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A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 [Paperback]

John Waller
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 May 2009
The true story of a wild dancing epidemic that brought death and fear to a 16th-century city, and the terrifying supernatural beliefs from which it arose. In July 1518 a terrifying and mysterious plague struck the medieval city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of men and women danced wildly, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. They did not want to dance, but could not stop. Throughout August and early September more and more were seized by the same terrible compulsion. By the time the epidemic subsided, heat and exhaustion had claimed an untold number of lives, leaving thousands bewildered and bereaved, and an enduring enigma for future generations. Drawing on fresh evidence, John Waller's account of the bizarre events of 1518 explains why Strasbourg's dancing plague took place. In doing so it leads us into a largely vanished world, evoking the sights, sounds, aromas, diseases and hardships, the fervent supernaturalism, and the desperate hedonism of the late medieval world. At the same time, the extraordinary story this book tells offers rich insights into how people behave when driven beyond the limits of endurance. Above all, this is an exploration into the strangest capabilities of the human mind and the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.

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A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 + The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness
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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books (7 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848310536
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848310537
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 163,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'Waller's book should interest both historians and scientists, while the general reader will enjoy his colourful depictions of medieval life.' -- BBC Focus Magazine 'An interesting and enjoyable read, which is not merely of historical interest, but also helps to explain some modern-day psychological phenomena.' -- Common Reader 'A startling, chilling and utterly compelling account.' -- Good Book Guide 'A book to make you grateful for the historical increase in human sanity.' -- New Scientist "A Time to Dance, A Time to Die' is a medically sound, historically accurate link to the late medieval zeitgeist.' -- Fortean Times 'Waller does a remarkable job of getting to the causes of the epidemic, looking at things from every angle... Waller doesn't lay it on too thick, and brings the era alive to us.' -- Guardian 'A compelling 'whatdunnit" -- Times 'A compelling history of workhouse children in the industrial revolution.' -- Guardian 'Waller writes with a passion and flair which commands the reader's attention.' -- Times Literary Supplement 'History approaching its best... combines a gripping story with a historian's attention to detail and context.' -- Australian

About the Author

John Waller is an historian of medicine at Michigan State University. Educated at theuniversities of Oxford and London, he is the author of several other books, including The Real Oliver Twist (Icon, 2005), The Discovery of the Germ (Icon, 2002) and Fabulous Science (OUP, 2002). He lives with his wife and daughter in Michigan.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
This very readable and satisfying book concerns an outbreak of what appeared to be Chorea, or St Vitus Dance in 16th century Strasbourg. Whereas chorea is usually a symptom of serious illness, the Strasbourg outbreak seems to have been something like mass hysteria, involving hundreds of people and lasting for some weeks before dying out again.

John Waller uses his first three chapters setting the scene. The people of Strasbourg and its surrounding area had suffered much in the preceding years. A series of bad harvests, periods of drought followed by torrential rain, culminating in the "bad year" of 1517 with grain prices soaring and famine striking with terrible force, killing thousands from malnutrition and related maladies.

The populace was exploited by a rapacious church, with monasteries exploiting the high grain prices by selling their grain stores (obtained from taxes and tithes) outside the area, the starving peasants observing convoys of grain leaving their towns and villages to achieve higher prices in wealthier areas. The population was threatened by the "infidel Turk", the arrival of syphilis in their communities and a terrible epidemic of a disease named "the English Sweat".

It was in this situation that on 14 July 1518, Frau Troffea stepped out of her house "swaying and jumping awkwardly from foot to foot". The poor woman danced compulsively throughout the day, until at night she collapsed into sleep, only to resume her dance early the next morning. She danced like this for six days, until being sent away to a chapel dedicated to St Vitus, some thirty miles away.

Within no time many more citizens were overcome with the irresistible desire to dance.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! 4 Nov 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Fantastic book. It got a good review in New Scientist and not without reason. Covers the subject in depth and makes very interesting reading. The later part of the book deals with how Post Traumatic Stress can manifest itself in relation to the plague. Makes you glad to be alive today!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good readable account 10 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Written by a medical historian and biased towards a psychological basis for the dancing. Dismisses ergot poisoning with only brief explanation of why. However, consumption of rye bread (common source of ergot) decreased at the same time as episodes of Dancing Mania in Europe ceased.

The mania for dancing remains a very curious phenomenon for which many explanations have been given. In spite of the bias, this is a good read and is well researched.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fine work 10 Sep 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Nice work, historians will love it! It's an incredible history, a text with unique ideas and important references. All who study religion and medievalism should have on the shelf.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars very thought-provoking 30 Aug 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was a very interesting book because it gave a perspicuous explanation for the so called 'dancing plague' of, not just 1518, but other similar events that occurred in the middle ages. It also makes you think how little we really know about the brain and the mind and how we could or would subconsciously react to very stressful situations. Well worth a read!
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