The Dancing Plague of 1518

Engraving by Hendrik Hondius of Three Women Affected by the Plague

History is full of strange byways and seemingly unsolvable mysteries. Why is it that, for a period of hundreds of years during the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance, there were outbreaks of dancing fever. During these outbreaks people started dancing and kept dancing until they dropped dead, some of them from strokes and heart attacks, others from sheer exhaustion.

The worst outbreak is recorded in Strasbourg, Alsace, during the year 1518. The city fathers even hired musicians in hopes that the dancers would dance until they got tired and just stop. But many did not stop, and these died. Although I do not have the mortality figures from the Strasbourg incident, one source indicates that up to 400 people were involved in the frenzy.

According to Edward Waller, a Professor at Michigan State University, and author of a book entitled A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, has examined all the evidence and, according to Discovery.Com, concluded as follows:

A series of famines, resulting from bitter cold winters, scorching summers, sudden crop frosts and terrifying hailstorms, preceded the maniacal dancing, Waller said. Waves of deaths followed from malnutrition. People who survived were often forced to slaughter all of their farm animals, secure loans and finally, take to the streets begging.

Smallpox, syphilis, leprosy and even a new disease known as “the English sweat” swept through the area.

“Anxiety and false fears gripped the region,” Waller said.

One of these fears, originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.

Waller therefore believes a phenomenon known as “mass psychogenic illness,” a form of mass hysteria usually preceded by intolerable levels of psychological distress, caused the dancing epidemic.

If there is a scientific reason, why have there been no outbreaks in Europe dating from the time that the Christian religion ceased to play such an important part in the lives of the people? The anxiety and fears are still present to some degree. (Isn’t that why some people vote Republican?) But the religious trigger is absent.

According to the Discover.Com website cited above, there have been similar outbreaks in Africa as recently as the twentieth century, and even a strange reaction in Belgium involving hysteria over soft-drink consumption.

Now I know that, if Romney is somehow elected President, the ultimate cause will be a mass psychogenic illness caused by Karl Rove, Faux News, and Republican spin doctors.