Mind & Body

During the Medieval Dancing Plagues, People Literally Danced Themselves to Death

When the music moves you, there's not much you can do but dance. But what if you started moving without any music? That's what happened to a woman in the city of Strasbourg, and her unstoppable dance moves turned out to be contagious. This became known as the Dancing Plague of 1518.

Shake Shake Shake, Shake Thine Booty

Today, Strasbourg is a part of France, but when Frau Troffea lived there, it was still the Holy Roman Empire. When she stepped into the street one hot July day in 1518, she kicked off a three-month phenomenon that ended up claiming the lives of many residents. There wasn't any music playing, but something compelled her to start dancing. And dancing. And dancing. According to records, she danced between four and six days without rest, not stopping to eat, sleep, or even take off her bloody shoes. It was a bad scene, and it only got worse, because while Frau Troffea broke her own spell in less than a week, her affliction turned out to be contagious. By the end of the week, the crowd of dancers had grown to 34, and within a month, it reached about 400.

At the height of the affliction, up to 15 people per day were dying from exhaustion, according to some sources. Although the actual medical details are a bit sketchy (HIPAA compliance wasn't exactly a thing yet), whatever happened in Strasbourg attracted the attention of the most esteemed physicians of the time. Although supernatural causes such as demonic possession were certainly on the table, the wisdom of the time settled on a medical explanation: The dancers had a case of "hot blood," and needed to dance it out. To help them, a stage was set and musicians brought in to give the dancers something to groove to — and it was an absolute disaster. These measures only seemed to encourage the dancing and caused the numbers to swell again. Finally, the plague passed almost as mysteriously as it arrived, after about three months of non-stop boogieing.

Along Came a Spider

Strasbourg's dancing plague is the most famous example, but it isn't the only dancing mania to take off in that part of the world. One of the most interesting variations on the theme are the tarantata of southern Italy. It's a piece of local folklore that was at least somewhat widespread up until the early 20th century: If a woman is bitten by a tarantula, she will become possessed by the spider until she can banish it by dancing. In these cases, the patient does seem to be compelled to dance at the sound of music (and witnesses say her movements often have a certain arachnid-like quality), but the dance is the cure, not the symptom. In fact, as recently as 1990, an elderly woman was brought to a psychiatrist with the affliction but none of the family members recognized it. It took the doctor remembering this old folklore to stumble on the musical solution.

All in Your Head

The general consensus of the modern medical community is that what happened in Strasbourg and to the tarantata was a kind of culture-influenced, stress-induced psychosis. It's well documented that certain psychological maladies only arise in certain cultural contexts, and this type of compulsive dancing was probably an example of just such a thing. We're not above that type of thing now — these days, we have psychoses such as Paris syndrome, which only affects Japanese tourists in Paris. It just goes to show how much of an effect your cultural surroundings have on your mind and body.

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Learn more about this strange delusion in "The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness" by John Waller. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 22, 2018

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