It started with just a few people dancing outdoors in the summer heat. Arms flailing, bodies swaying and clothes soaked with sweat, they danced through the night and into the next day. Seldom stopping to eat or drink, and seemingly oblivious to mounting fatigue and the pain of bruised feet, they were still going days later. By the time the authorities intervened, hundreds more were dancing in the same frenetic fashion.
But this was not one of those 80s raves that began in a remote layby and ended in a muddy field. Rather, it’s one of the oddest epidemics to be recorded in world history. And it happened 500 years ago this summer in the French city of Strasbourg. It was there, over the course of three roasting-hot months in 1518, that several hundred people developed a compulsion to dance. The dancing went on and on until – to the horror of the crowds who gathered to watch – some of them collapsed and perished on the spot. Just what was happening?
According to an account written in the 1530s by the irascible but brilliant physician Paracelsus, the “dancing plague of Strasbourg” began in mid-July 1518, when a lone woman stepped outside her house and jigged for several days on end. Within a week, dozens more had been seized by the same irresistible urge.
The rich burghers who ran the city were not amused. One of them, writer Sebastian Brant, had devoted a chapter of his moralising bestseller, Ship of Fools, to the folly of dance. Mystified by the chaos in the streets, he and his fellow city councillors consulted local doctors who, in keeping with standard medical wisdom, declared the dancing to be the result of “overheated blood” on the brain.
The councillors implemented what they felt was the appropriate treatment – more dancing! They ordered the clearing of an open-air grain market, commandeered guild halls, and erected a stage next to the horse fair. To these locations they escorted the crazed dancers in the belief that by maintaining frantic motion they would shake off the sickness. The burghers even hired pipers and drummers and paid “strong men” to keep the afflicted upright by clutching their bodies as they whirled and swayed. Those in the grain market and horse fair kept dancing under the full glare of the summer sun in a scene as demonically outlandish as anything imagined by Hieronymus Bosch.
A poem in the city archives explains what happened next: “In their madness people kept up their dancing until they fell unconscious and many died.” The council sensed it had made a mistake. Deciding the dancers were suffering from holy wrath rather than sizzling brains, they opted for a period of enforced penance and banned music and dancing in public.
Finally, the dancers were taken to a shrine dedicated to St Vitus, located in a musty grotto in the hills above the nearby town of Saverne, where their bloodied feet were placed into red shoes and they were led around a wooden figurine of the saint. In the following weeks, say the chronicles, most ceased their wild movements. The epidemic had come to an end.
This weird chapter of human history raises plenty of hard-to-answer questions. Why did the burghers prescribe more dancing as a treatment for cooked brains? Why were the dancers made to wear red shoes? And how many people died? (A writer living close to the city reckoned 15 a day, at least for a while, but this has not been corroborated.)
We can be more confident, I think, in saying what did and did not cause this strange phenomenon. For some time, ergotism looked like a good contender. This results from consuming food contaminated with a species of mould that grows on damp rye and produces a chemical related to LSD. It can induce terrifying hallucinations and violent twitching.
But it is very unlikely that sufferers could have danced for days. Just as improbable is the claim that the dancers were religious subversives. It was clear to observers that they did not want to be dancing. The most credible explanation, in my view, is that the people of Strasbourg were the victims of mass psychogenic illness, what used to be called “mass hysteria”.
There had been several other outbreaks of dancing in the preceding centuries, involving hundreds or just a few people, nearly all in towns and cities close to the River Rhine. Along with the merchants, pilgrims and soldiers who plied these waters, news and beliefs travelled, too. One particular idea appears to have lodged in the cultural consciousness of the region: that St Vitus could punish sinners by making them dance.
A painting in Cologne Cathedral, more than 200 miles downstream from Strasbourg, dramatises the curse: under an image of St Vitus, three men joylessly dance, their faces wearing the divorced-from-reality expressions of the delirious.
Such beliefs in supernatural agency can have dramatic effects on our behaviour. A classic case is “spirit possession”, in which people act as if their souls have been taken over by a spirit or deity. The US anthropologist Erika Bourguignon has written about how being raised in an “environment of belief”, in which spirit possession is taken seriously, primes people to enter a dissociative mental state, where normal consciousness is disabled. People then act according to culturally prescribed ideas of how the possessed should behave.
This is what happened in European convents before the early 1700s, when nuns would writhe, convulse, foam at the mouth, make obscene gestures and propositions, climb trees and miaow like cats. Their behaviour seemed strange, but the nuns lived in communities that encouraged them to obsess about sin and were steeped in a mystical supernaturalism. Those who became convinced that demons had entered their souls were prone to fall into dissociative states in which they did exactly what theologians and exorcists said the diabolically possessed do. In such cases, the possession trance also spread to witnesses who shared the same theological fears.