17 July 2021

Strasbourg’s Dancing Plague of 1518 - the devil, mass mania or ergot poisoning?


Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Peasant Wedding Dance, 1623
Private collection, Wiki


Strasbourg’s Dancing Plague of 1518 was not the first. Previous dancing plagues had inv­olved people who were in towns and cit­ies close to the River Rhine, along with the merch­ants, pilgrims and soldiers who plied its waters.

A] In the 1020s in Bern­burg in Saxony, a group of peasants started dancing around a church in the middle of a Christmas Eve service.

B] A 1237 outbreak involved Ger­man children walk­ing the 20 ks from Erfurt to Arnstadt, dancing and jumping uncontrol­lably en route. This was similar to the leg­end of the Pied Piper of Hamelin in Lower Saxony, where a piper led the dancing chil­d­ren from Hamelin, never to return.

C] A 1278 outbreak saw c200 people dancing on a bridge across the German River Meuse, leading to its collapse.

D] 1428 a Schaff­hausen monk danced himself to death. And

E] In 1491 nuns in a Spanish-Netherlandish convent foamed, convulsed and gestured obscenely. Strange behaviour, but it was known that their commun­ity en­couraged them in mystical supernat­ur­alism.

German engraving of hysterical dancing in a church­.

Now to Strasbourg. 1517 had been a bad year! Social and religious con­fl­icts, recurrent dis­eas­es, harvest failures and spiking wheat prices were caused by extreme weather and crop frosts. That summer, orphanages and hos­pitals were over­­flowing with the desp­er­ate. Outbreaks of small pox, syph­ilis, leprosy and English Sweat Disease occurred. John Waller exp­lained how ordinary people behaved when they were driven beyond the limits of endurance.

In Strasbourg, in mid 1518, Frau Trof­fea began to dance maniacally in public for six days! On­lookers laughed and clap­ped the lady for her energy and high spirits. With arms flap­p­ing, bodies swaying and clothes sweating, people joined in and danced all night. Within a week, 34 people had joined her; within a month, 400. Meantime res­id­ents were dying from strokes, heart attacks and exhaustion. Sel­dom stop­ping to eat or drink, and oblivious to painful feet, they continued until the authorities eventually interv­ened.

St Vitus had been a Catholic mar­t­yr, killed in 303 AD. He was ven­er­ated in the late middle ages when citizens danced before his statue. So St Vitus’ Dance became the name of a dancing plague, a form of mass hysteria that infected large groups of dancers, often with halluc­in­­ations. Sydenham’s Chorea was a condition that affected people who’d had acute rheumatic fever or ep­ilepsy in childhood, so Catholic legend also required that Chorea-afflicted peop­le be brought before a shrine of St Vitus. 

 Cologne Cath­edral down-river from Strasbourg dramatised the curse; under St Vitus’ image, three men danced joylessly and deliriously.

Hieronymus Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights, c1505.
Prado

Strasbourg’s leaders were disturbed by the 1518 events. Leading doctors diagnosed the hysteria as a Natural Disease i.e one not having any super­natural causes. In fact the doctors pres­c­r­ibed more danc­ing! So councillors ordered an open-air grain market cleared, commandeered guild halls, erected a huge stage next to the horse fair and paid pipers and drummers to keep peop­le dancing around the clock. To these locations they escorted the crazed dan­c­ers, hoping that the frantic motion would end the sick­ness. Alas they simply encouraged more people to join the craze.

The council sensed it was wrong only when the dancers eventually fell un­conscious or died. Seeing the dancers suffer from holy wrath and not sizzling brains, councillors opted inst­ead for enforced penance i.e they banned public mus­ic and danc­ing. Finally the dancers were taken to a shrine ded­ic­ated to St Vitus in the hills above Saverne in Alsace Lorraine. Bloodied feet were placed into red shoes and led around a wooden fig­ur­ine of the saint.

Without the dancers who went to the Saverne shrine, those remaining slowly stopped dancing as well. They ceas­ed their wild movements and the Strasbourg epidemic ended, the last of its kind in Europe.

This was one of the strangest epid­emics to be fully recorded. Brill­iant physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) detailed Stras­bourg's dancing plague. And one of city’s councillors, writer Sebas­tian Brant (1458–1521), dev­oted a chapter of his book Ship of Fools to the folly of dance.

The Church thought spirit possession “caused” people to act as if their souls have been taken over. Once Spirit Possession was taken seriously by ordinary med­ieval citizens, they could en­t­er a dissoc­iative mental state. They then acted according to culturally prescribed ideas of how The Possessed behaved. The Church was always suspicious of the strange dancing plague, see­­­ing the dancers as a band of heretics who used mad­ness to exer­cise their devilish rituals.

