Lübeck's Dance of Death

How old is Copenhagen's Dance of Death?

Copenhagen's dance of death only survives in one defective exemplar from which several pages including the title page are missing. We assume it was was printed by Hans Vingaard, since other books from his printery use the same Lübeckian woodcuts and are printed with the same types. The original title was probably "Dødedantz".

One of the tough questions is when it was printed. It must have been printed after Hans Vingaard came to Copenhagen in 1532(1) and before he died in 1559. After this it becomes very iffy:

Method 1: The Cover

On the cover is written the year 1536, but the cover is not original. Christian Bruun informs us that the year was written by member of the Supreme Court, Thorkelin, who based it on an educated guess. Christian Bruun's article from 1875 is available in the Danish version of this section.

Method 2: A Poem

Death on the lion Meyer (and Bruun) has found a poem from 1538, that might tell us who wrote Copenhagen's dance of death - and when. At least it proves that Hans Vingaard owned the woodcuts from the dance of death as early as 1538.

Method 3: The Pictures

The pictures were used, not just in the three dance of death books, but also in other contemporary books. For instance woodcut of the king was also used in Rimkrøniken ("the rhymed chronicle") from 1533 and the Latin church ordinance from 1537. Attempts have been made to compare these publications following the assumption that the badder picture indicates a worn down printing plate, which in turn indicates a newer book. On the other hand Meyer argues convincingly that this argument is no good, since the quality is much more dependent on the skills of the printer(2).

Method 4: The Text

The pope: God's substitute on Earth or a tool of the Devil?
The pope

Meyer thinks, that the violent attacks on the catholic pope shows that it has been written during the Reformation - which fits with the year 1536.

It should be noted that 1536 might have been the most turbulent year in the history of Copenhagen and Denmark: Lübeck (of all towns!) had occupied eastern Denmark. Copenhagen was under siege by the future king Christian III and the citizens were dying from starvation. Copenhagen surrendered 29th July and the new king ushered in the Reformation and jailed the Catholic bishops.

Still, all these words and fury signify nothing since Hans Vingaard was printing Protestant works throughout his entire career - indeed, this might be the very reason why he came to Denmark in the first place. And even if the dance of death had been published long after the Reformation, the author might still carry a grudge for the pope.

And of course there is always the possibility that the existing copy is just a late reprint. Notice that Dødedantz was published 1634, i.e. 98 years after the Reformation, and still the publisher hasn't changed any of the contents.

Method 5: The Typography

In 1535 Hans Vingaard bought some printing materials from Chr. Petersen, but because of problems with payment he probably didn't have access to these materials before 1552. The new typefaces then gave a fresh look to his books.

Bruun had followed this line of thought as early as 1875, but it was Lauritz Nielsen who did the heavy footwork of evaluating Vingaard's entire production in his article in "Nordisk Tidskrift för Bok och Biblioteksväsen" in 1916. Nielsen thus fixed the year of publication between 1552 and 1558. The article is long and terse and in Danish so I have placed it along with a synopsis here. Bruun's article is only available in the Danish section of this site.

Further information:

Footnotes: (1) (2)

In spite of his name - which means "vineyard" in Danish - Hans Vingaard was German, born in Stuttgart. He came to the Danish town Viborg in 1528, and in his firste book he called himself "Hans Wyngarthener von Stuckgarthen". Later he spelled it Wingarthener, Vingartener, wingartner, Wiingarther and - finally - Vingaard.

The bulk of Hans Vingaard's work was reformatory propaganda (among other, works by Martin Luther and the Danish Reformer Hans Tausen).

Meyer quotes Francis Douce, The dance of Death, London 1833, p. 90:

»One may, indeed, regret […] the general carelessness of the old printers in their mode of taking off impressions from blocks of wood when introducing them into their books, and which is so very unequally practised that […] the impressions are often clearer and more distinct in later than in preceding editions«.