A Dance to the Death: The Dancing Plague of 1518
1518 was not a particularly interesting or groundbreaking year historically. Most things were going on as normal, and not many events of note took place. Therefore, the dancing plague of this year tends to take center stage as one of the more prominent and strange events.
Quite a different culture existed 500 years ago when our story takes place. It was defined by thatched roofs, dirt floors, lead cups, generalized poverty, the black plague, and scientific mystery. If you were wealthy, pewter dishes were used (which leached lead when anything acidic was served on them.) Often, small houses lodged the family and all the field hands and workers. A small 3-bedroom home could be the resting spot for 45-50 at night. Baths were a luxury taken perhaps once a year, people married young (around 19 on average), and luxuries like indoor toilets and running water were known only to royalty.
These were times of simplicity, hard work, rudimentary science, and much mystery. Perhaps 1% of the population was literate, so stories were either passed down by actual witnesses through oral tradition, or else someone had to be present who could write the events down for posterity. Witnesses would commonly meet someone literate, later, who would subsequently write the details down. The accuracy of these records is often questionable. Luckily for historians, this story takes place in the city where the Gutenberg printing press was developed 80 years earlier. This had attracted scholars, scientists, and those who wished to document history.
Like many things that date back a few hundred years, the details are somewhat hazy. There are many theories as to what may have happened here, but a consensus of opinion has formed on this event, outlined here.
- The dance plague of 1518 occurred in the Alsation city of Strasbourg, Roman Empire, along the Rhine River, in what is now France.
- It started with Mrs. Troffea, who danced “fervently” in the streets in July 1518 for about a week straight, all day and all night.
- In the following month up to 400 others joined her, dancing day and night, as if in a trance.
- “Physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” documented these events.
- Dancers appeared to be “unconscious and unable to control themselves.”
- Local physicians blamed “hot blood” for all the dancing. It was thought that heated weather caused the blood to heat up, eliciting crazy responses in people.
- It was thought that this “disease” would eventually wear itself out, but for this to happen, “dancers must be kept dancing” until they wore themselves out. Musicians were hired by the city to keep the party going.
- Unfortunately, this decision greatly increased the dancing illness, which grew exponentially. Apparently music was an invitation for others to join in.
- A mere calamity became a scene of nightmares.
- After many weeks of dancing, up to 15 people per day died due to dehydration and absolute exhaustion.
- By the end of the summer, dozens had died of heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion due to non-stop dancing.
- Modern scientists aren’t sure what happened, but there are multiple theories.
Science 500 years ago was in its rudimentary stages, and many things were explained away by magic, incantation, and dark spirits. Since then there have been many theories, none of which fully explain the situation, but many of which make some sense.
It should be noted that the dancing plague of 1518 is not the first or last of such occurrence, but seems to be the most highly-documented.
1. The most common explanation is the ingestion of the hallucinogenic fungus ergot, which commonly grew on wheat and rye. Ergot’s historically believed to be responsible for the Salem witchcraft trials, and happens to be what LSD-25 was synthesized from. However, scientists aren’t sure how people could dance non-stop for weeks at a time, as ergot’s hallucinogenic effects are generally short-lived (a day or two.)
2. Another, and perhaps more likely culprit, is that of Angel’s trumpet / datura / belladonna, which after ingestion has been noted to cause most, if not all, of the symptoms experienced in the dancing plague. Symptoms include: disorientation, hyperactivity, delirium, motor restlessness, over-sexual excitement, incoherent thought, fever, illusions, alternating levels of consciousness, audio-visual disassociation, respiratory distress and weakness, seizures, delayed gastric emptying, and increased urinary retention.
3. Other theories abound. Lack of sleep, communal choreomania (historically, a way for communities to bond through dancing), and prolonged malnutrition, have all been named as culprits. Other theories blame lead poisoning, stress, the intense summer heat, and poverty. Yet another example blames tarantism, in which the victims were said to have been poisoned by a tarantula or scorpion. Tarantism’s earliest known outbreak was in the 13th century, and the only antidote known was to dance to music “to separate the venom from the blood.”
There are many theories. However, there is no true consensus. Many have agreed to pin it down to generic “mass hysteria” affecting the psyche, with no actual physical cause, but historical proof isn’t substantial.
Amazingly, though it’s one of the most documented occurrences of mass hysteria in history, not much is really known about why or how this event happened. Modern physicians agree that it’s almost physically impossible to maintain this type of frenetic dance for days, weeks, and months straight. At the same time, this particular event is extremely well-documented.
Science at the time was rudimentary, and records of the event, while prominent and very descriptive, do nothing to explain the apparent cause. That dancing mania had occurred previous to this, and after, is interesting. This suggests that dance mania was somehow connected to practices at the time, though narrowing it down to one practice in particular has never occurred.
The first recorded episodes of choreomania appeared during the 13th century and persisted on a widespread scale in southern Europe for at least 400 years, reaching a peak in the 1600s, after which it virtually disappeared.
Perhaps we will never know or understand what caused the dancing plagues documented during these years of mystery and magic. Maybe we are so far removed from the mindset and circumstances of that time that the best we can do is guess. However, it’s clear that mass plagues shaped the path to where we are now. It’s important to remember where we come from, how we got here, and the sacrifices (odd though they may be) that our predecessors experienced to get us to this point.
While our science may be better and we know more than we used to, the dancing plague of 1518 will likely remain a mystery forever. What do you think was the cause?
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