The Dancing Plague, 1518

It baffles people now as it did then, when hundreds of people around 16th Century Strasbourg danced and danced till they could dance no more. Read about its potential cause and the remedies phycisians came up with

One Summer’s day in 1518 down a narrow street in Strasbourg, France an odd thing occurred; people turned to notice a woman dancing.

Why? No one had a clue but she continued ever more feverishly and without a break for four to six days.

More alarmingly within a week, 34 others joined in and within a month there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female.

This ‘Dancing Plague’, as it became known, took such a hold on them they couldn’t stop, not to eat or rest and many died from exhaustion, stroke or heart attacks. For a period, the plague was killing 15 people a day.

The crowd could not stop dancing until utter exhaustion forced them to collapse. (thepsychologist.bps.org.uk)

So what caused this bizarre behaviour? The most plausible explanation is that it was a psychogenic disorder — a physical illness that’s believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors. People were going through particularly tough times, even by Medieval standards, with the region riddled with starvation and disease and this accounted for them being exceptionally stressed.

Local physicians were sought out and advised that the afflicted shouldn’t stop until the dancing wore off. To this end the city authorities took over two guildhalls and a grain market, even building a stage for musicians to open, essentially, the world’s first-ever disco.

Yet, it was a disaster as the illness underwent a dramatic growth; performing dances in more public spaces allowed this psychic ‘contagion’ to spread.

One historian states that a marathon runner couldn’t have lasted the intense workout that these men and women did hundreds of years ago.

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