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Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  660 ratings  ·  102 reviews
The true story of a wild dancing epidemic that brought death and fear to a 16th-century city, and the terrifying supernatural beliefs from which it arose. In July 1518 a terrifying and mysterious plague struck the medieval city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of men and women danced wildly, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. They did not want to dance, but could not stop ...more
Hardcover, 267 pages
Published January 1st 2009 by Icon Books Company (first published January 1st 2008)
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Average rating 3.42  · 
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Start your review of Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518
Feb 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: pub-2008
John Waller wrote a book about the dancing plague of 1518. If you are like me and the majority of people, you have not heard of the dancing plague of 1518 but as soon as you read on the back cover that in 1518 in Strasbourg dozens of people danced themselves to death you immediately want to know 'what the hell!'.

That's what Waller's book selling point is - he will tell you what the hell. But first he will tell you all the other theories that were used to explain the phenomenon. Initially, of cou
Roxana Chirilă
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In Strasbourg, July 1518, a lone woman started dancing and could not stop. She eventually collapsed from exhaustion, then woke up and started dancing again, and the cycle continued until her feet were bloodied and those around her sent her off to the shrine of St. Vitus some way away, in the hopes of a miraculous cure.

(This is truth, by the way. Not fiction. This is a popular history book, not one of the fantasy novels I keep reading.)

Soon enough, dozens of other people had started dancing uncon
Jul 04, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
At first I was very enthused about this book, however the more I read, the more I grew irritated and lukewarm to both the author and the book.

My most hated thing is unnecessary repetitions and this occurs often in this book. It insults my intelligence to keep finding the same reworded paragraph reinserted all over the book. Plus it gives the whole thing a "padded" feel which was on my mind frequently the more I got into this book. The font is big and the pages themselves are rather small, so wi
Diane S ☔
An interesting look at the year 1518, the year a woman began to dance and didn't stop for days. Others joined her and soon many many people were overtaken by this strange plague.

A look back at the ever present threat of starvation due to famine, the corruption of the church who instead of helping their people, took from them. The fire and brimstone preached, the harshness of God and the belief that God was unhappy with them. The darkness of the end of the middle ages, the superstitions ever pre
Josephine (Jo)
I started reading this book with enthusiasm, interested to find out the cause for the strange ‘Dancing Plague’ that erupted in 1518 in Strasbourg. Men and women started to dance for no known reason and some of them literally danced themselves to death!
I was really intrigued to read the cause of this illness but I was disappointed with the conclusions of the author. He gives a variety of ‘possible’ causes but it seems that there was too little information recorded at the time for us to actually
Feb 21, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Repetitious, mediocre writing overall. Despite my sympathy to Waller's hypothesis--that the dancing plagues were psychological phenomena--he fails to convince, and grates with a somewhat lopsided view of the state of the Medieval/Reformation-era church.
I wish there was a slightly more in depth recount of such an interesting historical event. This one was a bit repetitive and sometimes superficial.
Jo Walton
A relatively superficial treatment of a bizarre phenomenon. There's not much more information here than on the Wikipedia page on the subject.

There's not much point writing a review. Either you've suddenly become obsessed with the dancing plague, in which case you're going to read it whatever I say, or you haven't, in which case don't bother.

I'd like a really good modern book on fashionable insanities -- the dancing plague, and the one after WWI where people travelled with amnesia and so on. The
Aj Sterkel
Nov 09, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This book explores a fascinating topic: Several times throughout history, large numbers of people have danced uncontrollably for days. Most of them didn’t want to dance, but they couldn’t stop. Some of them danced until they dropped dead from (probably) dehydration and heat stroke.

The author argues that the “dancing plagues” were responses to stress and cultural expectations. Basically, the deadly group dances were mass hysteria. One woman believed she’d been forced to dance by vengeful Saint Vi
Kathryn Bergeron
Summary: There was a plague in 1518, people danced (how many - who knows?) and people died (how many - somewhere between 10 and 100). It's the fault of the Catholic Church and their crazy superstitions and how they overly oppressed the people on 16th century Germany. Take that Catholic Church!

Review: This book was about a half-step from incredibly moronic. And since I barely use my two-star rating, I decided to give it that half-step in terms of two stars. First of all, when this plague occurred
Jan 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: own, non-fiction, history, 2017
A very quick read, interesting but not as engaging as I would like. There's a lack of historical sources for this event (though far more records exist that talk about this particular dancing plague than the others that occurred over several countries and hundreds of years), and I believe the author was trying very hard to keep everything as factual as possible. So the book felt a bit dry and academic at times. I think I would enjoy a well written historical fiction novel about these events, espe ...more
Oct 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book did a great job of exploring the cultural niche that existed and caused a plague of dancing. The author follows both the historical context of religious and political corruption, the psychological factors involved in a dancing hysteria, the aftermath of such an event, as well as modern understanding and examples of anxiety-induced episodes: “choreomania offers us an object lesson in how cultural conventions can determine the manner in which pathological anxiety is expressed. Just as im ...more
Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This book has some interesting aspects. The general idea is that the dancing "plagues" of history are due to psychological conditions, not medical. If people believe in something strongly enough, they do weird things. In these cases, the belief that God has forsaken people and his wrath is upon them, coupled with hard economic situations and perhaps difficult political times, puts the people in a psychological situation in which they can slip into trances that make them dance.
The book then goes
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
Factoids and the author's own burning issues, opinion and conjecture masquerading as scholarship, repetitive writing, and--oh, yeah--blame it all on "hysteria". Caused of course by the people's silly, backward belief in religion. No hidden agendas here--they're right out there in plain sight.

God virus, anyone?

