I found The Dancing Plague hard to believe on two levels.

First, I just find it hard to believe. In July of 1518, after several years of crop failure and hard times, a plague of uncontrolled dancing broke out in the city of Strasbourg. Eventually, over 400 people fell victim to an inexplicable and uncontrollable urge to dance that lasted for days resulting in bruised, bloody and broken feet and several deaths. The townspeople tried everything they could to stop the dancing. At one point they decided the dancers would simply have to continue until they were exhausted. So they herded them into a large hall and provided musicians to speed up the dancing in the hopes of ending the plague sooner. The victims came to believe that they were cursed by St. Vitus, known for healing those he favored and cursing those he did not. To remove the curse the dancers were packed into carts and taken to a hillside cave/shrine where priests performed a sort of exorcism on them. This worked. Many of the dancers were cured. Others gave up dancing after six or seven days. A few died.

I find that hard to believe.

To date, no one has discovered a scientific medical explanation for the dancing plague, which occurred several times throughout the Medieval period in Europe. (The dancing plague is not the same as St. Vitus’ dance, a disease characterized by spasms of uncontrolled twitching. The dancing plague, as described by those who witnessed it, was characterized by actual dancing.) Mr. Waller proposes that the victims of the 1518 outbreak were subject to a kind of psychic contamination. What began as a response to the extreme conditions of the time, spread from person to person, then from town to town. Frau Troffea, faced with years of a near starvation diet exacerbated by a clergy more concerned with making itself rich through the sale of indulgences than with caring for its flock and by her position as a woman in a society that viewed women as the meer property of their husbands responded to her condition by dancing herself into a trance like state she could not escape from. Others saw her and found themselves joining in.

I find this hard to believe, too. I want a more scientific explanation, but to date, none has been found, nor does John Waller propose one.

He does present a highly readable account of the 1518 outbreak of the dancing plague along with a fascinating look at the social conditions that he believes led to it. This is Europe just before the Reformation, and Mr. Waller’s account of the clergy helps place the desire for reform into perspective. The very organization that should have helped the poor during times of need had become so corrupt by the beginning of the 16th century that their monetary policies served to make the situation worse. The lower classes, already suffering from several years of crop failure and the low-level starvation it produced, were faced with a clergy more concerned with lining their own pockets than with the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. Mr. Waller presents The Dancing Plague as an organic response to very troubled times.

There is not much hard evidence to support this theory, but there’s very little to contradict it either. While I still find the whole thing hard to believe, I must admit that 1518 was still the age of faith, an age that produced the Children’s Crusade and Jean d’Arc, an age that believed in the power of saints, witches, and the stars equally. An age that could produce large numbers of itinerant flagellants, beating themselves until they bled as a means of ending one plague could probably produce a plague of uncontrolled dancing.

Maybe I should keep an open mind. But 400 people dancing in the streets until their feet begin to bleed…… I don’t know.

 

In the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I’d forgotten my general objections to this book but remembered how much I enjoyed reading it.  While it is a story that should be viewed with skepticism, what story isn’t these days, it’s an entertaining tale.  I recommend it highly.

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