Under the hot summer sun, the dancing was as insane as Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, Garden of Earthly Delights 1500s. In his hell­ish vis­ions, the hum­ans lost all cont­rol over their senses, dancing in a wild collective delirium and groan­ing in agony. Soon several thous­and frenzied people in Aachen were also dan­c­ing in fits that lasted for weeks, then the mania spread to Utrecht Neth­­erlands, Liège Belgium and Metz France.

Did the medical profession believe in demonic possession and ov­erheated blood? Probably not. The danc­ing frenzy was a reaction to the years of Black Death, ex­plained by 1 of 2 possibilities. Their best explanation was that the cit­izens were the vic­tims of mass psychosis. With Stras­bourg’s mass psych­ol­ogical distress, famine had been prevalent in the region for some time, caused by extreme weather. Diseases spread rapidly and thousands died from dancing.

St Vitus Dance, 1564
Pieter Bruegel the Elder 
Albertina, Vienna

And consider the ergotism/St Anth­ony’s Fire explanation. Long-term ergot poisoning, caused by the fungus that grew on rye bread, occ­urred in warm, damp conditions. Anyone who ing­ested ergot-laced rye developed seizures, viol­ent cramps, mental derange­ment, halluc­in­at­ions, twitching and later, gangrene. On one hand, it was very un­likely that really sick ergot sufferers could have danced for days. On the other hand, as record­ed in phys­ician’s notes, dan­cing seemed in some way to rel­ieve the pain of suffering ergotism.

In Oct 2018, the 1518 dancing epidemic centenary was memorialised in Strasbourg’s Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame. So read "Dance to Death" in Tudors Dynasty.





24 comments:

CherryPie said...

Epidemics are caused by all manner of diseases.

We should learn from history, our current one repeats the pattern. So why are we surprised!

Student of History said...

We understand that doctors didn't know how to control leprosy or small pox. We can barely control epidemics today. But the Church blaming spiritual possession meant no humans were involved in the spread of the disease. Religious penance did not harm, nor did it help.

Andrew said...

That was so interesting and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about English Sweat Disease. It gives me hope that a virus can simply disappear.

Hels said...

CherryPie

Just in the last 200 years we have suffered through Smallpox (1800-30), Russian Flu (1891), Spanish Flu (1918-20), Polio (1937-38), Asian Flu (1957), Hongkong Flu (1978), HIV.AIDs (1981-), Swine Flu (2009) and Covid (2020-) and probably other epidemics I can't remember. What an unbelievable tragedy. A new epidemic seems to arise every 30 years or so.

I was going to suggest that the more people travel, the more people will die in each epidemic.
But then the Bubonic Plague killed 75 million–200 million people between 1347-50!!!!

Pipistrello said...

For some reason I knew about this but had forgotten all about it. Truth really is stranger than fiction when it comes to these phenomena. There must be some tipping point of cumulative crises to really send people off the edge; but so interesting that you can come back to a state of normality so quickly - if you've not died of exhaustion beforehand for a case like the Strasbourg one ... I never know what to expect next from your blog, Hels!

Hels said...

Student of History

I think when communities were facing probable death, the authorities would grasp at anything to protect themselves. But why was the Church even relevant in an epidemic? Firstly the Church provided the only medical facilities in Europe: wards, medicines, doctors and spiritual care.
Secondly if sick people did bizarre things like dancing themselves to death, that was proof positive that they had misbehaved in their religious and moral lives. Let me repeat one line:
The Church was always suspicious of the strange dancing plague, see­­­ing the dancers as a band of heretics who used mad­ness to exer­cise their devilish rituals.

Hels said...

Andrew

I wouldn't have even mentioned English Sweating Sickness, except for two important factors important for us today. Firstly the five English Sweating epidemics came relentlessly between 1485 and 1551. Secondly its mortality rates were recorded as between 30-50%, worse than our current Coronavirus.

Hels said...

Pipistrello

When I was doing Medieval Art History as a student a very long time ago, I was particularly moved by the artists' depiction of plagues, deaths, the role of the Church and every other misery in medieval life. Thankfully those artists left us with very detailed records.

See
https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/plague-in-art-10-paintings-coronavirus/ and
https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/08/18/542435991/those-iconic-images-of-the-plague-thats-not-the-plague

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels ... what an interesting post - about art reminding us of earlier plagues. Of course for the Bubonic Plague ... rats could easily travel - not much has really changed. It will be interesting to see how we get through this pandemic as it takes its course. All the best - Hilary

DUTA said...

Epidemics of dancing, dancing plague, dance till death - involving peasants, soldiers, children, nuns - how very, very strange!!
And as always in those days, the church had its say on the mass hysteria dancing: 'devilish rituals', 'spirit possession'.

Rachel Phillips said...

