Medieval Europe had no shortage of diseases, from the black plague that killed millions to the bizarre medieval sweating sickness that could kill within hours. But one of the strangest diseases in history has to be the dancing sickness. Afflicted people would dance uncontrollably for days at a time, sometimes until they fell over dead.
In the dancing plague of 1518, four hundred people danced in the streets of Strasbourg for months, as the city tried all sorts of cures for the afflicted dancers. When hiring musicians to “burn out” the dancing didn’t work, the city tried banning dancing completely and kicked out all the prostitutes and gamblers. One physician even blamed rebellious women for the outbreak.
How did Strasbourg finally end the outbreak of dancing mass hysteria? In a strange turn of events, the cure involved red shoes. The bizarre history of Strasbourg’s dancing plague is baffling. Dancing mania has to rank among the strangest cases of mass hysteria in history, as people were literally dancing to death. Keep reading to learn more about the strange medieval dancing plague.
It all started with Frau Troffea. One day in July of 1518, she stepped outside her small home in Strasbourg and started to dance. And she didn’t stop. Frau Troffea danced all day—much to the annoyance of her husband—only collapsing at night for a few hours of restless sleep. But as soon as the sun rose the next day, Troffea was back on her feet dancing.
A crowd gathered around the dancing woman, who swayed to the sound of silence, ignoring everything around her. She danced even though her feet were bloody and bruised, as if she could not stop. What made Frau Troffea dance? And why couldn’t she stop? Within days, at least thirty other dancers had joined Frau Troffea, and it was just the beginning of the strangest plague to strike medieval Europe.
The “dancing mania,” as it became known, soon spread to even more people in Strasbourg. Chronicler Daniel Specklin reported that there were “more than one hundred” dancing at the same time, while another put the total at closer to four hundred. The epidemic quickly became a crisis for the city of Strasbourg, and the city council had no idea how to stop the dancing.
Only one thing was clear: the dancers were not happy. They writhed in pain. They begged for mercy. And they screamed for help. As summer stretched on, the dancing epidemic started to claim lives. One chronicle reported that during the heat of the summer, as many as fifteen people died every day from dancing.
The city council was baffled by the outbreak of dancing. They turned to local physicians to help diagnose the problem. After excluding astrological causes and supernatural curses, the physicians declared that the dancers simply suffered from “hot blood,” a problem with the balance of their humors. As the classical medical authority Galen had described, hot blood could overheat the brain and cause madness. Bloodletting was the obvious answer, since removing hot blood would help the dancers, but their manic dancing made it impossible.
So instead, the city prescribed more dancing—they hired musicians to play rousing music in the hopes that they could “burn out” the dancing. A chronicle report said that the city paid people to stay with the dancers, while musicians played “by fife and drum,” but the cure failed. “All of this helped not at all.”
In fact, the hired musicians only made things worse. Whenever the afflicted dancers stumbled or slowed, the musicians played even faster, hoping to burn out the madness. One eyewitness lamented, “They danced day and night with those poor people.” Soon, dancers began dying in even greater numbers—and worse, the party atmosphere attracted new dancers. Like a contagion, the dancing plague spread through Strasbourg.
The city council began to rethink their plan to “burn out” the dancing by setting up a huge party in the middle of the city. Maybe the dancers did not have “hot blood” after all—maybe the dance was a curse, a warning to reform morals in Strasbourg or suffer an even worse fate.