In a spin: the mysterious dancing epidemic of 1518
John C. Waller
Department of History, Michigan State University, East Grand River, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA
In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded
history struck the city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of people
into the air. In houses, halls and public spaces, as fear
paralyzed the city and the members of the elite des-
paired, the dancing continued with mindless intensity.
Seldom pausing to eat, drink or rest, many of them
danced for days or even weeks. And before long, the
chronicles agree, dozens were dying from exhaustion.
What was it that could have impelled as many as 400
people to dance, in some cases to death?
The dancing plague
Perched alongside the Rhine River on the western edge of
the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg was a busy trading
city, its fairs frequented by merchants from across the
continent (Figure 1). Some time in mid-July 1518 a lone
woman stepped into one of its narrow streets and began a
dancing vigil that was to last four or even 6 days in
And by the end of August, one chronicler asserts, 400
people had experienced the madness, dancing wildly,
uncontrollably around the city [1,2,4,5].
As the dance turned epidemic, troubled nobles and
burghers consulted local physicians. Having excluded
astrological and supernatural causes, the members of
the medical fraternity declared it to be a ‘natural disease’
caused by ‘hot blood’ [2,4,5]. This was orthodox physic,
consistent with Galen’s view that bloody fluxes could over-
heat the brain, causing anger, rashness and madness. But
the response of the authorities was neither to bleed nor to
provide cooling diets. Instead they prescribed ‘more dan-
cing’. To this end they cleared two guildhalls and the
outdoor grain market and they even had a wooden stage
constructed opposite the horse fair. To these locations the
dancers were taken so they could dance freely and unin-
the authorities, if they persisted both day and night with
their frantic movements. And to facilitate this supposed
cure, the authorities next paid for musicians and pro-
fessional dancers to keep the afflicted moving.
the musicians raised the tempo of their playing and hired
dancers held them firm and quickened their pace
(Figure 2). ‘They danced day and night with those poor
people’, one eye-witness recalled [1,2,4]. In grain market
andhorsefair,the eliteshadcreatedspectacleseverybit as
grotesque as a Hieronymous Bosch canvas portraying
human folly or the torments of Hell.
Only after those with weak hearts or prone to strokes
began to die did the governors rethink their strategy.
Deciding that the dance had nothing to do with putrefying
blood cooking normally moist and cool brains, they now
saw it as a curse sent down by an angry saint. Hence, a
period of organised contrition was instituted: gambling,
gaming and prostitution were banned and the dissolute
driven beyond the city gates. Soon after the dancers were
despatched to a mountaintop shrine in the Vosges moun-
tains to pray for divine intercession. There they were led
around an altar, wearing red shoes provided for the
ceremony, upon which stood a bas-relief carving of St.
Vitus, the Virgin and Pope Marcellus. In the following
weeks the epidemic abated. Most of the dancers, we are
told, regained bodily control [1,4].
By any standards this was an unusual chain of events.
In trying to make sense of it we can draw on a range of
chronicles, sermons, and civil, ecclesiastical and medical
accounts. There are also descriptions of similar outbreaks
in previous centuries. For while terrifyingly bizarre, the
events of 1518 were not unique. In fact, there had been as
many as seven epidemics of uncontrollable dancing in
various parts of western Europe before 1518, from Saxony
and Maastricht to Basel, Zurich and Strasbourg. Explain-
ing why these outbreaks occurred is more than a parlour
game for medical historians. The phenomenon of compul-
sive dancing significantly enriches our understanding of
the late medieval worldview. It also has much to teach us
about some of the most extraordinary potentials of the
Ergot and epidemiology
The medieval dancing epidemics were not unrelated
events: they were linked both in time and space. Every
one of the ten or so outbreaks between the late 1300s and
1518 happened along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. In 1374,
for instance, the crazed dance gradually spread out from
an epicentre around Aachen, Liege and Maastricht to
neighbouring towns such as Ghent, Utrecht, Metz, Trier
and, eventually, Strasbourg. Moreover, outbreaks of com-
pulsive dancing virtually always struck in or close to
places affected by earlier outbreaks. Maastricht, Trier,
Zurich and Strasbourg each experienced two or more
episodes. There are also several reports of compulsive
dancing after 1518. All of these, crucially, took place close
to the Rhine, and all but one within a short ride of Stras-
bourg itself .
How can we explain this striking epidemiological pic-
ture? One suggestion is that wild dancing formed part of
Corresponding author: Waller, J.C. (email@example.com).
Available online 7 July 2008
www.sciencedirect.com0160-9327/$ – see front matter ? 2008 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2008.05.001