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 wooden plates are used since the picture of the citizen is the same as that of the church ward and the picture of the youth 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, title page

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. The text is, of course, inspired by the painting in Marienkirche, but it also quotes freely from the devotional books of the period, like "Zwiegespräch zwischen Leben und Tod" and "Boek der profecien, epistelen vnde des hylgen ewangelij auer dat gantze yar mit velen glosen".

The extra lines are used to broaden the range of participants - in order to make the dance a mirror of society. 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(1) (really, how many usurers are there in one city?).

Likewise the Carthusian is replaced by the 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...". The craftsman is treated to a list of 98 trades that sounds like a libretto from Gilbert and Sullivan, and Death tells the maiden the names of 70 girls that must join the dance.

Reprints and naming

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.

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).

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".

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.

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. You may consult the Low German dictionary.

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 Maid Death to the maid 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)

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