Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Time to Dance, A Time to Die

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So begins L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, with a first line that is both punchy and true. Historians always have to accept that we can never see the world through the eyes of the characters we study. But sometimes we do feel we can come close. I enjoy the connection I can feel with someone who lived five hundred years ago by reading their letters or just enjoying the doodles they’ve drawn in the margin of their books.

Every so often, though, things happened which were just so weird that it is extremely hard to make sense of them. One such occasion was the dancing plague that struck Strasbourg in 1518 and forms the subject of John Waller’s new book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die. The plague affected dozens if not hundreds of people, several of whom died as a result. The idea that people could dance themselves to death seems shocking and it is a relief to find that the people of Strasbourg were no less horrified than we would be.

Waller’s first task is to convince us that the dancing plague actually happened. He convincingly achieves this by lining up the sources and also showing that similar events had occasionally occurred over the previous three hundred years. His other task – to explain the plague – is far more difficult. He attributes it to extreme spiritual anxiety brought about by a series of disasters that afflicted the Strasbourg poor. While the sources rarely concern themselves with the common people, Waller is able to tease out a picture of their life from information on grain prices, chronicles of popular revolts and the sermons by the city’s preachers. He leaves us in no doubt that existence for the poor was always precarious and frequently became dire. Their material wants were exacerbated by the common belief that the disasters that befell the faithful were evidence that God had turned his back on them. It is easy to see how the radical theology of Martin Luther found so many ready listeners even if Strasbourg itself remained essentially Catholic through the Reformation.

Perhaps less convincing is the last chapter where Waller ventures into psychology. While he effectively debunks earlier the attempts to explain the dancing plague and similar phenomena, psychology itself is not yet able to provide the explanation that he seeks. Furthermore, at a distance of five hundred years, we do not have sufficient facts to make an accurate medical diagnosis of the victims of the dancing plague.

Overall, this book helped me understand the lot of the common people just before the Reformation. For historians like me who concentrate on high literary and scientific culture, this is a powerful and necessary corrective. I'd recommend it for anyone interested in the Reformation or religious practice in general. It also has the virtue of being a quick read.

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