The Dancing Plague of Medieval Europe

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In the early years of the 16th century, one of the most bonkers and truly odd events in history took place. In the Holy Roman Empire, in modern-day France, there was a spontaneous outbreak of….dancing. Seriously, dancing. This wasn’t just a Medieval nightclub though, the dancing spread throughout the towns and countryside, going on for days on end. There was no musical accompaniment, only people dancing around town until they literally dropped. People danced so long and feverishly that they passed out, and legend has it that a few even died. Imagine that folks, people just randomly dancing themselves to death along your local Main Street. It all began on a July morning in 1518, when a young woman in the town of Strasbourg walked outside her home and began dancing. At first it was just the single woman getting down to imaginary music, but soon dozens of people joined the reveler.

The dancing went on for weeks and even garnered local attention by the authorities. The local doctors and priests were at a complete loss about the affliction, the doctors believed that the dancers had “overheated blood” (medical knowledge was lacking during the Middle Ages), while the Priests obviously believed it was a grand demonic possession, which was the standard explanation for any weird behavior for the church. While these explanations are idiotic, the questions remains, just what the hell happened in the streets of Strasbourg in 1518? Unfortunately contemporary accounts are useless in the 21st century because they thought it was bad blood or Satan bewitching the dancers, but there are a few theories that remain. Ergot poisoning is the most likely culprit, the diet of the Medieval townsperson relied heavily upon grains, and ergot poisoning can lead to mental instability (Fun fact, many people believe that the great Salem witch panic of the 1690s was the result of most of the town being out of their damn minds with ergot poisoning). There are some scholars that believe it would have all been a mass hysteria brought on by the crippling stress of living in an area beset by starvation, death and war. No matter what the reasoning, the dancing plague of 1518 remains one of the most insane and truly odd events of our past.

Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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