Lübeck's Dance of Death

The Nun and the Merchant

De klosternonne

Eya, help Maria, my
is övel to mode,
Schal ik alrede sterven,
dat do ik node.
Ick hadde ghehopet
noch meer to leren,
Wo ick scholde denen
Gode, mynem heren,
Dem ik myne sele heb-
be vortruwet gantz,
Unde also mochte erlan-
gen der junckfrouwen krantz.


De kopman.

Ach yd is yo war,
hadde ik myne tyd
Gode ghedenet myt
so grotem flyd,
Also ick na gelde heb-
be ghyret
Unde weynich hilge da-
ge rechte fyret,
So krege ik wysz ewy-
ghe salicheyt.
Dem gelde to denen is
al vorloren arbeyt.

Death with spade

De dot to der nonnen

Klosternonneken, vor
vere dy nicht to sere,
Desses dantzes hefstu
grothe ere.
Wente de syk Gode heft
Unde de wyl voren
eyn geystlik leven,
De moth syk gantz van
der werlde keren
Unde schal by tyden
sterven leren.

Death riding a lion

De dot tom kopman

Kopman, to stervende
bystu gantz bedrovet,
De werlt heft dy men
sere gheovet.
Umme gelt deystu ar-
beyt unde flyd,
Men Gode to denen
hefstu neene tyd.
Nu mostu myt in eyn
ander lant,
Wat is nu dath vele
ghyrent bewant!

N.B.: The book should be read from right to left: First Death's admonition, then the answer of the dying person. The translation below is presented in the proper (logical) sequence. The Low German text in the "book" above has been modernized to make it more readable. Click here to read the original text.

Death to the nun

Little monastery-nun, don't be too terrified.
You have great honour of this dance
because those who have given themselves to God
and who will lead an ecclesiastical life -
they shall turn themselves fully [away] from the world
and shall in [good] time learn to die.(1)

Death to the merchant

Merchant, you are quite sad to die.
But the world has long been hard on you.
For money you make work and diligence,
but you have no time to serve God.
Now you must [go] along into another land.
What is all the avarice now worth?

The nun

Eya(2), Mary help me, I'm ill at ease,
shall I already die - this I do reluctanly.
I had hoped to learn even more
how I should serve God - my Lord,
whom I have totally entrusted my soul
and so I might obtain the virgin crants.(3)

The merchant

Alas, it is true - had I in my time
served God with so great diligence
as I have desired money
and [as I] have kept the Sabbath day [too] little holy -
then I would certainly get eternal salvation.
To earn money is all forfeited work.(4)

Sunte Birgitten Openbaringe The woodcut of the nun wasn't only used in the dances of death. The picture to the right is from another book by the Mohnkopf printery, Sunte Birgitten Openbaringe ("Revelations of Saint Birgitta"), 1496. The woodcut is supposed to portray "Sunte Katherina van watzsteyn" — i.e. Saint Catherine of Vadstena, the daughter of Birgitta.

At the bottom of the frame one can see the Mohnkopf printery's two characteristic escutcheons: three poppy fruits and a capital T with a cross.

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

A special medieval genre of books was the "ars moriendi" or "artes [bene] moriendi" = the art of dying [well] - books telling Christians how to prepare for death.
Eya . . .: Exclamation of surprise and urgency.
Virgin crants . . .: In the Middle Ages virgins were buried with a chaplet / garland as a symbol of their purity (later on this was only done for young girls). Shakespeare introduced the word into English: "Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants, her maiden strewments...".
Work for the sake of money . . .: It would seem that the merchant has figured out the moral of the story.