In the summer of 1518, the residents of Strasbourg, France, witnessed something stupefying. At first, it started as a harmless dance when one woman stepped outside her house and started to dance, but it became something else altogether as the woman continued dancing frantically for several days without pause.
A week later, half the town folks were dancing for days on end under the scorching summer sun; as a result, many died. What was so peculiar was that the affected people never paused for food or took bathroom breaks; Instead, they just danced themselves to death. The dancing victims did so involuntarily. They had no control over their movements as they suffered in pain, begging and crying for mercy.
The doctors of the time diagnosed the strange conduct of the people as a result of “overheated blood” on the brain. In contrast, in a bid to cure people from dancing, the city councilors recommended more dancing as the remedy. Consequently, the dancing people were led to an open market where they kept dancing themselves to death. The strange dance that has killed so many residents of Strasbourg is what is today known as the dancing plague or the dancing epidemic.
Even though no one knows what brought about the dancing mania that has killed so many people, the theories attempting to explain the odd but lethal behavior ranged from demonic possessions to contaminated food.
For example, 20th-century investigators alleged that the culprit responsible for the dance hysteria was contaminated bread made from rye ruined by the fungal disease ergot. They base their theory mainly on the fact that ergot produces convulsions. However, John Waller, an American medical historian, gives the most plausible explanation.
John Waller concluded that the dancing plague was caused by psychogenic disorders where mental stressors cause the physical symptoms of different diseases. Waller’s theory is the most plausible and widely accepted theory because, in 1518, there were grounds for extreme stress.
For instance, several extreme stress-inducing mitigating circumstances affected the medieval European continent. There were famines and diseases such as smallpox and syphilis that affected the residents, which as a result, could trigger the mental stressors that led to the dancing mania.
Nevertheless, while the theories sound plausible, it boggles the mind why the authorities of the time recommended more dancing as the possible cure for the hundreds of exhausted dancing people.
Still, Europe during the dancing plague was also going through significant reformations. It was only a few months prior when, in 1517, Martin Luther published his ninety-five theses, posted it on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and distributed it throughout Europe. This led to the birth of the Protestant movement and reformation.
Furthermore, Medieval Europe was very religious. A combination of a survival crisis induced by famine and a superstitious population meant stress-induced psychosis was a likely cause of the dancing pandemic.
However, we will never know the precise cause of the unusual pandemic with its victims dancing to death. All we know is that when desperate people were at their worst, they stepped outside onto their streets and never stopped dancing.