The Dancing Plague of 1518

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Cynthia Wing, Staff Writer

This story takes place in Strasbourg, Alsace in 1518. Living in Strasbourg was really rough. Strasbourg people still had the feudal system at this time which meant that kings and queens were in charge while everyone else was considered a poor peasant. As a peasant, you had no rights as an individual and you had to live in very disgusting conditions. The drinking water was filthy because it was water everyone used to wash their bodies and clothes. The only option they had to quench their thirst was the dirty drinking water. 

At this time, people did not understand yet what germs were or that everything was covered in a layer of filth. There was also feces from humans and animals all over the place. In the 1500s, there wasn’t any form of plumbing or sanitation. Years and years of bad weather had left the town with little to no food. The food that was available would be too expensive and only the royalty and the rich could afford it. During this time, a peasant’s purpose in the system was to serve the king and queens which meant instead of those with money and wealth participating in wars, it was the peasants or the less thans who had to go into battle. Having no money meant you had to do everyone else’s work.

The local church in town was a way for the people to escape the daily horrors of their lives. The leaders of the church were seen as the one all be all. When something horrible would be happening in town, people would run to the leaders for answers. The church leaders would guide those and give answers as to why they were sick, poor, hungry, etc. Usually, the answer was that God was punishing them or testing them. Church was the center of everyone’s life. 

Because of this, the church was able to hold a lot of power over people, constantly telling people that this life was a battle between God and Satan, heaven and hell, and good and evil. The people of Strasbourg didn’t know any different. The only source of information would come from the church. Peasants started questioning the church for drinking clean water and living a great life. Because of this, tensions were on the rise and something odd happens. A meteor from the sky came crashing down, landing right near Strasbourg. According to the church, it was a way for God to warn people. The meteor caused no damage but caused complete chaos among the people of Strasbourg. 

They strongly believed that this meteorite was a sign from God that the peasants were sinning too much. The peasants were scared of going to hell and some would pray for up to six hours straight asking for forgiveness. A man by the name of Mr. Johann Von Kayserberg thought that the town was sinning too much. He was a church leader who believed that everybody in town was a sinner, even the other leaders. He referred to his fellow church leaders as lazy. 

Johann fancied himself as a man of God for the people and they really seemed to love him. He was a man who was not afraid to speak the truth. He was called the Trumpet of Strasbourg Cathedral and people would travel from hundreds of miles away just to hear him speak. Johann believed that people could only be saved by the church; if they wanted to go to heaven, they had to closely follow what the church was saying. One time, he spoke to a crowd of 600 monks and nuns, and suddenly, out of nowhere, he started accusing all of them of having intercourse with each other. He claimed that he knew this, but he had no evidence of this. 

Now, Johann was leading the new wave of Christianity in Strasbourg. The church leaders were supposed to be for the people, but instead, they were drinking booze and living a life of luxury.  Johan would call the leaders out for this. He would go to their houses and look around after helping himself to their basements where he would find vintage wines, prime cuts of meat, and sweetbreads. He publicly called out the church leaders and demanded that they change. The church leaders thought that it would be a good idea to rebel against Johann. The way they were going to do this was by covering themselves head to toe in as many jewels as possible, dressing up in their best, and running up and down the streets causing a ruckus. They were rubbing their wealth in everyone’s face in a dramatic way. 

During this, it got the people of Strasbourg to wonder if it was the church leaders who are the reason for all of this bad stuff happening to them. They had years of bad harvest, bad weather, starvation, and diseases such as smallpox. New diseases started popping up including, syphilis. There was no cure for syphilis at this time. They would die a slow and miserable death. In under thirty years, famine and diseases started affecting Strasbourg. The church claimed for this to be all of God’s doing. 

As Johann was getting older, he started stating that werewolves and witches were everywhere. He claimed that all of the bad weather, disease and general misery was an act of the witches and they had put a curse on the town. People loved Johann so much that they believed everything he said. Now, everyone had turned on the church. In 1510, Johann passed away and everyone was freaking out. They believed that without Johann constantly leading them away from the dangers of witches and werewolves, the city was now in the hands of the unholy. In the next few years, there were more ruined crops, more bad weather, and more diseases. The newspaper was stating that everybody’s dead relatives were coming back to life, wandering the area and screaming into the night. 

In 1517, it was labeled by the people of Strasbourg, the bad year. The church leaders had taken all of the food that was available and there was nothing left for the people in town. Everyone was being taxed until they had no money to spare. There was a new outbreak of diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, syphilis, and the English Sweat where you would sweat to death. 

In 1518 there would end up being more famine and diseases. Some people were giving up their own children to orphanages because they could no longer feed them. It is now July of 1518 and a woman name Frau Troffea was a peasant who was experiencing everything that was going on first-hand and her husband was very abusive. At this time women were treated horribly by their husbands. There were no laws to prevent this. Everything was chaos outside of her home and still, when she would go back home, she would get abused by her husband. 

It is not known as to what day, where, or what happened, but one day Frau decided to start dancing. For the next few days, she would go place to place dancing everywhere she went. She only stopped when she got so exhausted that she needed to sleep. Right after she would wake up, she would start to dance again. She would do this day after day. Some historians think that it might have been because she was under intense pressure causing a psychotic break or something close to that and then causing her to dance. Usually, her normal coping mechanism was to go to the church, but that was no longer an option anymore. 

It is said that she would put on her little white hat, her skirt, and apron, and she would sway back and forth as she would jump awkwardly from foot to foot while she was drenched in sweat. She would do this everywhere she went, nonstop. People first started to assume that she was trying to make her husband mad, but everyone said they saw her having a good time as it looked. Since she seemed to be having a good time doing this, people thought that this was the work of the devil. Then, they believed that she was possessed. “They watched as Frau Troffea’s dance went on deep into the third day, her shoes now soaked with blood, sweat trickling down her carefown face. Speculations flew among the onlookers. We are told that some blamed restless spirits, demons that had infiltrated and commandeered her soul. Perhaps through sin, they said she had weakened her ability to resist the Devil’s power” (Waller, J).

