Book Review: A Time to Dance A Time to Die

A Time to Dance A Time to Die
Waller, John
Icon Books, 2009

Opening with a story more akin to a novel than a non-fiction work, this book quickly changes track into a serious yet very readable analysis of the dancing plague which hit Strasbourg in 1518. The author attempts to guide the reader to understand the plague, during which hundreds of people, if not more, spontaneously began to dance for days on end resulting in many deaths, by putting it within the social, political, religious, and economic framework of the time. In addition, he uses contemporary chronicles, as well as accounts of similar occurrences in the general timeframe in the wider area, to aid in understanding how the event was interpreted by those present at the time.

The issue begins to take shape as the reader is led through a landscape where secular and ecclesiastical leaders are vying for power; there is public outcry over the “unholy” behavior of the clergy, famine and price-gouging have reduced much of the population to poverty, warfare and crime are rampant, and those inclined to find evidence of heavenly displeasure see signs all around them. In a society where people believed strongly in battles between heaven and hell being waged on earth, and where saints could both bless and curse individuals, the cultural conditions were in place for a single odd occurrence to spread across the area.

The understanding of this occurrence from a modern perspective comes down quite simply to mass hysteria. An individual, likely at the point of a nervous breakdown and who for whatever combination of factors (many are given in the book) entered a state of trance and began to dance in the street, was the catalyst for hundreds of others to start doing so over a period of weeks. As the city leaders tried to diminish the impact by bringing all those afflicted into common locations, and encouraging them to “dance it out of their system” they unwittingly made the situation worse by reinforcing the elements stimulating the trance state, and only by eventually carting the lot of them off to a remote chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, who many believed had cursed those dancing as a punishment, was calm (somewhat) restored and the “epidemic” passed.

Adding to this basic treatment of the plague, the author expands the scope to briefly touch on factors common to it as well as other similar outbreaks of seemingly odd behavior in many other times, places, and cultures. Each culture has it’s own accepted forms of altered states with it’s own conventions based on past and present factors, and to those brought up in those cultures entering an altered state of trance leads to unconsciously adopting those forms and reinforcing them upon the others in that culture.

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