Jun 19, 2010

The Dancing Plague

by John Waller

After just finishing Awakenings, it sparked in my mind that I had another book on the shelf about a similar subject. Another account of people driven to move their bodies uncontrollably. In this case, it was dancing. In medieval times. During the 1500's a plague struck several hundred people that caused them to involuntarily dance for days on end- until their feet were bloody and they collapsed. Onlookers were stricken with the same impulse to madly dance. Some even died from dancing in the summer heat with no rest and little food or water. It all sounds very bizarre, but having just read about some very strange human behavior caused by disease in the brain, I was ready to find a reason. I was ready for the author to unravel some clue that pointed to an infection, incomprehensible to the medieval mind but understandable to us today. That's not quite what I got.

Waller thought that the crazed dancing was caused by a psychological condition, a mass hysteria that was somehow contagious. To support this, he builds up a very careful picture of what life was like in the 1500's and how desperate the common people would have been. After years of bad harvests and near-starvation their minds and bodies were weakened, with no hope of succor from the city leadership or the church (who only squeezed them tighter by engaging in usury). Having religious and superstitious beliefs that filled them with terror, the people's minds literally broke and they fell into inescapable trances of dancing. I was pretty skeptical all the way through, until I got to a part near the end that described something very similar happening among some native peoples of Madagascar in 1863. To further solidify his hypothesis, the author then describes other psychological tricks the mind is capable of, even in modern times (phantom pains, hypnosis, etc). It was all very puzzling, really. I don't know what to think.  I still believe it must have been some kind of infection that reached the brain, but there's no way to know.

Well, if anything, the book gives a fascinating picture of what life was like in 1518 (sure glad I didn't live back then!) and made clear to me the impact of Martin Luther's new ideas. I remember learning about him in school but I had no idea how horribly oppressive the church had been, and how groundbreaking Luther's stance. I got this book from C.B. James, who also felt pretty skeptical about its ideas. I'm happy to pass it on to another reader- if you'd like to have this copy, just tell me in the comments and I'll pick (randomly) a name next week.

Note: this book has also been published with the title A Time to Dance, A Time to Die.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 278 pages, 2009

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  1. I'm glad I didn't live back then either! The book does sound fascinating.

  2. No need to enter me - but this seems, if possible, even crazier than the sleeping sickness. The brain is so weird and complicated and fascinating. One of these days I'm going to research it properly and learn what all the parts are for.

  3. I wonder if it wasn't a combination of both. Some where infected and some were so afraid they'd get it that they did. Sounds pretty horrible either way.

  4. The title you read is better than the alternate title. A Time to Dance, A Time to Die sounds like a crime novel.

  5. Bermudaonion- it was so interesting.

    Jenny- Every book I read about how the brain works or what it does is just fascinating. Although a lot of it goes over my head!

    BlackSheep- I did wonder that, too. It certainly seemed like some of it could have been hysteria- there were even some people who faked it because priests would feed some of the dancers (albeit very little, but it was better than the nothing they had!)

    Bybee- I didn't think of that, but you're right, the other title doesn't quite fit!

  6. This one sounds very interesting. I'm not sure it's going to be one for me though.

  7. Gee, I'm late commenting on this...

    Sounds like you enjoyed the read, and I'm glad to see another skeptical reader. I should be more skeptical on a regular basis.

    It was certainly an interesting piece of history, whatever was really going on.


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