Five centuries ago, the world’s longest rave took place in Strasbourg – a ‘plague’ of dancing that was fatal for some. What caused it? Art, poetry and music of the time can provide some clues
It started with just a few people dancing outdoors in the summer heat. Arms flailing, bodies swaying and clothes soaked with sweat, they danced through the night and into the next day. Seldom stopping to eat or drink, and seemingly oblivious to mounting fatigue and the pain of bruised feet, they were still going days later. By the time the authorities intervened, hundreds more were dancing in the same frenetic fashion.
But this was not one of those 80s raves that began in a remote layby and ended in a muddy field. Rather, it’s one of the oddest epidemics to be recorded in world history. And it happened 500 years ago this summer in the French city of Strasbourg. It was there, over the course of three roasting-hot months in 1518, that several hundred people developed a compulsion to dance. The dancing went on and on until – to the horror of the crowds who gathered to watch – some of them collapsed and perished on the spot. Just what was happening?