A layman’s-terms explanation of the mysterious outbreak of a hysterical dance that seized people in the Middle Ages.
Synthesizing a great deal of scholarly material—mostly in German and Latin—on the dancing malady that broke out along the Rhine during times of great social and economic stress, Waller (History of Medicine/Michigan State Univ.; The Real Oliver Twist, 2005, etc.) covers the academic subject matter in lively, simplified language. The author concentrates in particular on the dancing frenzy that swept through Strasbourg in the summer of 1518, eventually claiming hundreds of lives. The outbreak was the culmination of enormous upheaval in Europe on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, and Waller carefully reconstructs the desperate social milieu of the era. Poor harvests triggered famine; devastating diseases such as syphilis and small pox were perceived as evidence of God’s wrath; excesses by the clergy had engendered a simmering peasant rebellion; and a deeply ingrained, vicious misogyny provoked hysterical symptoms in women. Frau Troffea, the first “choreomaniac,” began to dance on July 14, 1518. She couldn’t stop and soon others had caught on, descending into a kind of trance. The dancing was contagious and uncontrollable, rather than joyful, and Waller attributes it to a flight from extreme psychological distress. Martin Luther’s subsequent push for reformation of the Church helped alleviate the peoples’ “spiritual despair,” and the dancing madness did not reoccur in the same form—though Waller helpfully traces trancelike spiritual outpourings in later forms, such as among the Quakers, Shakers and even participants in the modern rave scene.
An original, curious subject rendered in readable prose.