Dancing until you drop is a well-known saying, but would you really be able to dance until you dropped dead? In 1374, in dozens of medieval towns, people did exactly that. They were struck by a dancing plague that caused an agonizing compulsion to dance.
The dancing plague, called choreomania, or more commonly referred to as dancing mania, first affected medieval towns scattered along the valley of the Rhine River. The villagers would take to the streets leaping, jerking, and moving to music that only they could hear.
The dancer would go on dancing until their bloodied feet could no longer support them. Within weeks, the deadly plague had consumed large areas of northeastern France and the Netherlands, taking several months for the epidemic to subside. It disappeared almost as suddenly as it had come.
This phenomenon was reported to have happened throughout parts of Western Europe, affecting people from the 14th to the 17th century. Barely stopping to eat or even sleep, they would dance, sometimes for days on end, making this one of the strangest sicknesses in Western history.
Over the next century, there were only a few isolated outbreaks. However, in the summer of 1518, it reappeared in the city of Strasbourg, France. It all began with a woman called Mrs. Troffea, who started to dance feverishly in the street.
She was soon joined by 34 people within a week; by the end of the month, the predominantly female crowd had increased to 400. Again, people were dancing until they could no longer continue, with some eventually dying from heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion. One report indicates that the plague was killing around 15 people per day.
As the plague worsened, concerned nobles turned to the advice of local physicians, who quickly ruled out any astrological or supernatural causes. They instead proclaimed that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood.” So authorities encouraged more dancing, opening two halls and a grain market, and they even constructed a wooden stage.
The reason behind their actions was they believed the dancers could only recover if they danced continuously night and day. To help with the effectiveness of this cure, the authorities paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving.
Then, as before, it disappeared almost as suddenly as it had come.
Interestingly, just before the Strasbourg dancing plague, there was an equally strange event that had gripped a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1491, there were several nuns who were “possessed” by devilish familiars.
The nuns would race around like dogs, jump out of trees imitating birds, and would also claw their way up tree trunks like a cat. These types of possession epidemics were not confined to just nunneries; however, nuns were disproportionately affected.
Over the next 200 years, nunneries from Rome to Paris had hundreds of nuns fall into states of hysterical delirium. They would foam from the mouth, scream and convulse, and even sexually proposition exorcists and priests. They would also confess to having carnal relations with devils or Christ.
While these events may sound highly improbable, there is clear documentary evidence that it did in fact happen. There are scores of physician notes, cathedral sermons, and local and regional chronicles describing what they had seen. There are also trial documents and the archives of the inquisition, which provided in-depth accounts of nuns doing and saying the strangest things.
Modern-day scholars are still debating the true cause of this phenomenon, and historians, psychologists, and scientists are still continuing to try to forensically get to the bottom of the mysteries.
For some time, the leading theory was that it was caused by eating bread tainted by ergot, which led to a mass psychotic episode. Ergot is a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye, which when consumed can cause convulsions, shaking, and delirium.
However, a history professor at Michigan State University, John Waller, disagrees, saying:
“According to all contemporary accounts of both outbreaks, the sufferers were dancing, not convulsing”
He also suggests that another popular theory — that the victims were part of some heretic dancing cult — has no weight, as there is nothing to suggest that they wanted to dance.
So what is Waller’s theory?
Waller provides a compelling theory — that the sufferers from the dancing plagues and the possession epidemics of the nunneries were classic instances of mass psychogenic illness. The plagues were a result of religious fear and depression.
The regions where these plagues had occurred were preceded by periods of devastating famine, crop failures, and dramatic floods. Waller believes that anxiety, fear, depression, and superstition, with the belief that God was sending down plagues to persecute the guilty, had made people vulnerable to this kind of involuntary trance state.