A fascinating idea, and a well researched book (and, oddly, the edition I found is titled simply "The Dancing Plague" - an earlier edition, perhaps?). Unfortunately, the writing is stiff and incredibly repetitive. Reads more like a thesis paper than a narrative. If the information were organized and presented better, it would be hard to put down. Alas, I actually skipped over sections out of frustration. Personally, I found the final chapter (on the psychiatric aspects of the plague) the most in ...more
Dani St Clair
Originally reviewed at Romancing the Social Sciences

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 surr
Kathleen Dixon
Jan 05, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Apparently 1518 was the last time there was an epidemic like this, but it had happened a number of other times in the Middle Ages. What this book does is go through the social background in order to give an explanation for them, and most especially for this (worst) dancing plague in Strasbourg. Basically, it's all caught up with extreme poverty due to several years' failed crops, corruption in the clergy (excessive wealth, sexual shenanigans) which caused the populace to be sure that the clergy ...more
Jul 10, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Two thoughts recurred throughout reading this book: how symbolically and practically applicable the events of 1518 still are today, and this:

And you can dance for inspiration
Come on I'm waiting

Get into the groove
Boy you've got to prove
Your love to me
Get up on your feet
Step to the beat
Boy what will it be

Music can be such a revelation
Dancing around you feel the sweet sensation
We might be lovers if the rhythm's right
I hope this feeling never ends tonight

Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free
This is one of those books that reminds me why I love history.

In the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg (modern day France) 2-400 people danced uncontrollably for days on end. No kidding. Some even danced until they died of exhaustion. For the first half of the book I had a hard time believing Mr Waller wasn't jerking me around.

Mr Waller spends a few chapters establishing the world and worldview that people of 16th century Strasbourg lived in and uses that to argue that the dancers were actually in a
Jerry Smith
Sep 18, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009-read, history
Easy to read, relatively short book that probably goes into a category of: "Who knew?" Story of a strange affliction that affected hundreds in middle ages Europe. Doesn't really come to any conclusion because there really isn't one but the suggested reasons for the so called plague hold water.

Very interesting is the setting i.e. the historical context and how the reverence for the priesthood was beginning to come apart with their corrupt approach to religion. Generally, obviously, not a happy t
May 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: revue
The proposed cause of the Dancing Plague is speculative and interesting...but I didn't want it to be THAT! (view spoiler)

The historical background of this book is really the worthy content. Serfdom is a bitch and boy it sure seems as if Robin Hood ought to be real!!!
Margaret Sankey
1518 was a very bad year, with famine and religious insecurities stoked by the nascent Reformation. Across Germany, peasants began a deadly, frantic and seemingly involuntary public dance--was it ergot? penitential religious mania? demonic possession? With insights from modern biochemistry and psychology, Waller attempts to unravel this Early Modern ""dance of death."
Feb 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A really interesting look into an incredibly weird incident. The dancing mania has occurred a few times throughout history and this is an account of the incident in Strasbourg. The writer uses as many sources as possible and then goes into interesting detail as to what he thinks caused it (Trance states)
Very engaging and certainly informative.
Aug 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a good intro to psychopathology manifest in pandemic proportions. I was kinda sorta hoping that there would be more science and less history - a solid 80% was spent on the religious indoctrination of medieval Europe. Otherwise the last chapter really had me going and exquisitely surmised the ethnomedical phenomenon of Rock_Your_Body-Justin_Timberlake.mp3.
Nov 29, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
the subject matter is actually quite interesting but the primary sources are rather thin and the author's description of events can verge on speculation. his explanation of the phenomenon is fairly convincing, with a solid final chapter. my main complaint is that this is essentially a lengthy journal article that got stretched out to become a book, which it didn't need to be.
Jun 16, 2018 rated it liked it
I always believe that we need to learn our history in order to learn about our current world better. This book explores the 1518 Dancing Plague from a social perspective. The author clearly mentioned that several theses tried to explain the Plague from different angles, and he tried to approach it from the social context.

Waller's thesis is quite convincing, that the plaque caused by hysteria from psychological stress and supernaturalism. I do believe that the same hysteria still occurs today on
Lee Matibe
Sep 09, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The subject matter was interesting but I feel like you could have cut the book down by 100 pages and lost nothing.

I had never heard of the dancing plague so this was an intriguing subject but I feel like the author felt the need to pad this out to be accepted as a full length book instead of a short section in another collection.

There were many times I thought he was finally going to explain what actually caused the disease, only for him to repeat himself on how the locals were sure that this
Andrew Lind
Sep 18, 2019 rated it liked it
A fascinating telling of one of the lesser-known, yet most bizarre events in human history. This dancing plague happened one year after The Protestant Reformation started. More than fifty people danced until they died.

The positives of the book are that it tells stories of the real-life people who were the unfortunate victims of dancing themselves to death as well as how the dancing plague started.

The negatives of the book are that the author spends A LOT of time telling the reader exactly how c
Aug 16, 2018 rated it liked it
The author puts things into context and shows the more primitive side of the Renaissance. I also enjoyed the occasional bits of knowledge, such as the origins of the Italian tarantella. However, the final chapter gets kinda technical and, although it still contains some good information, breaks with the pace and and approach established since the beginning of the book. Of course, this part is required for a full explanation of the author's theory, but it took some getting used to.
May 16, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Back in the fall of 2000 at a cross-country practice, one of my teammates just fell over mid-run. He lay there a while and when we got concerned and circled back to check on him all I can remember is his hysterical face and how he kept loudly claiming, "My legs just stopped working!" It took several of us to get him up and, sort of, moving again. Modern day version of the dancing plague for ya (or anti-dancing plague I guess). Anyway, no one is safe.
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