The Abbess

The Abbess
Basel's dance of death, Abbess

Todt zur Eptissin:
GNädige Fraw Eptissin rein,
   Wie habt jhr so ein Bäuchlein klein:
Doch wil ich euch das nicht verweissen,
   Ich wolt mich eh in Finger beissen.

Death to The Abbess
Gracious Mrs. Abbess, pure [lady],
how come you have such a little belly?
Still, I will not hold that against you,
I would sooner bite myself in the finger.

Die Eptissin:
ICh hab gelesen auß dem Psalter
   In dem Chore vor dem Fronalter:
Nun wil mich helffen hie kein betten,
   Ich muß hie dem Todt auch nachtretten.

The Abbess.
I have read from the Psalter,
in the choir before the Lord's altar.
Now no praying will avail me,
I too must here step after Death.
Kleinbasel, Abbess
Kleinbasel: Abbess
Heidelberg, Nun
Heidelberg, Nonne

Death makes a comment on the abbess being slightly pregnant. The abbess apparently ignores Death's smart-ass remarks, and keeps on wailing. There are two reasons for this:

The first reason is that in the text tradition known as Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, the humans' complaints had been written many years, before Death's speeches were added, creating a dialogue. Therefore it's very typical that Death and his victims speak at cross purposes.

The other reason is that the abbess didn't become pregnant before a more recent renovation of the mural — at a time where there was no longer respect for Catholic ecclesiasticals.

The picture to the left is from Kleinbasel, where we can see how the painting in Großbasel once looked. The abbess smilingly carries her head on one side, just like the nun in Heidelberg's block book, and the text is also very reminiscent of the dialogue in Heidelberg and other versions of the high German dance of death. In Kleinbasel Death does not comment on the abbess's' belly.

Fraw Eptissen ir mosen auch dran
Der todt wil mit uch getantz hain
Nun springent noch rechten sitten
Ich wil uch wider flehen noch bitten
Mrs. Abbess, you must also over there.
Death will have a dance with you.
Now dance after proper tradition.
I will neither implore nor beg you.
Ich han gelesen die ge psalter
In dem kor vor fronalter
Nun hilft hie kein bitten
Ich moitz den todt noch tretten
I have read the Psalter,
in the choir before the Lord's altar.
Now no praying avails here.
I must step after Death.

As one can see, Death's original speech has been more general and the abbess has been more like the nun in Heidelberg. In fact the two last lines of the abbess's speech — in both Klein- and Großbasel — are the same as the nun's in Heidelberg.

English translation from Beck, 1852
Death to the Abbess.The Abbess' reply.

My lady Abbess pure and fair
How small you're grown, well, I declare!
Before I'd cast reproach on you
I'd bite my finger through and through.

I've read my lessons from the Psalter,
Both in the Choir and near the altar;
But now for prayer I've no more breath
For I must go along with death.

Translation from Hess, 1841
Death to the Abbess.Answer of the Abbess.

Gracious lady abbess me!
What a small belly you have I see,
This I never would reproach ye,
Ere would I in my finger bite me.

I have often read the psalter,
In the choir, before the altar,
Now no prayer will help me,
I must now follow death you see.


Various Artists

Büchel : Abbess
Merian (1621)
Merian 1621: Abbess
 1715: Abbess
Chovin (1744)
Chovin 1744: Abbess
Büchel (1768)
Büchel 1768: Abbess
Büchel (1773)
Büchel 1773: Abbess
Fragment (1805)
Fragment 1805: Abbess
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Abbess
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Abbess
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Abbess
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Abbess
Stuckert (1858)
Stuckert 1858: Abbess