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 on the middle. The two pictures below show the student and Death with an arrow.

Des dodes dantz, The student Des dodes dantz, Death to the student
The student. Death to the student.
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.

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.

The text was re-published in 1876 by Baethcke, who for inscrutable reasons called his book Des dodes danz - that is: without the "t".

Baethcke is the only person to have published the text and unfortunately he is not a very good source. Since his book doesn't contain facsimiles, he could claim that his text was verbatim, but a comparison reveals many divergences.

The most glaring difference is the many "accents" in words like dôt, natûr and vêrde. These accents do not appear in the original text but are introduced by Baethcke in order to distinguish between closed and open syllables. There a many other exceptions - a typical example is the very last line, which Baethcke renders:
"Gedichtet unde gesat in der keiserliken stat Lubek na der bort Jesu Cristi...".
If you look at the facsimile you'll see that the real text is:
"Ghedichtet unde ghesath in der keyserliken stad lubeck na der bord ihesu cristi..."

So the text is without value for philologists but the rest of us will have to be satisfied with it until a better version is published.

To read the original text, click on the list to the left, look at the index or click on the little pictures below. I have only translated chapter 1 and the physician.

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.

Index 1. Chapter Death with scythe The pope Death to the pope Death to the emperor The knight Death to the knight The physician Death to the physician The citizen Death to the citizen The student Death to the student The merchant Death to the merchant The nurse Last but one page Last page


Related information:

Footnotes: (1)

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

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