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The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness Paperback – September 1, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From 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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"An original, curious subject rendered in readable prose." - Kirkus
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1402219431
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402219436
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,088,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Laura on June 30, 2010
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book just from an interest in medieval history and the bizarre. This satisfied my need for a great history read, interwoven with some very even-handed sociological analysis and comparisons to what may have caused the outbreak of "dancing to one's death" that occurred in Strasbourg, Germany, in 1518.

Waller has written more than one book on this topic, though this is the first I've read. I thought it was an "easy to read," especially since it was written in a style that doesn't make it plodding. This is one of the frequent stumbling blocks in scholarly history works. I definitely buy into Mr. Waller's suggestions as to what may have caused the outbreak; there is no way for us at this point in time to know what exactly happened during those few months, but I do think that Waller's argument is very strong for a definitive solution to that question. Engaging, interesting, and multidimensional, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in medieval history, social history, or an interest in the bizarre.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By James A. White on February 2, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
John Waller is a great storyteller, and he certainly makes history interesting and scientific history, in particular, accessible. This excellent little account of a forgotten dancing epidemic in 1518 Strasbourg is well-written, informative, and interpretive of the history. As a previous reviewer noted, it's an excellent synthesis of fact, interpretation, and myth. Waller evokes the hardships, struggles, and ever-present religious atmosphere of late medieval Europe to develop his theory about the causes of the illness that plagued thousands of people in a few separate epidemics during the Middle Ages. The story is very well-told and supplied with plenty of facts and good research. Though it's meant to be a "lay" book, and it's certainly very readable and should be of interest to a wide audience, the only reason I gave it four stars instead of five was, in my opinion, the somewhat spotty footnotes. Waller certainly cites many of his sources, but at times, I found myself wondering where he got his information. The only other detraction from the book is the final chapter, in which Waller delves into more modern interpretations of trance. Waller is a scientific historian and not an anthropologist or a psychologist; thus, I felt this section of the book was weaker than the others, if still interesting.

Bottom line: A good interpretation of a fascinating, little-known history, fleshed out with facts. Although more citations and a reworking of the last chapter would make it even better, these points should not deter you from picking up a copy of this book and enjoying it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. O. on May 24, 2011
Format: Paperback
I feel like the author did his absolute best with what little documentation he had available to him. Some parts he went narrative to fill in the gaps it felt like... but still it's an interesting read with all the fact and research available today for such a strange event in medieval history.

I just wish he touched on all of the accounts, especially since he claims there were happenings after the year he chose to investigate.

Also, the connection to the events with the early versions of "The Red Shoes" fairy tale is very interesting, I wish he devoted a chapter to that... I guess that is a whole other book, though.

If you want a curious, diverting read when you are in transit, I'd recommend this. It's not too hard to get through and keeps you interested.
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