the streets. It is also possible that the dancers were under a great deal of stress, which may have contributed to the development of mass hysteria.

Ergotism

Another theory about the Dancing Plague is that it was caused by ergotism, a condition caused by eating contaminated grain. Ergotism can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and a range of other symptoms that could be mistaken for the behavior of the dancers. Ergotism was common in Europe in the 16th century, and it is possible that some of the grain consumed by the people of Strasbourg was contaminated with ergot.

Religious Fervor

Some historians have suggested that the Dancing Plague was a manifestation of religious fervor. At the time, many people in Europe were deeply religious, and it is possible that the dancers were caught up in a kind of ecstatic religious experience. It is also possible that the dancers were attempting to purify themselves through dance, as the dance was often seen as a form of spiritual cleansing.

Protest against Social and Economic Conditions

Another theory is that the Dancing Plague was a form of protest against the social and economic conditions of the time. In the 16th century, Europe was going through a period of great change, with the rise of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Many people were dissatisfied with their lives and felt that they had little control over their destinies. It is possible that the dancers were attempting to express their frustration with the social and economic conditions of the time.

Tarantism

Perhaps the most famous theory about the Dancing Plague is that it was caused by a psychological disorder known as tarantism. Tarantism was a common condition in southern Italy at the time, and it was believed to be caused by the bite of a venomous spider. Its symptoms included convulsions, sweating, and a frenzied desire to dance. The cure for tarantism was said to be music and dancing, and it was believed that the sufferer could only be cured by dancing to a particular type of music.

 

The Cultural and Historical Significance of the Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague has had a significant impact on European culture and history. Its lasting legacy has inspired countless works of art, literature, and music, and its cultural significance has been the subject of much debate and analysis.

The Dancing Plague in Art and Literature

The Dancing Plague has been the inspiration for many works of art and literature. One of the most famous is the painting “The Dance of Death” by Hans Holbein the Younger, which depicts skeletons leading people in a frenzied dance. The painting is a powerful allegory for the Dance of Death, a medieval concept that symbolized the inevitability of death and the equality of all people in the face of it.

The Dancing Plague has also been the subject of many works of literature. One of the most famous is the novella “The Dance of Death” by August Strindberg, which tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with the Dancing Plague and becomes convinced that he is the only one who can cure it. The novella is a powerful critique of the power of mass hysteria and the dangers of fanaticism.

The Dancing Plague in Music

The Dancing Plague has also had a significant impact on the world of music. It has been the inspiration for many musical compositions, including the song “St. Vitus Dance” by Black Sabbath, which tells the story of the Dancing Plague from the perspective of one of its victims. The song is a powerful reminder of the psychological and physical toll that the Dancing Plague took on its victims.

The Dancing Plague has also been the inspiration for many dance performances. In 2013, the Royal Ballet in London performed a ballet based on the Dancing Plague, which was choreographed by Wayne McGregor. The ballet was a powerful reminder of the enduring fascination that the Dancing Plague holds for artists and audiences alike.

The Historical Significance of the Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague has had a lasting impact on European history. It has been the subject of much study and analysis, and has shed light on a number of important historical themes and issues.

One of the most important themes that the Dancing Plague illuminates is the power of mass hysteria. The Dancing Plague was a powerful example of how a group of people can become caught up in a shared delusion or anxiety, and how that delusion or anxiety can lead to tragic consequences.

The Dancing Plague also sheds light on the social and economic conditions of the time. The Dancing Plague occurred during a period of great upheaval and change in Europe, when the feudal system was breaking down and new social and economic structures were emerging. The Dancing Plague was a powerful reminder of the social and economic pressures that many people were experiencing at the time, and of the need for new forms of social and economic organization.

Conclusion

The Dancing Plague remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious episodes in European history. Its cultural and historical significance continues to fascinate scholars, artists, and audiences alike, and its enduring legacy is a testament to the enduring power of the human imagination and the human spirit. The Dancing Plague reminds us of the fragility of our own existence, and of the power of shared experiences and shared delusions to shape our lives and our world.

 

Featured Image

Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5)

Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5)

Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death is a macabre and captivating example of Renaissance woodblock printing. The series of thirty-four prints shows Death interrupting the daily lives of people from different levels of society, using distinct and gruesome methods for each. The rich and powerful are treated with extra force, as Death, the great equalizer, makes sure no one escapes. The series also includes a critique of society, as Death seeks revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to help a poor ploughman by freeing him from a life of toil, and the church in the background implies the old man is on his way to heaven. Holbein created these woodcuts between 1523 and 1525 while in his twenties and based in Basel, Switzerland, where he was working to establish himself. Holbein was busy trying to make a living in Basel, painting murals and portraits, designing stained glass windows, and illustrating books. Death first appeared dancing in Europe in 1425, and Holbein’s series was an original take on a medieval theme, using realistic figures to respond to Death. Holbein’s miniature scale is impressive, with the wooden blocks being no larger than four postage stamps arranged in a rectangle. Since the book’s great success, Holbein’s series has been consistently in print and has inspired numerous artists and writers.

 

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 7). Dancing plague of 1518. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancing_plague_of_1518

  • Liddell, S. (2019, July 8). The Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518. Stephen Liddell; Stephen Liddell. https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2019/07/08/the-strasbourg-dancing-plague-of-1518/

  • Doyle, P. (2022, March 9). Uncommon Diagnosis: The Dancing Plague of 1518. Irish Medical Times. https://www.imt.ie/features-opinion/uncommon-diagnosis-the-dancing-plague-of-1518-09-03-2022/

  • Guardian staff reporter. (2018, July 5). Keep on moving: the bizarre dance epidemic of summer 1518. The Guardian; The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jul/05/bizarre-dance-epidemic-of-summer-1518-strasbourg‌

  • Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5). (2018). The Public Domain Review. https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5‌

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