In the 16th century, over 400 people in Strasbourg, France ‘danced themselves to death.’ Yes, that’s right: these Frenchmen literally killed themselves by dancing.
Early French records indicate that in July of 1518, a woman known as Frau Troffea started dancing in a narrow Strasbourg street for no perceptible reason. Frau Troffea danced until she collapsed with bloodied feet, then she got up and continued to dance. For some reason, she was unable to stop. Frau Troffea ultimately died of dehydration and exhaustion.
In the scope of a single month, over 400 Strasbourg residents followed in Frau Troffea’s footsteps, quite literally, and began to dance for no reason in particular—without any music—and with no sign of stopping. They held each other, kicked their legs, and twirled in the streets.
The ‘Dancing Plague’ of 1518 spread throughout the city. As the illness exacerbated, concerned nobles solicited the advice of local physicians. These doctors ruled out astrological and supernatural causes. They announced that the ‘plague’ was a “natural disease” caused by “hot blood” and further claimed it was good exercise. Based on the advice of these doctors, authorities encouraged the dancing and even opened two guildhalls, a grain market, and a wooden stage for local people to continue dancing. Authorities also believed that the dancers would recover merely if they stopped dancing.
However, the doctors and authorities were wrong: increased numbers of dancers died of strokes, heart attacks, dehydration, heat, and other related causes.
Nearly 500 years later, scientists—who know of the ‘plague’ though gravestone engravings and early records—still haven’t uncovered the precise cause behind this bizarre series of deaths. John Waller, a historian and professor at Michigan State University and a leading researcher on this topic, hypothesizes that wide-spread stress and psychological problems may have spurred the dancing phenomena in Strasbourg.
The Strasbourg ‘Dancing Plague’ is not the only unexplained illness of centuries past. There are many early diseases around the world, some waiting to be discovered and studied, for which scientists have yet to propose any answers.