The Dance Epidemic of 1518
The summer of 1518 witnessed a never-before-seen phenomenon, a “dance epidemic” lasting several days in the French city of Strasbourg.
This is the story of one of the earliest (and most extravagant) epidemics ever recorded. It began with a group of people dancing outdoors in the heat of the summer of 1518. It ended in an emergency when the authorities had to intervene as hundreds of people danced frantically, without stopping for days. It’s difficult to know how or why this unusual event happened, but records of the time do provide some clues.
Soaked in sweat, the dancers stopped only to eat or to drink water before an audience of people who looked on in absolute amazement. Over the course of the three months of that hot summer, the epidemic spread across French city of Strasbourg, and many actually perished in the collective compulsion. Today, the phenomenon still surprises and retains its certain mystery, but among the records which stand out are those of one Dr. Paracelsus. According to the account of the famous physician, the “Strasbourg dance epidemic” began in mid-July 1518, when a woman went out into the street and started dancing, alone. Just a week later, dozens of people had joined her.
For their part, the bourgeois and the powerful of Strasbourg were deeply upset. The writer Sebastian Brant, for example, dedicated a whole chapter in his esteemed guide to morals, The Ship of Fools, to this fever for dancing. When the councilors and doctors of the city were consulted, they insisted that the event was caused by an excess of “overheated blood” in the brains of the dancers. The doctors prescribed those affected with a somewhat implausible remedy: keep on dancing. Thus, the marketplace was outfitted, a band of musicians was hired, and those affected by the epidemic were escorted there in the hopes that still more dancing would cure their fever for dancing.
A poem found in the city archives tells what happened next. People continued dancing non-stop, until many of them fell dead. When the city councilors found that their supposed solution had been a mistake, they banned all dancing and music in public spaces. Finally, and as a final measure, the dancers were taken to a temple inside a cave dedicated to Saint Vitus in the Saverne mountains. Here, they were dressed in red shoes and guided to dance around the icon of the saint. In the weeks that followed, the fever finally stopped.
This curious event has survived in the memory of many, accompanied by the subsequent mysteries as, for example, the red shoes, the attempt to stop the dance with more dancing, and the fact that so many people died so strangely. According to witnesses at the time, it was 15 people per day, at least during the first several days.
Some scholars have attributed the event to ergotism, a type of poisoning also known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” which results from eating food contaminated by mycotoxins, that is, fungi capable of causing hallucinations. This theory, though, is debatable as no intoxication of this nature seems to compel a person to dance for days. Further, many witnesses say that people seemed to dance without wanting to do so. Others, fascinated by the strange occurrence, have argued that the Strasbourg epidemic was the product of a massive psychogenic disease, a kind of collective hysteria.
For centuries, other cases of collective dances have been reported in the area. This has led some to the conclusion that the outbreaks were the result of a punishment from Saint Vitus, a presumption that the saint actually caused the disease. A few believers of sufficient conviction were enough to convince many hundreds of others. This particular period in history was especially bad in the Strasbourg region as it was a time replete with epidemics and poverty, and this may well have been one more factor to provoke the mass reaction.
Five centuries later, one may well be reminded of the electronic music parties which, beginning in the 1980s, lasted literally for days. But it’s just as well to say that this curious epidemic, even today, invites us to reflect on the capacity of the human mind and on the strange power that dancing will exert over it.
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