Lübeck's Dance of Death

Des dodes dantz

Des dodes dantz was printed in Lübeck in 1489. The book is loosely based on the painting in St. Mary's Church.

The dance:

Death to the pope
Knight Templar
Church warden
Nurse with child

Des dodes dantz has four different pictures of Death that are printed several times. In order to illustrate the 28 humans, 26 woodcuts are used since the picture of the citizen is the same as that of the church warden and the picture of the young nobleman is the same as that of the journeyman.

All the humans appear on the left pages - looking to right - and Death answers them on the right pages - looking to the left - so their eyes meet at the middle. The following example shows the empress and Death with a spade.

Des dodes dantz, The empress
The empress and Death.
Des dodes dantz, title page.
Des dodes dantz

The title page of Des dodes dantz starts with the compelling words: "O mynsche dencke wor du bist her ghekomen vnde wattu nu byst. unde wat du schalt werden in korter vryst. " ("Oh human, consider from where you come and what you are now and what you will become in short time"), which is actually a quote from the epilogue. Then follows the index.

Des dodes dantz consists of 1686 lines, 4 times as many as the original in St. Mary's church, making it the longest dance of death in existence.(1) The text is, of course, inspired by the painting in Marienkirche, but it also quotes freely from the devotional books of the period.

This applies especially to the three introductory and the eight concluding chapters, that are not part of the actual dance. These chapters quote from "Zwiegespräch zwischen Leben und Tod" and "Boek der profecien, epistelen vnde des hylgen ewangelij auer dat gantze yar mit velen glosen", but also from lots of other contemporary books that we may not even know anymore.

There are four different images of Death.
Death on Lion

The various sources must have confused the author as to who is speaking. Chapter 2 has the headline »De doet«, but already in the first line, it is the author/preacher, who is speaking: »den doet der natur mothe wy an ghan al ghelike« ("we must all suffer the natural death"). Chapter 3 ends by promising that we are about to hear Death: »wo he dem pawese int erste alsus tosprickt«. ("how he first speaks thus to the Pope"). Death does indeed start chapter 4 promising to kill everyone: »Komet her iunck. olt. rike. arm. groet. vnde klene« ("Come here - young, old, rich, poor. great and small"), but immediately afterwards it is again the preacher who speaks by quoting from Matthew 24:42-44 (about Death as a thief in the night) and concluding: »wy scholen wesen van sunden reyne« ("we must be clean of sins").

The same happens at the end, when Death doesn't answer the wet-nurse, but instead speaks to God: »See hir du rechtuerdighe god« ("see here, you righteous God"). Still, after only four lines with complaints about the wicked humanity it's clear that he is addressing the nurse: »[…] der bistu eyn des kindes moder efte amme« ("[the mad world] of which you are one, the child's mother or nurse").

The last chapters have the heading: »De doet«, but it soon turns out (#1502) that it is in fact the preacher who is speaking: »Wo weynich is der de ere salicheyt vlitich soeken wer ik efte du« ("how few are there who diligently seek their salvation, whether me or you?") and right after (#1507): »de hilghen godes synt mynschen ghewest alse wy« ("God's holy [men] were humans like us").

A mirror of society

The Empress represents all women.

Des dodes dantz is often referred to as speigel des dodes (mirror of death) because of a quote from the work:

Den speyghel des dodes, de hir na volgende is;
Alsus halet de doet uns allen, dat is wys.
The mirror of Death that here is following;
Thus Death takes us all; that is certain.

But Des Dodes Dantz is also a mirror of society. The many extra lines are used to broaden the range of participants. Not only is the number of dancers increased by 4, but some of the others are changed to make them more generic and thus increase reader identification. For instance the usurer in St. Mary's is replaced by the citizen. Presumably there were more citizens than usurers in the city.(2)

The wet nurse represents all mothers.

In addition to the number of dancers being expanded, it is a consistent feature that Death does not only address the specific person, but his/her entire station in society: Death's words to the empress applies to all women: »Dyt segge ik to allen vrowen« ("I say this to all women"), the words to the canon applies to all clergy: »Dyt wert nicht ghesecht to dy alleyne / Men alle de anderen papen ik ok dar mede meyne« ("this is not being said to you alone / but I also mean all the other clergymen by this"). The criticism of the physician applies to everyone who practices medicine: »Nicht du allene men al de syk an kunst der arstedie prisen« ("not you alone, but all who boast of the art of medicine").

It doesn't matter whether the beguine is named Wobbeke or Kristineken.

The criticism of the journeyman is mostly about his debauched life and applies to all young (artisans): »Amptgheselle id is al eyns wat amptes dat du bist« ("Journeyman, it doesn't matter what craft you have"). Maybe there weren't that many wet nurses in the city, but she represents all mothers: »ik byn des kyndes amme efte moder« ("I am the child's nurse or mother"), and as already mentioned, Death is open to both possibilities: »[…] der bistu eyn des kindes moder efte amme«.

Death often does not care about the exact identity of the victim: He answers the (cleric) student: »Ia ia her domine efte iohannes wo ik dy schal heten« ("Yes, yes, Mr. cleric or Johannes, what[ever] I shall call you"). To the hermit: »Ja broder conrat efte wo dyn name is gheheten« ("Yes, Brother Conrat, or whatever your name is"). To the maiden: »Junckfrowe ghysseltrud efte wo dyn name is gheheten« ("Maid Ghysseltrud, or whatever your name is"). To the beguine: »Dat is my like vele wer du hetest wobbeke efte kristineken« ("It is the same to me whether your name is Wobbeke or Kristineken").

