In a spin: the mysterious dancing epidemic of 1518
Waller, John C. Department of History, (Michigan State University)
Endeavour Vol.32 No.3 (2008)
In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded history struck the city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of people were seized by an irresistible urge to dance, hop and leap into the air. In houses, halls and public spaces, as fear paralyzed the city and the members of the elite despaired, the dancing continued with mindless intensity. Seldom pausing to eat, drink or rest, many of them danced for days or even weeks. And before long, the chronicles agree, dozens were dying from exhaustion. What was it that could have impelled as many as 400 people to dance, in some cases to death?
The dancing plague
Perched alongside the Rhine River on the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg was a busy trading city, its fairs frequented by merchants from across the continent (Figure 1). Some time in mid-July 1518 a lone woman stepped into one of its narrow streets and began a dancing vigil that was to last four or even 6 days in succession. Within a week another 34 had joined the dance. And by the end of August, one chronicler asserts, 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing wildly, uncontrollably around the city.
As the dance turned epidemic, troubled nobles and burghers consulted local physicians. Having excluded astrological and supernatural causes, the members of the medical fraternity declared it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’. This was orthodox physic, consistent with Galen’s view that bloody ﬂuxes could overheat the brain, causing anger, rashness and madness. But the response of the authorities was neither to bleed nor to provide cooling diets. Instead they prescribed ‘more dancing’. To this end they cleared two guildhalls and the outdoor grain market and they even had a wooden stage constructed opposite the horse fair. To these locations the dancers were taken so they could dance freely and uninterrupted. The victims would only recover their minds, said the authorities, if they persisted both day and night with their frantic movements. And to facilitate this supposed cure, the authorities next paid for musicians and professional dancers to keep the afﬂicted moving.