What Caused the Dancing Plague?

On one July day in 1518 a woman kicked off a three-month-long dance marathon, now known as the dancing plague. But what caused this strange phenomenon?

Jun 11, 2024By Erin Wright, MA History w/ concentration in Public History & Museum Studies, BA History & Writing

what caused the dancing plague


During the sixteenth century an entire town became caught up in what can best be described as a manic episode of chaotic movements or “dancing.” This event started from one woman and soon spread to over 50 other people in the town dancing, until they collapsed from exhaustion. This bizarre pattern of behavior continued for several months, ending as abruptly as it began, and leaving questions of what actually caused this “plague” in the small town of Strasbourg. So, what do historians believe happened to the town of Strasbourg? Like many historical mysteries, this one remains unsolved. However, there are several working theories on what caused the bizarre group behavior.


Historical Context

pogrom of strasbourg
A depiction of the massacre of Jews in Strasbourg, 1349. Source: The Jewish Women’s Archive


Strasbourg, now located in France near the Rhine, was originally part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1681. Throughout its history the town has had several dark moments, including the Strasbourg massacre in 1349 and Nazi occupation from 1940-1944. In the 1500s Strasbourg took part in the Reformation, thereby becoming predominantly Protestant. Still, the dancing plague continues to be one of Strasbourg’s darkest and strangest historical events. 


Manic Episodes in Strasbourg Begin

madness hendrik hondius dancing plague
Epileptics Walking to Right by Hendrik Hondius I, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1642. The British Museum, London


In July of 1518 a woman named Frau Troffea (possibly Trauffea) went into the center of Strasbourg and began twitching and having spasms. These continued until she became exhausted and would start up again after she rested. There is no mention of anyone attempting to intervene as this pattern continued for an entire week. By the end of the week others joined in the macabre dance with about three dozen convulsing in disjointed movements.


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Still more people joined in, and seemed to be affected by the dancing mania. By August it is believed that between 50-400 people had taken part in the dancing. The exhaustion of the marathon of dancing took a toll on the dancers, with many collapsing and dying of exhaustion and essentially dancing themselves to death. There are no exact figures on the mortality rate of the dancing plague, although one source from a man passing through claims at least fifteen died a day.


Religious or Supernatural Causes

michael wolgemut nuremberg chronicle
Dance of Death, Leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Michael Wolgemut, 1493. Source: The MET Museum


This wouldn’t be the only outbreak of dancing hysteria, nor was it the first of its kind, although it is one of the most well-known. Other instances took place including earlier in 1374 in Germany. During the time, society was still deeply religious, and these “plagues” were considered curses upon individuals and groups, with many believing there was a connection between the uncontrollable dancing and religious or supernatural causes.


Medical Maladies

four humors solis coleric
The Four Temperaments by Virgil Solis, 1530-62. Source: The British Museum, London


Unable to understand what was happening to the citizens of Strasbourg, one theory doctors at the time diagnosed the affected with was an imbalance of the four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  In an effort to quell the dancing and rebalance the humors, which was believed to be be too much hot blood in their system, it was decided to allow the villagers to get it out of their system by giving them a place to do their dancing. They built a stage and even hired a band of pipers and drummers to play music and professional dancers to join in and hold up the affected when they wanted to collapse, but the plague continued. 


Eventually, men and women were taken to a shrine for St. Vitus, prayed over, and had exorcisms in an attempt to cull the madness. St. Vitus was the patron saint of nervous disorders and was used against chorea, a state of repetitive spastic movements. Chorea was also known as the St. Vitus Dance. This seemed to end the craze, leading many at the time to believe the root cause was religious. 


Mass Hysteria and Panic

peste asdod poussin painting
La Peste d’Asdod (The Plague of Ashdod), 1630-1631. Source: Musee du Louvre


One plausible theory explaining this strange phenomenon is mass hysteria and panic, which would cause the initial trigger to snowball from one woman to a large group all exhibiting the same symptoms. This could be caused by trauma of a psychological stress. Historian John Waller wrote that circumstances such as famine and disease outbreaks could have caused the dancing mania. 


As mentioned earlier, the city had gone through radical societal changes in the time of the plague, including religious reform and the rebuilding of government structures. It’s easy imagining that the burden of surviving and facing such drastic changes to their lifestyle could drive up stress, triggering a psychological episode.


The Ingestion of Ergot

peasants threshing flails
Peasants engaged in threshing, from Luttrell Psalter, Source: The British Library, London


Another possibility for the convulsions is the ingestion of ergot, a fungus that can infect rye and grain, which would have been a main staple in their diet. Ergot causes hallucinations, similar to LSD and lead, along with convulsions from muscle contractions, tingling and crawling sensations, and vertigo. Ergot is also one of the suspected culprits of the behavior of the girls that led to the Salem witch trials. There is, however, some doubt to this theory, as poisoned rye would not allow the dancers to keep moving for days.


Deliberate Dancing

the dance of death drawing
The Dance of Death, Anonymous, 16th century. The MET Museum


A small theory that has been mostly dismissed is that the dancing plague was actually deliberate dancing, not random movements of hysterical people. Dancing was often a part of religion, and this theory suggests that the twitching and spasms was a local cult dancing as a religious act to gain favor from higher powers. This seems unlikely as there were no documented religious sects in the area, and reports reveal that while dancing the victims were in immense pain and begging for help, indicating the dance was not something they were doing willingly. Whatever the ultimate cause, the Strasbourg dance plague of 1518 and how the public responded and tried to put an end to it, will go down in one of the strangest events of the French Early Modern period.

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By Erin WrightMA History w/ concentration in Public History & Museum Studies, BA History & WritingErin is a historian who got her MA at Indiana University Indianapolis in History with an emphasis in Public History and a BA at Grand Valley State University dual majoring in History and Writing. Her history focus is on women’s, medical, and food history. She is the co-founder of History Gals.