Lübeck's Dance of Death


The dance:

Nurse with child

Dodendantz was printed in Lübeck in 1520. It consists of 424 lines, two thirds of which are copied more or less verbatim from Des dodes dantz from 1489. The text is also influenced by the dance of death in Berlin.


The woodcuts are the same as in Des dodes dantz, but the picture of Death with an arrow doesn't appear, so this has apparently been lost. The text includes 30 persons since the church ward is replaced by official, priest and fool. These 3 new participants do not get a wall-and-hilly-landscape illustration.

Dodendantz, The three skulls are one of the tricks employed by the printer to make up for the missing Death-with-arrow.
Dodendantz, The canon and the parish priest

Compared to Des dodes dantz, the verses are reduced from about 30 lines to only 6. This means that the text often seems flighty - with gaps in the logic. On the other hand, it's this seeming strictness that has made some researchers, Seelmann and Meyer, wonder whether Dodendantz is older than Des dodes dantz?

It is evident that those researchers (and the books that parrot them) can never have had an actual copy of Dodendantz in their hands.

In 1849 the only existing copy of Dodendantz was sold to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. From then on the German scholars had to contend themselves with a transcription that Sotzmann had made before the book had left Germany.

The same year, in Serapeum 10, Massmann described the woodcuts and gave samples of the text. When Wilhelm Lübke in 1861 published his book about the dance of death in Berlin, he reproduced Sotzmann's transcript (although without crediting Sotzmann). When Wilhelm Mantels published his book about the dance of death in Lübeck in 1866, he added Lübke's text with Massmann's variants (and lots of orthographic changes in order to make the text more readable).

In 1896 Seelmann also published Sotzmann's transcript, but he first wrote a number of concrete questions to Oxford, particularly about the exchange of the letters u and v. Seelmann also studied Massmann's description of the woodcuts in order to conclude that Copenhagen's dance of death was related to Dodendantz and Des dodes dantz.

So Seelmann has never seen Dodendantz, and the same thing goes for the other scholar, namely Raphael Meyer. Meyer used Lübke's text (according to his footnote no. 1 on page 11).

Death says: "Yes, empress, that is the old song" to the empress, before she's had a chance to say anything.
Døden starts the dialogue with the canon by saying: "If you were forgotten - that was something new".

In reality, Dodendantz is very messy. For inscrutable reasons the author has chosen to let Death speak first to the humans, who then answer him, but the pictures still show Death on the right page (looking left) and the humans on the left page (looking right), so the reader has to read Death's request on the right page first and then the dying person's reply on the left page.

This is confusing enough in itself, but since two thirds of the text - as mentioned - was taken from Des Dodes Dantz, where the humans speak first, this was bound to go wrong a number of times, viz. the empress and the canon. The missing Death-with-arrow has presented great challenges to the printer who had to get along with only 3 pictures of Death (in order to see why, you must make your own dance of death). And then there's the puzzling remark about the bread that is up.

This confusing structure has also given the translator of Copenhagen's Dance of Death the impression that the dance ended with the journeyman. In Des Dodes Dantz as well as in Dodendantz the young man tells about his many drunken binges, but fortunately the dance ends on a pious note with a prayer from the wetnurse. In contrast, the Danish translator thought that the nurse came before the journeyman, and since it was impossible to end the didactic tekst with a talk about pubs, the journeyman's speech was rewritten, so he only complains about being ill: »I am so sick, I cannot walk, Help me God, who is capable of everything«.



Most of the pictures are taken from Schramm (see below). The text is from Wilhelm Mantels' Der Todtentanz in der Marienkirche zu Lübeck (i.e. the text that was based on Lübke's text with Massmann's variants). But it wouldn't have been possible to reproduce the book - let alone translate it - without Timothy Sodmann's recommendable reprint from 2001.

Notice, that "u" and "v" has been interchanged at places to make the text more accessible. The same thing goes for "i", "y" and "j". Proper names (like "God") are capitalized and lots of punctuation has been added.

Related information:

Up to Dance of Death manuscripts