Horrible Histories – The Dance Plague of 1518

Medieval Dance Fever

The year was 1518. Dancing mania is at hold in the Holy Roman Empire city of Strasbourg. Part of modern France, Strasbourg is an important seat of government in European politics.

Over the years this bizarre phenomenon of ‘sporadic dancing’, allegedly involving over 400 people, has also been referred to as “Dancing Plague” and “Saint Vitus’ Dance”.

The dancing outbreak was said to be highly contagious.  Music was used as a treatment to stop the dancing rather than seen as a cause at the time.   Many of the participants simply just kept going for days, dropped down and died!  In July of 1518 a lady started to dance on the street and set the ball in motion leading to days of dancing mayhem.  The affliction of hundreds of Strasbourg’s residents did not recede for several months.  This may have been one of the first ever mass raves but I don’t think you could call it a party.

As well as the famous Strasbourg outbreak there were multiple other descriptions of similar events between the 14th and 17th centuries.  Dancing mania affected all ages, men, boys, women and girls alike.  As well as making for an interesting historical minerva and an entertaining parody (above), dancing mania has been widely discussed and explanations attempted by many authors over the years.

Possible Causes

(1) Dance Mania was ‘A Mass Psychogenic Disorder’

  • Given the number involved this seems quite a convincing explanation…
  • Similar events were witnessed in the 1960s in what is the modern day African country of Tanzania with mass outbreaks of (days of) uncontrollable teenage laugher. These outbreaks were refractory to melancholic suppression and the widespread closing of schools. Risible!
  • Other social experiments have shown similar results.  A classic example is “non alcoholic” alcohol.  For instance, give half a group alcohol and the other have non-alcoholic beers, the whole group will behave with intoxicated aplomb.  Simply the belief that you are drinking alcohol can impair judgement and even impair memory.

  • Assefi and Garry from Victoria University in New Zealand suggest than memory can be significantly impaired by an alcohol ‘placebo’.  Their study showed that participants in an experiment who were told they were drinking, but were in fact not, were more convinced by misleading information.

Garry et al

(2) The Dance Craze was ‘A Cult’

  • A medieval dancing religion of sorts?
  • Here is a modern equivalent:

(3) Demonic Possession

  • Widely believed at the time…
  • Given superstition was common in the middle ages this is not surprising

(4) Ergot Alkaloid Poisoning

  • Ergots have been described as a modern therapy for Migraine but are no longer used in Australia due a poor safety profile.
  • In high doses Ergot drugs may cause abnormal neurological symptoms.  These chemicals are produced naturally in staple crops or synthetically for therapeutic or recreational use.
  • Ergot poisoning may explain one or two of the dancers and/or movements but wouldn’t account for the mass numbers involved in some of the dancing.


  • The neurotropic activities of the ergot alkaloids can lead to hallucinations and delirium.  In significant poisoning seizures have been described.
  • In therapeutic doses the Ergot family has been used to treat Migraine, Nose bleeds and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Other important side effects of Ergot use include hypertension and increased uterine contractions.  As a result Ergotamine was a commonly used treatment for post partum haemorrhage (PPH) and induction of labour (sometimes illegally) in the past.  It is now a second line therapy  for PPH and not widely available in Australia.