Lübeck's Dance of Death

Der Alte Todtendantz Sächsisch (1597)

Der Alte Todtendantz
Der Alte Todtendantz

Der Alte Todtendantz is a reprint from 1597 in Bremen of Dodendantz from 1520. The subtitle makes it clear that this Saxon (i.e. Low German) dance of death had been printed (close to) 80 years ago in the imperial seaside city of Lübeck: »Der Alte Todtendantz Sächsisch. Wie derselbe für Achtzig Jahren in der Keyserlichen Seestadt Lübeck in öffentlichem Truck außgangen«.

Nathan Chytraeus (1543-1598) was the little brother of the 13 years older David Chytraeus. Like his brother, he had changed the family name from Kochhafe, which means a pot in German, to the Greek word for pot, χυτρα, which in Latin became "Chytraeus".

In 1555 he came to Rostock, where brother David — a pupil of Philipp Melanchthon — worked as professor of theology. Nathan became a professor of poetry in the Latin school, but had to leave this position in 1592 because of his Calvinistic inclinations. He spent his last years in Bremen.

Chytraeus hailed from Menzingen and therefore didn't speak Low German from childhood. In spite of this he wrote the popular dictionary: »Nomenclator latinosaxonicus«, a Latin-Low German dictionary, which was issued in 13 editions between 1582-1659, and which contributed to delaying the intrusion of High German into the educational institutions.

"Der Alte Todtendantz" should be seen in the same light: The relatively thin book consists of three parts: A preface by Chytraeus in High German, a reprint of Dodendantz, and five High German songs.

In the preface, Chytraeus makes general comments on the transience of human life, death and the Bible. He notes how both Low German, High German and clothing-style have changed during the past 80 years.

The book appears to have been produced at his own cost, and he laments that he has not been able to get the old woodcuts copied (and modernized), but he hopes to find a printer or a benefactor, who will bear the cost of such woodcuts in a later edition. However, this was never to happen as Chytraeus died the following year.

Chytraeus reproduces the text from Dodendantz verbatim except for small changes in the orthography. However, at the very end — before Death's closing speech — an extra dialog has been inserted, namely the printer's addition:

The printer's addition.
Der Alte Todtendantz
Deß Druckers thogaue

De Doet thom Drucker:
Hörup tho drucken gode Gesell /
Und kum an dissen Reyen schnell /
Nu lang genoch heffstu gesettet /
Den Bockstaff und Papyr genettet /
De Preß heffst lang genoch getagen /
Gedruckt dat velen nicht wil behagen.
Heffstu nu recht dyn Ampt gedan /
De dantz dy gar nicht schaden kan:
Wo nicht / werd ick in wee und leidt
Dy drucken und pressen in Ewicheit.

The printer's addition.

Death to the printer:
Stop printing, good craftsman
and come to this dance quickly,
Now you have long enough set
the letters — and moistened paper.(1)
You have pulled the [printing] press long enough.
Printed, what many will not be pleased by.
Have you now done your craft right,
the dance can do you no harm at all,
If not, I will in woe and sorrow
press and squeeze you forever.

De Setter und Drucker.
Vel Bockstaff hebb ick twar gesettet /
De Preß getrecket / Papyr genettet.
De kanne darby ock nicht vergeten.
De Licht Gans ock gern mit gegeten.
Nu gript my an de bittere Todt /
Were ick bereit / dat were my godt.
The typesetter and printer:
I have indeed set a lot of letters
pulled the press / wetted paper
and also not forgotten the jug(2)
and gladly eaten the light-goose.(3)
Now bitter Death seizes me.
Had I been prepared, it would have been good for me.

Matthias Huss, 1499
Matthias Huss, Printers
Claude Nourry, 1501
Claude Nourry, Printers

The idea of adding printers, typesetters, and booksellers (who, one must suppose, are busy producing "Der alte Todtendantz", when surprised by Death), recalls 2 books from Lyon, viz La grant Danse Macabre by Matthias Huss, 1499, and Claude Nourry's book with the same title from 1501.

Links and Resources

Further information:

Nathan Chytraeus' older brother published "Imagines Mortis".
Chytraeus, Old man

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

From Wikipedia: "One damp piece of paper was then taken from a heap of paper and placed on the tympan. The paper was damp as this lets the type 'bite' into the paper better".

The jug is presumably not a tool of his trade, but used for storing beer, which is consumed with the "light-goose" in the next line.

light-goose . . .: a roast goose given in certain trades to journeymen at an annual feast in the fall when they begin to work by candle-light

This usually happens on St. Martin's eve, to commemorate the cackling geese, who gave St. Martin of Tours away to the crowd that wanted to make him a bishop.