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The Dancing Plague of 1518 & Mass Psychogenic Illnesses

stop dancing, fools!

Recently twitter informed me of perhaps the most enjoyable plague of all time.

Apparently (according to Wikipedia), the people of Strasbourg, France suffered a “dancing plague” in 1518. 1 It started with a woman named Frau Troffea, who began dancing in the streets. She proceeded to keep dancing for four to six days… within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month over 400 dancers took to the streets.

Sounds fun right? Wish it would happen in your city? Well, tell that to the people who actually danced until they died of heart attack, stroke, and exhaustion!

Awesome. But what was this all about?!

Dance Mania?

This isn’t the only time it happened. Dancing mania 2 was actually something that happened from time to time in western Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.

Explanations back then were complete guesses (just like most medicine before the 19th century). Some thought these people were possessed by spirits, under the influence of cults, or some sort of supernatural phenomenon was at work.

Doctors of the time figured it was “hot blood”. But instead of prescribing the ever popular bloodletting (which they thought cured pretty much everything back then), they figured more dancing was in order. Stages were built, halls were opened, and musicians were hired to keep them moving. The plague had to just burn out, they figured.

People simply danced it off.


Now that we’re here in the future, do we have a better explanation?

The consensus (once again, according to Wikipedia) seems to be that this was an example of “mass hysteria” 3, or more appropriately, “mass psychogenic illness“. 4

Basically (keeping in mind that the biological mechanisms at work here are anything but basic), physical symptoms are exhibited, with no known physical causes, in a group of people, seemingly through social influence. Sounds far-fetched, but read on…

Psychogenic (psycho = “of the mind”, genic = “producing / originating”) illnesses are those that seem to occur due to changes in a persons mind. And just because we’re defining things – psycho-somatic refers to something that seems to stem from the mind, but exhibits physical symptoms in the body (somatic = “of the body”). These types of diseases are not well understood, but recent advances in neuroscience are beginning to shed some light on how they work.

A good example is “conversion disorder”, where neurological symptoms (like numbness, paralysis, or seizures) occur with no detectable neurological cause. The conversion part refers to the idea that psychological illnesses “convert” into physical symptoms. People with conversion disorder are often later found to have experienced very traumatic events in their life. Interestingly, new research is demonstrating that such traumatic events can actually cause changes in the brain, which may explain some of the physical symptoms. 5

The treatment? Explaining this to them, treating the underlying emotional distress, and then even physical therapy (and yes, I’ve encountered this at work), which seems to actually reverse the “physical” symptoms (maybe it’s “converting” back? who knows? this is all very new science).

Interesting! Kinda puts the placebo effect to shame, huh?

The bottom line: these people are not “faking it”, and they really are experiencing what they describe, even if it doesn’t make any sense to the rest of us.

Back to the “Dance Hysteria”

For whatever reason, these people were convinced they needed to dance, and that they couldn’t stop. And for some reason, they were also convinced they could “catch” this plague. Were changes occurring in the brain? How long does it take for these brain changes to occur? Do structural changes even need to occur, or are network/chemical changes enough, especially in people in such contexts and with such beliefs (the possibility of being possessed, etc.)?

Who knows.

But one thing’s for sure: we need to keep our minds open (even the most staunchly materialist scientists). Just not so open that we believe we must dance ourselves to death.

Whatever you make of it all, don’t let it prevent you from enjoying a moment like this:

Peace and love!



1-4. Wikipedia (which is good enough for the scope of this article). Click the links above.

5. Feinstein A (2011). Conversion disorder: advances in our understanding. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 183 (8), 915-20 PMID: 21502352

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    4 Responses to The Dancing Plague of 1518 & Mass Psychogenic Illnesses

    1. I find it interesting that you distinguish pre-19th centure medicine from modern medicine by pointing out the guesswork nature of diagnoses. I find such a distinction tenuous ;)

      • Tony Ingram says:

        I didn’t mean to create a false dichotomy there. But you don’t agree with the general sentiment? If you’ve ever worked in healthcare, I think you’ll find that diagnoses today are based on far more scientific evidence than throughout recorded history, and the results have been impressive (but not perfect).

        But that’s really besides the point of this current article, where I am just having fun speculating how the dancing plague happened! :)

    2. FYI: the word “dinomania” refers to the irresistible urge to dance. Probably one of the best words in the English language. See also: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/03/28/obscure-words-illustrated-by-polly-m-law/

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