In 1518 in Strasbourg a peculiar plague broke out. Suddenly members of the public were dancing for days and couldn’t stop. In fact, as John Waller says in his fascinating history A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, this was not the first time that this happened in Europe and nor was it the last.
The author takes these reports seriously and makes the assumption that those who recorded their impressions were reporting accurately, as far as they knew. What then could have been the cause of this phenomenon ? What did it mean ? He looks at these events but also at European history at the time to try and get to the bottom of the cause of the “plague”. He also looks at contemporary responses to what happened and what that also reveals about society at the time.
I thought that this was an interesting subject. I knew nothing much about the events before I started reading but I found the author’s analysis convincing. I also think that it explains other mass events which can sometimes be seen as hysterical such as the witch trials in Salem or some of the events in evangelical churches in the last century. It was also interesting to see how the author examined other theories that have been put forward over the years and where he found their weaknesses to be.
This is not a very long book but it is an interesting one. It doesn’t just dwell on these particular instances but looks at the social and political history of the time in Europe and puts events in context. Well worth a read.