Friday, 6 January 2017

Non-Fiction Review: A Time to Dance, A Time to Die by John Waller

I picked up A Time to Dance, A Time to Die because I briefly studied the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 at university as a supposed example of emotional contagion, and, when I flicked through it in the shop, I saw that Waller also favoured psychological explanations. 

His thesis is that the plague was a form of psychological mass hysteria stemming from the supernaturalism, helplessness and despair of late Middle-Age Strasbourg and its surroundings. Although it takes a while to establish convincingly, it ends up being a surprisingly compelling theory, especially since Waller links the 1518 epidemic to other similar dancing plagues that occurred elsewhere in Europe in the preceding centuries. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this means that the book's real strength is placing the plague within its social context: the poverty and hardship suffered by the third estate, the corruption and excess of the medieval Church and bourgeoisie, and the way this conflict manifested itself in not just the dancing plague, but anti-clericalism, the Bundschuch Movement and, a few years later, Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. 

However, the focus on social factors meant that, for me, the exploration of the zeitgeist was more absorbing than some of the analysis of the plague itself, which could be a bit repetitive, and also seemed facile in some places and unnecessarily deep in others. 

The last chapter is where Waller really clinches his argument about the suggestibility and power of the subconscious mind, and the way that it can express psychological distress in pre-progammed ways specific to a society, its belief system, norms and stigmas. He draws in a wide ranges of other incidences as examples, such as the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, shell shock and tarantism, and explores the science behind these somatic expressions of pyschological distress. Although it makes sense for this to be the concluding chapter, in some ways I wish the discussion of neurosicence had come earlier, because it was essential to the whole thesis, and it is this context that makes the thesis so plausible. 

Overall, this was a solid exploration of the Dancing Plague, which was very impressive when it came to explaining the social unrest of early 16th century Strasbourg. However, one thing that did annoy me was the lack of footnotes, made worse by the fact that the notes are acutally in the back of the book, just not referenced to anything in particular. Maybe it's because it's meant to be a popular history and so the publisher didn't want to make it seem intimidatingly academic, but there is nothing pretensious about making sure that people can access information easily. 

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