Rumors started spreading and many people were believing that women were more susceptible to demonic spirits. Frau would go on to dance for six days straight. This led to bruises and sores caused by her nonstop dancing. After some time, people instead started to think this was a message from God. Because of this assumption, Frau was sent away to a church for treatment. To this day, nobody knows what happened to Frau once she had left. By the time they sent her away, over 30 people in the town had started dancing uncontrollably in the streets. Now, people were thinking that maybe the dancing came from a little saint name ST. Vitus. Vitus was a male who was burned alive for his religious beliefs. “For months, while he was burning on the stake, he cursed the land with a plague so dark, it would be remembered for centuries as the plague that destroyed Europe. It was the unstoppable dancing” (Waller, J).

People started calling the plague the St. Vitus plague. It is not one hundred percent sure that Vitus was a real person, but the people of Strasbourg believed deeply in his ability from beyond the grave to make people dance uncontrollably. People were dancing in their houses, streets, and at church. Some were dancing with shoes and some were completely barefoot. The church was bothered by this dancing and tried everything they could to make it stop. The church decided to throw a big street festival with professional musicians in order to try to fight the dancing plague. The idea was that if they brought the music, then people would come out to dance. When the music would not stop, the dancers would be exhausted and stop.

“In houses, halls, and public spaces, as fear paralyzed the city and the members of Strasbourg’s privy council despaired, they danced with mindless intensity. They went on day and night, in clogs, leather boots, or barefoot, their limbs aching with fatigue, their heels bleeding copiously, probably some with sinews torn to the bone.”Pipers and drummers would play music and would tell people to keep on dancing until they dropped from exhaustion. Professional dancers were hired to join in and keep the energy up and make sure that people kept dancing. Dancers were provided food and drinks so that they would have the energy to keep dancing. People who saw those who had the dancing plague get food and water would act like they had the dancing plague to get food and water. The plague kept spreading and there were around 400 dancers by August. The people had been dancing for a whole month now during the summer (WAller, J).

Strong men were hired to prop the dancers up to keep them dancing. Some people stopped dancing because they were literally dying from exhaustion. Many of them did not want to keep dancing but they could not stop. Some were so miserable while they danced, but seemed to have no control over their own bodies, leading to their deaths. There were so many dancers that they were unable to keep all of the dancers hydrated and full. Some of the people were begging to stop, but they couldn’t. Reports state that there were up to 15 people dying per day. There were still no answers as to what was causing this nonstop dancing and nobody knew how to solve it. 

One form of treatment was to open up the church doors and make the people dance in the chapel where they took Frau to. Their idea was to give the dancers red shoes to symbolize fire, which would make God pity them and their burning feet. Another thought about the red shoes that historians had was that they represented ST. Vitus’ burning feet. Sinners, drunks, sex workers, gamblers, and criminals in order to bring purity back into the town. Around September of 1518, the dancing suddenly stopped. There is no known reason as to why it stopped or what caused it: “In the days and weeks after the pilgrimage to the St. Vitus shrine, the dancing epidemic indeed come to a halt. It didn’t disappear overnight. From his palace in Saverne, Bishop Von Hohenstein issued instructions for s hostel to be built not far from the shrine to accommodate those suffering from ‘Morbus Sancti Vit Vulgariter’” (Waller, J) 

 Three are dozens of newspapers, politicians, and religious texts that make direct references to the summer of 1518 when a bunch of people started dancing and didn’t stop for a long time. Some people believe that this was an early example of mass hysteria. It was also believed that the people of Strasbourg were suffering from some kind of disease that caused them to keep moving. There are still those who believe that there was a curse on the town from the devil who made the people keep dancing as a form of punishment. 

There are a couple of examples in history of similar events most of them took place around the same place. This was not the first dancing plague to ever happen but was the most deadliest. The earliest one that happened, happened in the year 1021. In a small town in Germany, 18 people danced outside of a church on Christmas Eve. The church leader was furious that they disrespected Jesus’ birthday that he put a curse on them. They would proceed to dance for the next full year with many of them dying. Another example of this plague was with no kids. This was in the 1200s in the Netherlands where they also died. In 1374, there was a series of dancing plagues that tore through western Germany and parts of France including Strasbourg. The last known dancing plague seemed to be more awful. People were said to be screaming in pain, they danced nonstop crying out for mercy for the church leaders to save their souls. They wandered from city to city dancing. 

These plagues happened mostly in France and Germany. Many people believe the plague was as contagious as a yawn. Some experts think that it was a form of self-punishment so they could suffer before God made them suffer any further. Others say that it was simply rebellion against the horrible ways that the church and royalty would abuse the lower class, but there is no proof of any of this and the reason the plague started cannot be explained. Many experts agree, however, that the people who ended up dancing, didn’t want to dance in the first place. They were said to be miserable, screaming in pain, and crying for mercy. Some say it was so painful that they jumped into the river in hopes of drowning.

 The plague pleased whoever was in charge because once it was all over, the town had a good harvest and the famine was finally over. There hasn’t been another record of a dancing plague until 2011. EDC started and people danced for three days straight. Some historians think that the women of the village might have planned this as a way to lash out against the men who ran the church. In order for something like this to take root and spread, there usually needs to be a common source of stress or anxiety affecting a group of people. In this case, it was famine, disease, poverty, etc. Groups of people who experience things like this tend to be separated from the community or society as a whole.



Waller, J. (2009). the dancing plague the strange, true story of an extraordinary illness. Docero. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from