In my studies of Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights I saw a connection between Dante's Divine Comedy prompted by my memories of Botticelli's illustrations of the poem which I had seen shortly before. Although the illustrations date just before Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights I could not find any link that Bosch could have seen them. It is also difficult to establish whether Bosch could have seen a copy of the Divine Comedy. Apart from that theory, the triptych does illustrate the teachings of the church at the time albeit in extremes. I have not heard the dance disease aroey and found it most interesting, and how it has been passed down in history. The theory of hallucinations from eating rye bread that had gone off seems very feasible to me.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, England (and then America) had the Quakers and Shakers, which had similarly induced and transmitted "dancing," although perhaps in not so extreme a form. About mass hysteria to the point of people doing things that injure themselves and others, just look all around you (with again a glance toward the U.s.).
--Jim

Hels said...

Hilary

Every epidemic came from a different virus and a different mode of transport. At least with the rats, although they could travel easily from one country to the next on ships etc as you noted, they were visible. And AIDs was largely transferred by genital contact and blood transfusions. But what did doctors know about that flashed in for a year, killed millions and then disappeared.

The best thing about Covid was that the vaccines took only 9 months to develop instead of taking quite a number of years.

Hels said...

DUTA

Epidemics of dancing where people danced until they died was VERY strange, yes! I might have been tempted to think the story was a drunken myth, except that people were repeating the details 1] in very different cities and 2] over 500 plus years!

Poor Strasbourg :( This week the regional authorities announced they were opening an emergency containment zone to stop the Rhine overflowing after endless snow and rain. The catchment area of ​​the Rhine, which includes Switzerland, Alsace and Germany, are most at risk of flooding and deaths.

Hels said...

Rachel

Thank you. The medieval Church spent a fortune commissioning triptychs because they wanted a standard format for altar paintings that would be popular with the congregation and educative for the clergy. This teaching may well have been in extremes, as you note, especially as every step of the design and painting was carefully supervised.

When Bosch painted the Garden of Earthly Delights (c1505), the heavenly and deathly wings were clear. But if the central panel was a warning about the consequences of human immorality, it came too early for Strasbourg's 1518 catastrophe.

Hels said...

Parnassus

I think that was EXACTLY the problem for most people fascinated with the Dancing Plague. That dancing was for most couples a great event that led to hot sex, Quaker and Shaker religiosity, wedding feasts and wine not often on offer, best clothes and music. So why, we ask now, did it lead to absurd and destructive behaviour, and why did it attract so many other townspeople? That the Church would be anxious about sexualised behaviour in public was inevitable.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde. Obrigado pela matéria esclarecedora. Infelizmente as pandemias sempre existiram.

Britta said...

How very interesting, Helen, thank you!
Though I know some of the "events" you quote - so as the Piper& the children of Hameln, I never heard about "Dancing Fever" (though in Germany exists the term "Veit's Tanz" and is as you describe it).
"Mutterkorn", the fungus on wheat, is now used in medicine sometimes against migraine!
May I add two literary morsels to your theme? "Schwan kleb an" - is a German fairy tale where a young man with a swan under his arm walks through a city and everybody who touches sticks and has to follow...
and there is an American novel "They Shoot Horses, don't they?" about the strange competitions in the Twenties or Thirties where pairs danced and danced, and those who could do that longest, earned the money-prize.

Hels said...

Luiz

yes indeed... pandemics have always existed and will continue to do so in this century, as Covid has shown us. What the Dancing Plague taught us was that the state authorities, Church, medical profession and ordinary citizens cannot shirk their responsibilities, or simply blame God.

Hels said...

Britta

many thanks. Schwan kleb an/Swan Stick On is fascinating. Whoever touches the beautiful swan will have his hand firmly glued on and will never be able to walk away voluntarily. In this case, the townsfolk have no choice but to follow.

They Shoot Horses demands the exhausted contestants to compete around the dance floor, with the losers eliminated. Even when contestants have fatal heart attacks during the races, the others have to keep on going. In this case the contestants choose to continue, for money or prestige or manic obsession, even though death is a definite risk.

bazza said...

As so often with your posts Hel, I had to keep going away to 'read-up' on things! So now I know all about ergot and ergot poisoning, of which I had never heard and also St Anthony's Fire and English Sweating Disease Although I did know about St Vitus Dance. So it took me a while to get through this article but I'm glad I did.
A modern interpretation would probably be mass hysteria triggered by a physical illness.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s jealously Jubilant Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

bazza

I would give more information but I try to limit any post to 950 words, because that is how much people can easily read in blogs. In any case, since I retired from work, I love it when blog posts have promoted new learning :)

Mass hysteria is an extraordinary phenomenon! When the Beatles first came to Melbourne, hundreds of thousands of girls screamed and screamed, while the ambulances waited to take them away. I realise that 2.5 hours of screaming was not as dangerous as a week of frantic dancing, but the loss of individual control back in 1964 was a wake-up call for my teenage mind.

mem said...

Maybe with "freedom day" in the UK we will see more crazed dancing . Apparently Night Clubs are delighted with Boris's move to open up everything

Hels said...

mem

I think we have learned NOTHING from previous pandemics, especially when close dancing, too much alcohol, loud music and wild sex are concerned.