A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518

September 17, 2009

Author: John Waller

Edition: First

Publisher: Icon Books

Pages: 2

Price: £8.99

ISBN: 9781848310537

In July 1518, a bizarre "dancing plague" struck the city of Strasbourg. People cavorted wildly in the streets, many dropping dead from exhaustion, until those who survived were healed by a pilgrimage. John Waller suggests that the severe social problems of the time prompted the escape into a self-induced trance, and puts this in the context of modern medical opinion. He is right to argue that "when we lose control, we often do so in culturally prescribed ways", and that these events reflected beliefs about the supernatural. Unfortunately, his appreciation of those beliefs is simplistic; religion is portrayed unsympathetically; he also buys into a hackneyed view of the Reformation and the scientific revolution as forces of rationality. A commendable attempt to marry history and science, but in trying to make it a popular read, historical objectivity and subtlety are lost.

Who is it for? Anyone interested in early modern cultural history or the history of medicine.

Presentation: Chatty, opinionated, entertaining, full of lurid descriptions.

Would you recommend it? Social history meets medical history; the encounter between the two is interesting but the conclusions are unconvincing and the historical context is crudely drawn.

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