The Dancing Plague of 1518


John Waller. The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness. Sourcebooks, 2009 (paperback). Previously published as A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 (Icon books, hardback, 2008).

Topic: Dancing Mania, choreomania

Time and Place: Strasbourg, Holy Roman Empire, 1518

Audience: General

Discussion:

This was a good book to wrap up 2011 with – from the Arab Spring, to summer revolutions and the fall’s occupy movement – conditions are approaching those of 1518. Among the peasants of Strasbourg, life in the early 16th century had become miserable. The church and monasteries left the peasants spiritually desolate and literally starving while their tithes of grain were sold at prices they couldn’t afford. Poor harvests and high inflation made famine a real possibility. There were several peasant revolts leading up to 1518 that were brutally put down with public executions and massacres. Ancient ties between the nobility, church and common people had broken down such that secular and ecclesiastic office holders no longer seemed to care for the welfare of the common people.

In July 1518 Frau Toffea was outdoors in the street of Strasbourg when she began to dance. There was no music or joy in her dancing. The spectacle soon became horrifying as it became apparent that she could not stop. Eventually she collapsed from the heat and exhaustion. When she woke up, she began to dance again in the same frenzy. Soon other people in Strasbourg began their trance-like dancing ignoring the heat and the need for food and water. When they were able to speak, they begged bystanders to make them stop. Before long in the July heat, people began dropping not to get up again – did they dance to an exhausted death or was there a pathological cause?

The people of Strasbourg didn’t see this as a psychological disorder but either physical or spiritual. At first they turned to the newly respected, university trained physicians who strangely proscribed more dancing as a cure. They assigned people to make sure the afflicted kept dancing even when they were capable of stopping. It became very apparent that this was not helping the death rate. Before long physicians and townspeople agreed that this was a spiritual ailment that required a pilgrimage to the local shrine of St Vitas. Fascinatingly the people believed that a saint patronized by epileptics could/would also curse people to uncontrolled movements like the dancing if they were displeased. Throughout this region of Germany and the Netherlands there are shrines to Vitas and other saints to prevent epilepsy and the dancing plague. Late medieval people greatly feared epilepsy and similar disorders because it could be perceived as demonic possession or a curse (by victim as well as bystander). Waller argues that this was something like a case of spiritual post traumatic stress disorder. His argument is too complicated for me to explain here but it is a worthwhile and thought provoking discussion.

Narrative: B+ The narrative was well written and kept me eager to continue reading. This is no small feat without a central cast of characters to follow through the book. He tries to use Frau Troffea as a continuing theme but just doesn’t have enough information to really flesh out her life.  There were places that I wished for more scientific context. I wish he had not saved so much of the science for the last chapter.

Historical Content: A- This is not a time period that I am very familiar so it is hard to assess how well he covered the historical questions. While he discussed actions of the church, he apparently didn’t have sources from within the church. This seems strange as the church usually has better resources than secular courts. The discussion of the religious context was good and mostly from the lay viewpoint.

Scientific Content: B-/C+ He seems to be reaching too far in some of the psychological parallels he tries to draw to the choreomania (dancing plague). Practices that intentionally create trances or mystical dancing are not good matches to the unintentional and unwanted dancing in 1518. The contagious nature of the dancing of 1518 is based at least partially upon the fear of the mania. Waller describes all mystical experiences in terms of pathology, which seems unwarranted. His brief discussion of an outbreak of uncontrollable laughing in Tanzania in 1963 left me wanting to know more (p. 216). A recent Ugandan outbreak of “nodding syndrome” where youths display uncontrollable nodding when they try to eat has been associated with a parasite that causes river blindness. In all three outbreaks, these may be related to epileptic-like behavior. My point here is that we can’t jump to the conclusion that initial cases are all psychological, even if some of the contagious nature does seem psychological (people being effected by watching etc).

I also have to take issue with a reviewers quote the publisher put on the back of the book. A quote from New Scientist stated “It’s a book to make you grateful for the historical increase in human sanity.” Part of the author’s argument is that manifestations of stress and PTSD are culturally dependent and that we express stress differently today. When we consider how many people today take medication for anxiety/stress, depression, PTSD or other psychological conditions it is questionable if there has been a “historical increase in human sanity” – not that manifestations of stress are necessarily measures of sanity anyway.

References and Usability: B The bibliography and notes are integrated together. This makes the bibliography much more difficult to use. The notes are consecutively numbered for the entire book and were a little sparse.  There are 238 notes for 231 pages of text. There were plenty of places I would have liked to have seen that he had a reference for a fact.

Illustrations:  B The maps and illustrations included were okay. It could have used a map of the local Strasbourg area that included the shrine of St Vitas.

Overall, I did enjoy the book and it is a very interesting episode in medical history. Community reaction to the outbreak is as interesting and influential as the disorder itself.  The power of the brain is almost always underestimated. Even if it wasn’t completely psychological, it manifested in ways that were surely under the control of the brain.

A tangent:  one of my favorite quotes from Waller’s book is not on the dancing mania at all. “Syphilis was the flagellum Dei, God’s whip, a stark warning about the sinfulness of adultery and fornication.” If it was the flagellum Dei before the invention of the microscope, imagine how they would have reacted to seeing a spirochete!