August 7, 2023

The Mysterious Dancing Plague Incident of 1518

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The Mysterious Dancing Plague Incident of 1518

By Rafie Rhee | August 7, 2023

The Dancing Plague Incident, also known as the Dancing Epidemic of 1518, is one of history's most peculiar mysteries. An occurrence that defies simple explanation, the event took place in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Hundreds of people took to the streets, dancing for days without rest, and some eventually died from heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion. This article will explore the historical context, potential explanations, and the legacy of this extraordinary phenomenon.

The Mysterious Dancing Plague Incident of 1518

Historical Context

The Dancing Plague began in July 1518 when a woman, Frau Troffea, started dancing fervently in the streets of Strasbourg. Her solo performance soon escalated into a mass phenomenon, with hundreds of people eventually joining in. Contemporary accounts suggest that these people danced without rest, often collapsing and even dying.

The authorities were initially baffled but eventually opted for a "treatment" that seems counterintuitive today: they encouraged more dancing. Musicians and professional dancers were brought in, and halls were opened to accommodate the dancers.

The authorities believed that the affected individuals would only recover if they danced continuously. This decision only seemed to exacerbate the crisis, and it continued until early September when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.

Various theories have been put forward to explain the Dancing Plague, but no single explanation is universally accepted.

Ergot Poisoning

One theory posits that the dancers were victims of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye and can cause spasms, shaking, and delusions when ingested. Some historians believe that the victims may have consumed bread made from ergot-infected rye, leading to the uncontrollable dancing.

Mass Hysteria

Another widely-accepted theory is that the Dancing Plague was a case of mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness. This phenomenon occurs when physical symptoms without a clear cause manifest among a group of people, often as a response to stress or fear.

The early 16th century was a difficult time for the residents of Strasbourg, with famine, disease, and social upheaval creating a tense environment. The dancing could have been a collective response to these pressures.

Religious or Cult Activity

Some researchers propose that the incident might have been related to religious or cult activity. Dancing was a part of many religious rituals at the time, and the phenomenon could have been a form of communal ecstatic experience or a curse invoked by a heretical sect.


The Dancing Plague of 1518 remains a topic of fascination for historians, psychologists, and medical experts alike. It has become a symbol of the inexplicable nature of human behavior and the complex interplay between the mind and body.

Moreover, the incident has also shed light on the psychological aspects of group behavior, mass hysteria, and the impact of social and environmental stressors on mental health.

Dance Fever

The Dancing Plague Incident is a remarkable chapter in human history that challenges our understanding of psychology, sociology, and medicine. Despite the various theories proposed, the exact cause of this bizarre phenomenon remains unclear.

It serves as a poignant reminder of the intricacies of the human psyche and the enigmatic nature of mass behaviors. The incident continues to inspire research and discussion, ensuring its place as one of the most curious and debated events in historical scholarship.

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