The virgin is followed by 70 other women.

Death very often comes with long lists of people who are also included in his criticism: The Carthusian from the painting is replaced by a more generic monk, and Death says: »You may be a […]« followed by a long list of holy orders: »en cartuser efte ein benedictiner / Ein bernardusmonnik efte ein augustiner / Van dem orden Franciscus, Dominicus efte Anscharius / Ut sunte Martens klôster, Brixius efte van sunte Hilarius […]«. We just saw that Death does not know the hermit's name, but in contrast, he knows all the church fathers, whose example the hermit should have followed: »Alse paulus. antonius. iheronimus vnde macharius / Siluanus. benedictus. eusebius vnde hilarius«.

The craftsman represents 98 different crafts.

Some of these lists are very long. The criticism of the church warden applies to all other positions susceptible to fraud: »Al de mit gelde werden vorlacht synt hyr gemenet / Efte den iennich grot ampt is vorlenet« ("here is meant all who administer money / or anyone who is entrusted with a great office"). Then come 10 lines with these positions: »So we id ok sy ("whoever it may be") eyn radman eyn schaffer efte eyn vormunder / Eyn schulte eyn schepen eyn olderman efte ein richter / Ein hofmester eyn kokenmester eyn schriuer efte eyn ander dichter […]«.

We have already seen that Death claims not to know the maiden's name, but this doesn't stop him from calling the names of 70 other women, who must also join the dance: »Wo se ok hethen ("whatever they are named") sefke lyseke wobbeke kynke efte margrete. / Drutke ryckel abelke almod vnde agnete: / Wolborch hille heylke vnde kristinke […]«. At the end, Death has evidently recalled the maiden's name, for the list ends: »Komet altomalen dantzet myt desser junkfrowen ghyseltrud« ("come all together, dance with this maid Ghyseltrud").

The record goes to the craftsman, who must listen to a long, rhyming and rhythmic list of no less than 98 crafts, that sounds like a libretto by Gilbert og Sullivan: »Du syst ("You might be") ein goltsmyt. eyn maler. sydensticker efte ein becker / Eyn scroder. ein snytzer. eyn tymmerman. efte ein steyndecker / Eyn peltzer. remensnyder. eyn schriuer. eyn bynder efte eyn gerwer / Dede maken laken haren scho klippen pattinen luchten efte eyn ander verwer […]«.

In fairness, it must be said that Death is not only one who rattles off long lists. Both the duke and the crusader happily talks about the many countries and regions, they have or would have liked to have.

Dodendantz, 1496

Dodendantz, 1496.

Dodendants Des dodes dantz was reprinted in 1496. To complicate matters, this new edition was called "Dodendantz". In the rest of this site, the name "Dodendantz" refers to the book from 1520.

The front page (to the right) featues an imperial crown, which was used in many other publications from the Mohnkopf-printery: De salter to dude, 1493, Dodendantz, 1496, Speygel der leyen, 1496, Sunte Birgitten Openbaringe, 1496 Dat narren schyp, 1497, and Reynke de Vos, 1498. It was later used for Dodendantz, 1520.

The three skulls (all three or just a single one) were used several places. E.g.: the last page of Reynke de Vos, Speygel der leyen, Dat narren schyp, De salter to dude and Dodendantz, 1520.

In the 1489-edition the text comes in one long stream that wraps around. There is very little punctuation, but every line starts with a capital letter, which is emphasized with red ink. In the 1496-edition the publisher has chosen to write each linie separately (except at the top of the page, where the woodcuts take up too much space).

Read Dodendantz here.

Texts and reproduction

The text was re-published in 1876 by Baethcke, who drastically modernized the spelling. As a typical example, take the very last line:
    "Ghedichtet vnde ghesath in der keyserliken stad lubeck na der bord ihesu cristi ..." (original)
    "Gedichtet unde gesat in der keiserliken stat Lubek na der bort Jesu Cristi ..." (Baethcke)
In the same way he called his book Des dodes danz - i.e. without the "t".

The present site offers:

On the present site, only chapter 1 and the physician have been translated. This is partly due to the size of the text and my lack of skills, but mainly it's because the purpose of this site is to present the primary sources. The dance of death is a poem and a word-by-word translation would be utterly boring.

Titel Index 1. Chapter 2. Chapter 3. Chapter 4. Chapter Death with scythe Pope Death to the pope Emperor Death to the emperor Empress Death to the empress Cardinal Death to the cardinal King Death to the king Bishop Death to the bishop Duke Death to the duke Abbotd Death to the abbot Knight of the German order Death to the knight of the German order Monk Death to the monk Knight Death to the knight Canon Death to the canon Mayor Death to the mayor Physician Death to the physician Nobleman Death to the nobleman Hermit Death to the hermit Citizen Death to the citizen Student Death to the student The merchant Death to the merchant Nun Death to the nun Craftsman Death to the craftsman Church warden Death to the church warden Peasant Death to the peasant Beguine Death to the beguine Rider Death to the rider Maiden Death to the maiden Journeyman Death to the journeyman Wetnurse Death to the wetnurse Chapter 61 Chapter 63 Chapter 64 Chapter 65 Chapter 66 Chapter 67 Chapter 67 Finish

Sources and Links

Related information:

Footnotes: (1) (2)

There are almost twice as many lines in the part of Les loups rauissans that features "Accident".

Les loups rauissans however, is not a dance of death in any normal meaning of the word.

On the other hand it is very possible that the usurer in the painting was originally a citizen. See the page about von Melle: Usurer or Citizen?