The Disturbing Truth About The Dancing Plague Of The 1500s

The word "plague" has become synonymous with the dreaded Black Death. This was, per History, an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which killed one-third of Europe's population in the space of just a few years from 1347 to the early 1350s.

It's safe to say, then, that plagues are no laughing matter. Around 200 years later, though, a very different kind of plague struck Strasbourg, France — one that could seem somewhat comical in theory. This is the story of the mysterious dancing plague.

In the early 16th century, Strasbourg was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, per Britannica. In 1518, the city was struck by a mysterious ailment. The outbreak reportedly only lasted for two months or so, but it remains one of the most curious plagues in human history.

That July, a woman whose name was recorded as Frau Troffea was seen dancing out in public. Her actions seemed to be at least partly involuntary, and she continued to bust moves until she tired herself to the point of fainting. Troffea repeated this pattern several times over. Worst of all, in a matter of days, dozens of other Strasbourg residents were doing the very same thing. According to History, by the end of the months, more than 400 people in the city were gripped by the need to dance until they dropped. Literally.

The deadly dance

The doctors of Strasbourg could only conclude that the blood of the dancers was overheated and that the solution was for them to just boogie this strange outbreak right out of themselves. Per History, a dedicated band and stage were created in the city for just that purpose. Absurd as the outbreak seems, there really is nothing funny about it: Some of the unfortunate dancers died during this outbreak, citing heart attacks and other deadly consequences of all this exertion.

The Guardian reports that the authorities then took the opposite tack: They forbade public dancing and music and sent the afflicted to pray to a shrine dedicated to St. Vitus. Measures such as wearing red shoes, combined with this, seemingly ended the peculiar plague.

How did the dancing plague come about? Several theories have been suggested. These include ergotism caused by eating crops infected by a certain mold, which can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements. History adds that a historian named John Waller believes that mass illness and hunger, which devastated the city during this period, had rendered the people of Strasbourg hysterical and susceptible to stress. Whatever the cause, it was one of the most frightening and bizarre events in Strasbourg's history.