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A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 Paperback – 7 May 2009
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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.’ Author: 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.’ Author: Common Reader
‘A startling, chilling and utterly compelling account.’ Author: Good Book Guide
‘A book to make you grateful for the historical increase in human sanity.’ Author: New Scientist
'‘A Time to Dance, A Time to Die’ is a medically sound, historically accurate link to the late medieval zeitgeist.’ Author: 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.’ Author: Guardian
‘A compelling 'whatdunnit'’ Author: Times
‘A compelling history of workhouse children in the industrial revolution.' Author: Guardian
'Waller writes with a passion and flair which commands the reader's attention.' Author: Times Literary Supplement
'History approaching its best... combines a gripping story with a historian's attention to detail and context.' Author: Australian
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. Their feet blistered and bled, and their limbs ached with fatigue, but they simply could not stop. 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. This book 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 super naturalism and the desperate hedonism of the late medieval world. Not only a fascinating historical detective story, "A Time to Dance, A Time to Die" is also an exploration into the strangest capabilities of the human mind and the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.See all Product description
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People saw the church as their salvation from hell, they REALLY believed this. The church was seemingly, and licentiously corrupt which to the believers looked like they'd have to find their own way to salvation. Being ignorant the only thing tenable was dancing, which they seemingly did non-stop. Charmingly people saw their plight and tried to get them to stop, to save themselves, going to the lengths of procuring, at great expense, red shoes; the colour red being a luxury. The dancing died out in the end.
The last part of the books is about Conversion Hysteria (Conversion disorder) where someone has great anguish to the extent that it affects their body. Blindness is one, and it is suggested that dancing was the result of this hysteria.
Like I said I read this book several years ago, and loved it.
(The Pressburger Powell film Red Shoes is I believe from a Hans Christian Andersen tale, which in turn came about from his shoe maker father being asked to make some red shoes for a picky customer, not as I thought stemming from this tale.)
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.
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. The burghers of the city consulted the physicians guild, who recommended that the dancers should be left to continue their dance, in the belief that the heavy perspiration resulting from the dance would eventually expel the residues of bad blood which had built up in their veins. The outdoor grain market was commandeered to accommodate the dancers and the burghers even hired professional musicians to encourage the dancers and so hasten the time when they would be thoroughly danced out.
John Waller has covered every angle of this strange and terrible story, investigating the possible physical and mental causes of this dancing plague. He recognises that it occurred within a particular historical and social context and also explores similar outbreaks which have occurred in different locations and times. He considers the similarities between the Strasbourg events and other movements such as modern day "raves", or Pentecostal worship services. Outbreaks of dancing have occurred regularly in Christian charismatic worship services, but rarely lasting more than a few minutes rather than the several weeks in 16th century Strasbourg.
The author has gone to considerable lengths in this book to get inside the mediaeval mindset and as I read it I was reminded how very different the beliefs and culture of that age were from our own. I found this to be an interesting and enjoyable read which is not merely of historical interest but also helps to explain some modern-day psychological phenomena.