A time to Dance, a Time to Die

A painstaking reconstruction of the early modern mindset, Nick Rennison is enthralled by this exploration of why people literally danced themselves to death

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Reviewed by: Nick Rennison
Author: John Waller
Publisher: Icon Books
Price (RRP): £8.99 (paperback)

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On 14 July 1518, Frau Troffea stepped out of her husband’s house in the back streets of Strasbourg and began to dance. She danced for days, stopping only when she collapsed from exhaustion, until her shoes were soaked in blood and the sweat was pouring from her. Soon she was joined by others and, by the beginning of August, hundreds were dancing, seldom pausing to eat, drink or rest. Some danced until they dropped dead.

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The dancing plague that afflicted Strasbourg in the summer of 1518 is at the heart of John Waller’s fascinating book. He finds plausible explanations for the weird ‘choreomania’ in the conjunction of social misery, hysteria and religious convictions and, in doing so, conjures up a vanished world of arcane rituals, beliefs and fears. Reading Waller’s book is like staring at a Brueghel painting of peasant life and watching it come suddenly and unexpectedly to life.