In 1518, several people began to dance in the streets of Strasbourg (now France) It was not a parade. They had a strange, contagious compulsion and soon, hundreds of people were dancing through the streets. As the dance went on, soon dancers began to die. According to one account, 15 people were killed daily during peak dances according to The Lancet.
Although this story may sound absurd, it is true that the witnesses were familiar with this dangerous dance. Many similar dancing manias, and even dancing plagues, occurred in Europe during the medieval period. This made it possible for these events to be possible.
Why is it that so many people stumble and move without being able to stop?
The Deadly Dance
According to legend, the troubles in Strasbourg began in July 1518 when a woman ran wild through the streets in scorching summer heat. Lynneth Miller Renberg, Anderson University historian, said that she danced unabated for hours. The compulsion spread as the woman danced. Within one week, 20-30 people were dancing wildly around town. In a matter of a month, 400 people were involved in an uncontrollable dance party.
These contagions are quite extraordinary, Renberg claims. He analyzed the bizarre circumstances and their cultural context in a Dance Research article published 2017. Public officials were forced to consult doctors to determine the causes and treatment of contagions after the chaos in the streets.
They discovered that dancers were suffering from hot blood. This was according to the popular humoural theory. Renberg states that doctors recommended that the dancers continue twisting and turning to get rid of the bad blood.
Renberg states that although the medical theory isn't intuitive today, it did incorporate cutting-edge theories about human anatomy. It was a fascinating moment when several medical theories converged to attempt to explain what seemed impossible to even them.
In order to maintain their constant motion, authorities moved the victims towards the largest public spaces in town, including the grain market and guilds. They also sent minstrels, musicians and other dancers along. Renberg states that they believed this would burn the bad blood. The compulsion spread quickly, taking more victims. Many of them were unable to resist the urge and eventually fell ill from fatigue or died.
Officials in the city determined that it was only divine intervention that could have caused such serious problems. These troubles were believed to be caused by St. Vitus, a Christian saint linked with dancing curses. They banned public dancing and collected the victims before taking them to St. Vitus' shrine. They prayed, performed several rituals that were shrouded by mystery, and the deadly dance ended sometime in September.
Witnesses to the event accepted that supernatural agents such as angels, saints, and demons could cause dancing curses. According to John Waller, a medical historian and author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, the Extraordinary Story of The Dancing Plague of 201518, people back then believed that God or Satan were present in their lives. This region believed that St. Vitus could issue such a curse.
The Dance continues
Although many people believe in curses and spirits, there are still scholars who don't accept this explanation and try to explain why.
There are many theories about the tragedy. Some scholars believe that Strasbourgers were affected by ergotism, which can cause hallucinations and convulsions. It is caused by a fungus in the food. Although it is possible that the fungus responsible for ergotism may also be involved in other historical hysterias such as the Salem Witch Trials and others, this Strasbourg theory is no longer very credible.
Waller states that this theory is among the few that is completely untenable. Waller says that ergotism is a condition that makes it impossible to dance.
Today, it is more common to believe that the people of Strasbourg were suffering from mass psychogenic disease. This is a condition that involves strange behavior that spreads in response to stress. Waller's work has made this theory popular.
The people of Strasbourg were under severe stress in 1518. Renberg and Waller both claim that a series of crop failures, famines and floods along with bursts from bubonic plague or syphilis led to severe sickness and starvation. These woes, along with some odd astronomical activity, seemed to signify an impending apocalypse. Peasant rebellions and rumblings about a religious reformation exacerbated the situation.
Waller states that things are spiraling outof control. These factors, including the harvest failures and other factors, all combine to make it clear that the Strasbourg residents are facing unimaginable psychological strain by the year 1518.
However, the mass psychogenic disease theory doesn't believe that trauma was enough to make people in Strasbourg run wild. This theory suggests that people were convinced by St. Vituss contagion because of their stress levels and their fear of curses. Waller claims that they began to dance compulsively and that soon others started to follow their lead. He says that if you have a pre-existing belief about the possibility of possession or curse, you are more likely to fall into a trance state.
This theory focuses on the shared symptoms of the dancers and explains why the mania spread so widely throughout Strasbourg. Waller claims that the initial responses of officials only exacerbated the psychogenic mass disorder. Waller claims that it was a disaster for the city to allow people to dance in public areas in the city. This made it so that anyone walking past who was feeling weighed down by sin was much more likely to fall for the dance.
Although the causes and context of these dancing fits are still a mystery to modern scholars, the story about Strasbourg is relevant, especially as crop failures and floods continue to be a challenge. Waller says it was the most extreme example of human behavior in extreme distress. It's a good reminder that the way you feel about yourself is a reflection on your cultural background.