split image of an engraving of dancing mania and of a painting of a woman suffering dancing mania

Hundreds of years ago, a strange plague took hold of medieval Europe. 

It wasn’t the type of medieval plague you’re probably thinking of, involving bile, boils and blood; rather, it was a dancing plague known as 'choreomania' or 'St John’s dance.'

And actually, now that we think about it, it did involve a fair amount of blood.

Originating in Aachen, Germany, in 1374, the world’s worst outbreak of dancing mania quickly spread to towns in Belgium and the Netherlands along the Rhine River.

Afflicted villagers took to the streets by the hundreds, dancing to music nobody else could hear. Whether their writhing, jerking movements constituted dancing or something else entirely, those affected were seemingly in a trance, unable to control their bodies.

Onlookers spoke of the dancing maniacs as wild, frenzied and hallucinating. Some dancers screamed and cried out in pain, but they couldn’t stop.

Barely able to eat or sleep, they danced until their bloodied feet could no longer hold them up, whereupon they collapsed with exhaustion.

The dancing mania went on for weeks, affecting thousands of people. Then, almost as suddenly as it had started, it ended.

Although the phenomenon was (and still is) often talked about in mystical or supernatural terms, there is no doubt that such an event did take place, as there exist dozens of contemporary reports written by physicians, chroniclers, monks and priests.

A German engraving of hysterical dancers in a churchyard

The outbreak in Aachen was the worst of its kind, however, it wasn’t the only one recorded in history.

In 1518, another case of dancing mania swept through Strasbourg, in modern-day France. Some sources claim that, during its peak, 15 people died every single day due to dancing non-stop in the searing summer heat. However, it should be noted that no fatalities were mentioned in any contemporary sources.

Regardless of whether anyone died or not, this outbreak of dancing mania was very much real, as evidenced by the panicky municipal orders written by the Strasbourg authorities at the time of the epidemic.

This particular outbreak began with a single woman whose identity remains uncertain, although several chronicles name her as Frau Troffea. Following an argument with her husband, Frau Troffea supposedly started dancing in the street, continuing to do so for six days until she was bloodied and bruised. At that point, the authorities stepped in and took her away to a holy shrine.

However, just days later, 34 more people were struck with the uncontrollable urge to move their bodies and dance until they dropped.

As the dancing mania spread, the authorities stepped in once more, but their solution had catastrophic consequences. They decided to play music to help ease the stress, however, it simply provided a soundtrack that boosted people’s desire to dance. 

In an incredible U-turn, the authorities then banned music and tied people to wagons, in the hopes that it would abate their urge to boogie. The afflicted were then taken on an enforced pilgrimage, which eventually helped the mania to subside. It is estimated that between 50-400 people were affected.

Dance at Molenbeek by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1638), based on a 1564 drawing by his father, Pieter Breughel the Elder

What caused the dancing plague?

At the time, explanations for dancing mania included demonic possession and overheated blood.

Today, we have several alternate theories, although the true cause still remains unknown.

One such theory for what might have caused it is poisoning by the ergot fungus, which grows on rye and other grains. One of the key chemical components of ergot is lysergic acid, which is the ‘LS’ in LSD. This has been known to cause delusions and hallucinations, thus has been hypothesized to have driven the medieval villagers into a dancing frenzy.

However, the occurrence of dancing mania in regions with different crops and climates makes this theory unlikely to be correct. Additionally, it is unlikely that ergotism or the consumption of lysergic acid would cause extended bouts of uncontrollable dancing.

The most likely explanation for what happened is mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria. This occurs where a contagion of an idea or belief can spread through a population, particularly during times of extreme stress.

The years leading up to the dancing epidemics were exceptionally harsh, even for medieval times. It’s no coincidence that the areas affected by the 1374 dancing plague were also the ones that were most severely impacted by huge floods earlier in the year. Chronicles describe the Rhine rising 34 feet, flood waters pouring over town walls, and decomposing horses floating along streets.

Similarly, the decade preceding 1518 in Strasbourg was filled with famine, starvation and widespread sickness.

An engraving of dancing mania victims by Hendrik Hondius (1573-1649), based on Pieter Breughel the Elder's 1564 drawing

Notably, outbreaks of dancing mania only occurred in communities which believed in the existence of such dancing curses. In the case of the 1374 outbreak, victims believed themselves to have been cursed by the Devil, so they begged for divine intervention and willingly submitted to exorcism.

Equally, the people of Strasbourg believed that they had been cursed by Saint Vitus, thus they acted according to the conventions of the legend and danced non-stop for days.

In this way, these downtrodden, depressed communities were primed for such epidemic possession. With this context, it is perhaps not surprising that they believed themselves to be under attack by a force beyond their control.

For those of us who love dancing, it seems unimaginable that it could actually be your cause of death. Fortunately, dancing mania appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century.

Regardless, the next time you’re overcome with the urge to shake your hips, make sure you stop before you drop!