Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Dancing Plague’

“Swept away for a moment by chance”

The incidents of “dancing madness” crop up occasionally in history books, and they’re weirdly fascinating and an interesting window into a world that is very much like ours but different in bizarre ways. Gareth Brookes decided to write an entire comic about one such incident, in Strasbourg in July 1518, and SelfMadeHero brings it to us, so let’s take a look.

The dancing of the inhabitants of these towns was weird and jerky, almost as if they were having seizures, and it had no logical cause, as one person dancing could be put down to epilepsy, but the fact that it “infected” many others was what made it so scary to the people of the time (and probably would freak people out today). One person would start dancing, and soon dozens were, and many danced until they dropped, as they didn’t stop for nourishment or rest. Brookes uses this strange phenomenon to bring up themes of religious mania, sexism, fear-mongering, isolation and exile, and the shattering of communities. His main character, Mary, is a fairly typical woman of the time, which is also her tragedy. She resists the dancing for quite some time, although her husband and daughter are “infected,” and when she succumbs, she snaps out of it more quickly than others. So she can comment on it but is also a victim of it, which means Brookes can show many different aspects of the dancing plague.

Brookes never offers any explanation for the dancing, which is fine because historians can’t explain it. Instead, Brookes allows the people to speak for themselves, and of course the authorities blame Satan and women, not always in that order. Medieval times weren’t quite as bad for women as we think, but they weren’t great, either, and Mary is a special case because she is so devoted to God that she has visions, which men in power don’t really like. We get her history, and we see how her father turned against her when she started having visions because she called out the hypocrisy of the priests, which tore at the social fabric of the town. Society was much more important to people back then, in an age when people didn’t leave their birthplaces too often, and her father chooses the security of the society over his daughter. In later years, she is sent to a nunnery, but she again believes that the people in power – not just the priest, but the abbess – are abusing their positions, so she escapes back home, where her father marries her off to a dull brute, which takes her off his hands. Mary continues to call out the hypocrisy of the ruling elite, and she sees demons (and angels) everywhere, so when the dancing starts, only she can see the demons animating the people. In this, she is accordance with what the priests say, even if the secular authorities listen to the doctors, who claim the peoples’ “humours” are unbalanced and they need to keep dancing to restore that balance (I don’t really feel like getting into the theory of “humours” in the body – you can Google it if you want to know more). Of course, she might think like the priests, but they still treat her poorly because she is a woman. One confessor, who begins on her side, has a sexy dream about her and, naturally, turns on her. Brookes switches between an ecstatic, enraptured narration from Mary for most of the book to a matter-of-fact recitation of a woman’s evil ways by the priests, and the “banality of evil” comes to mind – these men are simply stating what they believe are facts about women, and while they treat the women horribly, for them it’s just natural to do these things because women are, after all, evil. It’s maddening reading it, because they would be mystified by our outrage. It’s just the way it is.

Brookes does a decent job bringing this strange world to life. Yes, many things are similar, and others might be strange but aren’t new – treating a woman like a commodity when it comes to marriage is not a new fact for us to learn, I don’t think. But the religious mania/ecstasy that pervades the book is something that we might be aware of and might understand from watching some revivalist meetings in our own time, but Brookes does a good job showing how pervasive it was in this society. This is not even a year after Martin Luther nailed his theses to a door in Wittenberg, and Christianity was undergoing an upheaval, and Brookes implies (but never states) that the ructions ripping into European society might have manifested themselves as a dancing mania – dancing to hold back the Apocalypse, as it were. The dancing isn’t limited to this time (earlier incidents are recorded), but it does seem like there’s a link between a revolution in what many people believed was a static environment and the urge to dance. Brookes hints around at this but doesn’t go further, which is probably a smart idea, but it’s interesting to ponder.

I don’t love Brookes’s art, mainly because I just don’t love the style, but it’s still a fairly fascinating way to present the material. As he notes on his web site, the drawings are pyrography, as Brookes burns the lines into calico. This can’t be easy, and it seems like it hinders him from being too detailed, but it also gives the book a very rough, medieval look – I can’t imagine Brookes doesn’t want to evoke the Medieval King of Woodcuts, Albrecht Dürer, with these panels. It’s a fairly simplistic style, but it does get across a place where life is somewhat brutal and often ugly. The characters themselves don’t have much personality, even when they’re dancing, but Brookes does a good job contrasting the dancers with the more sober non-dancers, who look upon them with scorn and fear. Brookes also uses embroidery to show the spirits, which is a wonderfully inspired choice. He uses brightly colored thread, so the demons and angels stand out and appear more “real” than the dull existence of 16th-century Europe, and because it’s more tactile, the demons look like they come from someplace else and are invading our world. This brings his theme of religious belief shading into mania to the forefront, as Mary sees that the world of the spirits is more heightened and relevant to her than the drabness of Strasbourg and its environs. The art isn’t perfect, but it’s very interesting, and it helps make Brookes’s themes more vivid.

The Dancing Plague is an odd comic. It’s not quite great, because the characters are stereotypes, even Mary, so her plight isn’t quite as powerful as it could be. On the one hand, the art is nice because of the contrast between the brutish world and the fanciful spirit realm, and Brookes’s limitations in fluidity actually work to create a herky-jerky kind of dance, but on the other hand, the book doesn’t flow terribly well and the perspective is occasionally wonky. Still, it’s an interesting comic that shows us a phenomenon that is still not understood and gives us a good context for them, even if we get no explanation for it. It might have a limited audience, but maybe that audience includes you!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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