Medieval Grotesque: Gareth Brookes, ‘The Dancing Plague’

A graphic novel reimagines the famous case of mania that overtook the city of Strasbourg in 1518

Courtesy the artist

If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that everyone loves a good plague story – if only to put our situation into perspective. Among the many such stories to reemerge during this pandemic was the famous case of mania that overtook the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Also described as ‘choreomania’ or ‘dancing plague’, it saw the town’s population engage in uncontrollable dancing, to the point of complete exhaustion – or death. This phenomenon engendered more or less wild interpretations: a rebellion against the church-enforced social order; mass hysteria caused by disease; food poisoning; or a case of diabolic possession or divine punishment. It’s these last readings that are explored in Gareth Brookes’s graphic novel, which imagines the events of Strasbourg from the perspective of Mary (whose story fuses the lives of two actual female medieval mystics), an illuminated woman plagued by visions of Christ’s passion.

Mary’s uncertainties about the origins (divine or hellish) of her visions find expression in Brookes’s unique visual language: angels and satanic creatures, rendered in colourful embroidery, weave in and out of black-and-sepia vignettes, creating a stunning contrast and sense of depth – most notably in the dancing scenes in the town square, where the creatures act as malevolent puppet masters taking the villagers by their hands and feet. The medieval grotesque is buttressed by the comical use of Middle Age vernacular: ‘By the grace of Christ’s foreskin!’

Brookes seems intent on revealing the hardship of women (especially mystics) in the Middle Ages; his book is rife with incidents of physical and mental oppression against them, inflicted by husbands, fathers (biological and clerical) and neighbours. Yet the systematic subjugation of women (and their endurance in the face of it) is hardly news. And ultimately, however entertaining its illustrations, one finds oneself wondering what new insights or meaningful interrogation this retelling actually has to offer this particular page of history – or the one we are writing today.

The Dancing Plague, Gareth Brookes, Self Made Hero, £15.99 (softcover)

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