III: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Hi all, today I thought I would share a particularly strange phenomenon that occurred at the beginning of early-modern Europe, known as the ‘Dancing Plague’. This post will focus on the events in 1518, but there have been many other occurrences reported throughout the continent which I’ll touch on later. I will also include some of the most popular theories that corroborate with the symptoms – do not forget to comment your opinions below!

1518 saw the (possible) birth of Catherine Howard, the beginning of the African slave trade and the completion of the Manchester Grammar School. One of the most significant events, however, was the Dancing Plague of 1518. Breaking out in Strasbourg (in modern France), it is described as a ‘social phenomena’ where people would just start randomly dancing. It began with a single woman, and after one month, there were around 400 taking part. Many collapsed and some died as a result of exhaustion, stroke or heart attack. Spreading rapidly, many scholars at the time explained it as a naturally occurring plague, caused by ‘hot blood’.

This was not the only incident of dancing mania. One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen in 1374 – so begun at least 150 years prior to the Strasbourg event. Sometimes groups of dancing villagers would reach tens of thousands. The authorities often prescribed more dancing to solve this problem, and groups would often be accompanied by musicians. The legend of the Pied Piper is also thought to have emerged from these events.

Now, let’s move on to the theories for the Dancing Plague of 1518. One theory is that there was a fungus growing on wheat, causing psychoactive effects (it is also similar to LSD). This would cause fast movements and would also result in strokes and heart attacks. There is another theory, which is the phenomenon was due to stress. Historian John Waller argues that living in this period, there was a high risk of famine, illness and poverty, which would have taken its toll on villagers. Couple this with the need to blend in socially, and you would have a ‘mass psychological illness’. It has also been characterised as a form of mass hysteria and a form of social influence.

These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing

John Waller, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518

Do you have any theories as to the sheer scale of these events? Personally, I think it was stress induced, coupled with people just joining in because of social influence. Let me know your thoughts!

Bye for now,

Lucinda

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