From the 14th to the 17th century – although there were incidents as far back as the seventh century – Europe was afflicted with sporadic and mysterious ‘dancing plagues’. There was no telling when or where it would strike but, for no apparent reason, men, women and children took to the streets and danced uncontrollably, flailing around to unheard music. The unexpected party could last weeks, with dancers only stopping when they collapsed from exhaustion. Some literally danced themselves to death.
Thousands of villagers fell victim to a single outbreak of the plague in Aachen, Germany, on 24 June 1374. In July 1518, another outbreak began in Strasbourg when one woman, Frau Troffea, danced the streets for days. Within a month, the dancing party was 400 strong.
The causes were unknown. Physicians declared that the plague was the result of “hot blood”. In response, authorities constructed a stage and hired musicians to encourage the crowd, hoping their bodies would be compelled back into balance.
The phenomenon continues to baffle – suggested causes include stress-induced psychosis, religious ecstasy, or seizures caused by a hallucinogenic mould on the food. Or was it mass hysteria, prompted by horrific periods of poverty, disease and famine? We will never know why the jitterbug spread.
This article was first published online in History Revealed November 2014 and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Emily Brand.