Lübeck's Dance of Death

Is Dodendantz older than Des dodes dantz?

The "lost" 1487-edition

Des dodes dantz was printed in Lübeck in 1489 and consists of 1686 lines. Dodendantz was printed 1520 by the same printery and consists of 424 lines, two thirds of which are taken more or less verbatim from Des dodes dantz. The same pictures are used - except that Death-with-an-arrow seems to have disappeared.

Dodendantz 1520, Title page.
Dodendantz 1520, title page

Therefore it's natural to think of Dodendantz as an abbreviation of Des dodes dantz. Hermann Baethcke in the book Des dodes danz from 1876 mentions Dodendantz in passing as "Ein ziemlich ungeschickter auszug aus unserem texte" (i.e.: a rather clumsy extract of our text).

Apparently this simple fact is too simple for some art historians - among these Seelmann(1) and Meyer.(2) They suggest that it is actually the other way around: Maybe the copy of Dodendantz from 1520 is simply a late re-print? Maybe it was originally published in 1487, and maybe Des dodes dantz is really an expansion of Dodendantz and the picture of Death-with-an-arrow is an addition?

This mythical edition has been adopted into the three volumes on Low German publications: Gesamtverzeichnis der niederdeutschen Drucke bis zum Jahre, 1800 (vol. 1, #128) by Dr. Conrad Borchling and Dr. Bruno Claussen, who end their brief description of "M47261" with the word "Verschollen", lost. But the only source they cite is Seelmann's two articles where he speaks of a publication "one or two years before 1489". From there the book has entered into the great catalog of incunabula prints, Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke.

In this manner the book has become an undisputed fact: James M. Clark writes, "This second Dance of Death is a new edition of a lost work printed between 1487 and 1489"; and likewise Léonard P. Kurtz, "In fact it [Dodendantz] lay before the composer and the printer of the Dance of 1489 who borrowed many verses from it and used its wood blocks".

To support this strange claim, there are basically only two arguments. The one is that in Dodendantz each verse is precisely 6 lines - as if the text had stood under a painting - whereas the verses in Des dodes dantz are much longer and of varying length — and thus clearly written for a book publication.

The other argument is that both books quote a third book named Zwiegespräches zwischen dem Leben und dem Tode from 1484, and Dodendantz in particular quotes this book very closely:

Zwiegespräch (1484)Des dodes dantz (1489)Dodendantz (1520)
God sprack mit synem hilligen munde:
Waket unde bedet to aller stunde,
De dod sendet ju neynnen breff,
Mer he kummet slikende alse eyn deff.

Hir vmme waket wente de doet sendet iw nenen bref
He kumt slyken recht so eyn deef
God sprickt mit synem hilgen munde:
Waket unde bedet to aller stunde,
De dot sendet juw nenen bref,
He kumpt slyken recht so eyn deff.
Neen, ik wyl dy noch anders spreken,
Ick wil dy dyn herte thobreken.
Hir en mach nemant wedder spreken
Eynem isliken wyl ik syn herte thobreken
Men ik wil dy anders to sprecken:
Holth an, ik wil dyn herte to breken

As one can see, the quotes in Dodendantz (1520) are longer and more verbatim than they are in Des dodes dantz (1489), and therefore (the argument goes) Dodendantz cannot be a copy of Des dodes Dantz.

Those were the arguments, and they are easy to refute.

Dodendantz is rather junbled
  1. As regards the six-lined stanzas, it is evident that the people behind this theory have never held a facsimile copy of Dodendantz in their hands. The only copy of Dodendantz was sold in 1849 to England where it to this day resides in Oxford.(3)

    The apparent rigor of the structure with 6 lines to each stanza suggests a painting with a verse under each dancer, but this is contradicted by the book itself, Dodendantz (1520), where stanzas and illustrations are squeezed together with plan and system (picture to the right).

  2. Regarding the quotations from Zwiegespräch, the simple answer is that the authors of Des dodes dantz (1489) and Dodendantz (1520) could each have had a copy of Zwiegespräch to consult.

    As Schulte notes (external link, footnote 223), the two books place the quotations in different places, making it less likely that one book is a copy of the other.

In contrast there's much to be said against the theory:

Des dodes dantz, title page.
Des dodes dantz, title page

Let us finish with two places in Dodendantz where Death speaks some very strange lines. The first one is when Death greets the canon by saying:

The Canon
Dodendantz, 1520Translation
Her domhere, proficiat! bona dies!
Wordestu vorgetten, dat were wat nyes!
Mr Canon, proficiat! bona dies!
If you became forgotten that would be something new!

This makes little sense and the sentence gets curiouser and curiouser in Copenhagen's Dance of Death where the translator has replaced "you" with "it" (this error has been corrected in Dødedantz):

Copenhagen's dance of death, ca. 1550Translation
Her Domherre, Proficiat, Bona dies
bliffuer det forglemt her vorder nogit nyes
Mr Canon, proficiat! bona dies!
If it becomes forgotten - here will be something new

The explanation is found in Des dodes dantz where the canon (who speaks before Death) says:

Des dodes dantz, 1489Translation
Bysschop to werden dat mochte my ock noch wol bescheen:
Wolde de doet noch lenger hebben myt my ouerseen
To become bishop - that might also happen to me,
would Death still longer fail to see me.

... to which Death answers brutally:

Des dodes dantz, 1489Translation
Her domhere proficiat bona dies:
Wan du vorgetten wordest van my dat were wat nyes
Mr Canon, proficiat! bona dies!
If you were forgotten by me, that would be something new.

So the "new" thing was that Death should have overlooked somebody. The sentence makes no sense in the two other books, proving that Des dodes dantz is the original.

The other weird expression is when Death tells the knight that the bread is up.

Links and resources

Further information

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

Wilhelm Seelmann presented his hypothesis in two issues of Jahrbuch des Vereins für niederdeutsche Sprachforschung:

See the external links.

Raphael Meyer was familiar with Seelmann's hypothesis, but had arrived at the same conclusion himself.

Meyer's Danish book has been converted to HTML in the Danish section here: Raphael Meyer. He presents his arguments on page 14 at the bottom.

Meyer writes in his introduction that he uses a transcript of Dodendantz. Meyer's introduction has been converted to HTML in the Danish version of this site.

Seelmann writes (page 42), that there wasn't (then) any facsimiles of Dodendantz, and that he uses a description by Maßmann:

Von dem Lübecker Drucke von 1520, der sich in Oxford befindet, sind keine Facsimile hergestellt, doch ist mit Hilfe der von Maßmann gegebenen Beschreibung zu folgern, dass seine Holzschnitte identisch einerseits mit denen des dänischen Druckes, anderseits mit denen der Drucke von 1489 und 1496 sind.

A minute comparison can be found in the book Totentänze by Brigitte Schulte.

See the external link.