Dancing Plague: The Strange True Story of an Extraordinary Illness

Dancing Plague: The Strange True Story of an Extraordinary Illness

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by John Waller

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A gripping tale of one of history's most bizarre events, and what it reveals about the strange possibilities of human natureSee more details below


A gripping tale of one of history's most bizarre events, and what it reveals about the strange possibilities of human nature

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An original, curious subject rendered in readable prose." - Kirkus
Publishers Weekly

In Strasbourg in 1518, a dance craze began that, far from being a mere fashion, was a form of hysteria in which people literally danced themselves to death. The plague began on July 14, 1518, when Frau Troffea stepped into the streets of Strasbourg and danced madly for hours despite extreme exhaustion and swollen, bleeding feet. In the end, over 100 people died of what came to be known as St. Vitus's dance. What caused this "dancing plague"? In his sometimes compelling and often superficial tale, Michigan State medical historian Waller draws on fresh historical evidence to recreate a society stricken by famine, in which illness was seen as a punishment from God, and laypeople resented the corruption of priests and nobles. These factors resulted in hysteria that contributed to the dance plague, and Waller concludes that the dancers entered a deep trance that enabled them to dance through their exhaustion. But compared with other historical examinations of mass hysteria, Waller's analysis lacks breadth and depth-a shame, given the fascinating material he has to work with. (Sept.)

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Library Journal
In the blistering hot summer sun of July 1518, a Strasbourg housewife stepped out of her house and began to dance. She danced until she collapsed in her tracks. When she awoke, she started again. She danced until her feet were bloody and still she danced, begging her neighbors to make her stop. Others joined in: over the next two months, 200 to 400 people succumbed to the dancing malady; 15 died of it. Then the dancing epidemic ended, never to occur again. (There were earlier instances of choreomania, but none after.) Waller (history of medicine, Michigan State Univ.: Einstein's Luck), ably explicates this odd phenomenon and its end. He writes a vigorous and engaging prose and tells an absolutely fascinating story; he is scrupulous in his use of sources and generous in recognizing scholarly work in the field. One earlier explanation of the "dancing plague" invoked ergotism, an alkaloid poisoning caused by a fungus that infects wheat, and causes loss of body control and delusions. Waller argues that a more appropriate diagnosis is trance behavior, triggered by common psychic distress. VERDICT In the absence of detailed evidence, the author must rely on the occasional "perhaps," "maybe," and "could be," but this is thoroughly responsible historical writing and Waller has made sense of one of the more exotic incidents in the history of medicine. Enthusiastically recommended for students and general readers.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A layman's-terms explanation of the mysterious outbreak of a hysterical dance that seized people in the Middle Ages. Synthesizing a great deal of scholarly material-mostly in German and Latin-on the dancing malady that broke out along the Rhine during times of great social and economic stress, Waller (History of Medicine/Michigan State Univ.; The Real Oliver Twist, 2005, etc.) covers the academic subject matter in lively, simplified language. The author concentrates in particular on the dancing frenzy that swept through Strasbourg in the summer of 1518, eventually claiming hundreds of lives. The outbreak was the culmination of enormous upheaval in Europe on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, and Waller carefully reconstructs the desperate social milieu of the era. Poor harvests triggered famine; devastating diseases such as syphilis and small pox were perceived as evidence of God's wrath; excesses by the clergy had engendered a simmering peasant rebellion; and a deeply ingrained, vicious misogyny provoked hysterical symptoms in women. Frau Troffea, the first "choreomaniac," began to dance on July 14, 1518. She couldn't stop and soon others had caught on, descending into a kind of trance. The dancing was contagious and uncontrollable, rather than joyful, and Waller attributes it to a flight from extreme psychological distress. Martin Luther's subsequent push for reformation of the Church helped alleviate the peoples' "spiritual despair," and the dancing madness did not reoccur in the same form-though Waller helpfully traces trancelike spiritual outpourings in later forms, such as among the Quakers, Shakers and even participants in the modern rave scene. An original, curious subjectrendered in readable prose.

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New Edition
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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