Lübeck's Dance of Death

The New Text (1701)

The chapel ca. 1890. To the left is the hermit and the peasant - then comes the start of the dance.
Lübeck, the chapel

In this section:

Civil servant
Parish clerk
Young man
Young woman

In 1701 the old painting was in so miserable condition that it was necessary to replace it with a copy.

The new painting was executed by the church painter Anton Wortmann and was mounted in the same frame as the old one, and generally Wortmann made a close copy. Still, a number of changes were introduced, the most confusing ones where that nobleman and mayor had changed places in the dance (see note here) and the same with merchant and craftsman (see note here).

The preacher Jakob van Melle wrote down as much of the old text, as could be read. Unfortunately he created confusion for the next 200 years by presenting the old text with the same structure as Schlott's new text and in the same sequence as Wortmann's new painting.

Great parts of the old Low German text were illegible, so instead a new High German text was written by Nathanael Schlott. The new text had nothing in common with the old one, and even the structure was different: The old text was "chained together" in the way that the 8th line of the preceding verse is Death's call to the next dancer, then 8 lines with the human's defense and 7 lines with Death's reply. The new text is much simpler: First Death speaks 4 lines, and then the human answers with 4 lines.

This decision was routinely criticized by philologist in the 1800's: Couldn't they have preserved as much of the Low German text as possible? As one example we may quote Karl Friedrich A. Scheller i "Bücherkunde der sassisch-niederdeutschen Sprache". He compares the old Low German verses with Schlott's text from 1701, and his verdict was: "The remnants of the Saxon verses reveal a healthy, unrestrained, somewhat biting wit, and the language has purity and dignity. Schlott gives us instead rigid, quirky wares, or in fact nothing at all".(1)

Scheller then goes on to quote the two lines that the oral tradition have ascribed to the infant:

    Dat wegenkind to deme Dode:
O Dot, wo schal ik dat vorstan?
Ik schal danssen unde kan nicht ghan.

Suhl invents a verse for the child. Another mistake is that the cradle doesn't have any rockers.
Suhl's text

He compares these two lines with "the Schlottish child":

    Das (Schlottsche) Wiegenkind.
Weinen ist meine erste Stimm,
Mit Weinen war ich geboren,
Mit Weinen trägt man mich wieder dahin,
Den Würmern zur Speis erkohren.

Based on this, Scheller concludes: "Could not this old poem have been made complete? Not even if Mr. Nathanael Schlott were washed away or scraped off gently during a new restauration? I for my part would do it, also if no Saxon letters were any longer to be found under them".(2)

Scheller was willing to remove Schlott's text from the painting whether or not the old text was to be found beneath. Apparently he was not aware that the painting was a new copy on a fresh canvas. And Scheller based his arguments on comparing 2 lines, that probably never have been on the old painting, with four lines, that aren't found on the painting either, which Schlott had nothing to do with, but which had been penned long before Schlott was born, and had been added by Suhl in his book.

The start of the dance. The painting starts with a stern admonition written by Schlott. Presumably the old painting had a preacher in this place, just like in Tallinn and everywhere else. Then comes Death wearing a baroque plumed hat and playing the flute. The question is whether Wortmann invented only the hat or the entire figure.
Lübeck, The start of the dance

The simple fact is that Schlott didn't have much of a choice. First of all because half of the old text had perished. Today we know that twelve more verses could have been found in the sister-painting in Tallinn, but — incredibly — this fact was unknown in Lübeck. Even Mantels didn't find out before 1873.

Secondly, Low German had been replaced in Lübeck by High German long ago. It was simply not a part of Schlott's assignment to write a poem in Low German.

Schlott wrote according to the prevailing taste of his time in six-footed Alexandrines. Very little remained of the medieval social criticism, fear of death and satire. Instead his audience got homespun philosophy about how the present world is a vale of tears.

But despite the fact that the text was criticized by philologists in the 19th century, there is nothing to suggest that the popularity of the painting diminished during the next 241 years. No one had thought of publishing the old painting, but after 1701, copies were made by Ludewig Suhl, Hauttmann, the brothers Borchers, Tiedemann, Robert Geißler and Thomas King along with the texts published by Schlott and Melle.

Later on, great parts of Schlott's text was copied for the dance of death in Erfurt and in Füssen, and it was translated into English by Thomas Nugent and Danish by Lydert Höyer.

The Text

One would think it would be a simple matter to reproduce a text that was available for hundreds of years in a publicly available painting in Lübeck. Nevertheless, there are major discrepancies between the various publications.

One of the most reliable texts can be found beneath Milde's lithographs
Carl Julius Milde, Milde #7

On the present site a number of versions of the text are presented:

Go forth

The dance starts with a solemn admonition.

In this Section about the New Text

Suhl, part 1Suhl, part 2Suhl, part 3Suhl, part 4Suhl, part 5Suhl, part 6Suhl, part 7Suhl, part 8
Click to enter the dance.

About Lübeck but Outside this Section

Footnotes: (1) (2)

Karl Friedrich A. Scheller: »Die Überbleibsel der Sassischen Verse verrathen einen gesunden, ungezwungenen, etwas beißigen Witz, und die Sprache hat Reinheit und Würde. Schlott giebt uns dafür steife, verschrobene Waare, oder eigentlich gar nichts«.
(Bücherkunde der sassisch-niederdeutschen Sprache, 1826, page 76)
Karl Friedrich A. Scheller: Sollte dies alte Gedicht denn gar nicht zu ergänzen sein? Auch nicht, wenn bei einer neuen Auffrischung Herr Nathanael Schlott weggewaschen oder behutsam abgeschabt würde? Ich meines Theils würde es thun, und wenn auch kein Sassischer Buchstabe mehr darunter zu finden wäre.
(Bücherkunde der sassisch-niederdeutschen Sprache, 1826, page 76)