Basel: The Young Man

The Young Man
Basel's dance of death, The Young man

Todt zum Jüngling:
Jüngling wo wilt du hin spacieren,
   Ein andern Weg will ich dich führen,
Allda wirstu dein Bulschafft finden,
   Das thu ich dir jetzund verkünden.

Death to The Young Man
Young Man, where will you go?
I will lead you another way
There you will find your paramour.
This I announce to you now.

Der Jüngling:
MIt Schlemmen, Demmen vnd mit Prassen,
   Deß Nachts hofieren auff der Gassen,
Darinn hatt ich mein Muth vnd Frewd,
   Gedacht wenig an den Abschied.

The Young Man.
With carousing, drinking and with feasting,
partying at night in the streets.
In this I had my joy and pleasure.
I though little of departure.

Death promises the young man that he shall be (re)united with his paramour in the realm of death. Each of us can then imagine a story where the young man meets the young woman — even if the two dancers don't follow each other immediately in the dance.

The only problem is that in our oldest sources, Death says the exact opposite. In Der Todendantz he says, »Da wirst du dein Bulschafft nit finden«. The same is true for Ludwig Iselin(1) and the coloured gouaches from ca. 1600: »Da würstu dein Buolschafft nit finden«.

Merian: Close-up
Merian 1625: young man
Büchel: Close-up
Büchel 1773: young man

The decoration on the young man's trousers is puzzling. Maßmann calls it "a dove on a serpent-rod", »Die Taube […] auf dem Schlangenstabe« (page 119), and here one could perhaps see a parallel to the famous publisher in Basel, Johann Froben, who had a Mercury staff with two serpents and a dove at the top as his printer's device as an allusion to Matthew 10,16: »be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves«. The quote from Matthew was appropriate to the Herald's Staff since Mercury / Hermes was associated with eloquence, negotiation and wisdom.(2)

However, it is difficult to see why the young man would wear Froben's printer's mark on his trousers, and Merian's picture (to the left) and the colored gouaches from ca. 1600 show that the staff is entwined neither by one nor two snakes, but by a scroll/ribbon.

In Büchel's watercolor (right) there are green branches on the staff, and one can read the letters "W S M G" and "G M" on the ribbon twirled around a flowering plant.

Goette (Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder, 1897, page 146) points out that the artist behind Frölich's woodcuts has written his initials "G.S." on such a scroll in the picture of the preacher, and he suggests that "W S M G" and "G M" might be the initials of the painter, who created / renovated the painting.

Goette was unable to find any artist with such initials, but "G M" could be Hans Georg Meyer, who renovated the painting in 1657/58. His apprentice vas named Samuel Wurstisen, and "W S M G" in reverse order (as the scroll twirls) might be the initials of Georg Meyer and Samuel Wurstisen.(3) This would also explain why there is no hint of these initials on Merian's picture, which is from 1621.

English translation from Beck, 1852
Death to the young man.The young man's reply.

Tell me, o Youth, where wilt thou go?
A way you think not of I'll shew;
Where all thy comrades choice are found.
Such is my message, short and round.

In riot, lust and banquets sweet,
And nightly woings in the street,
My youth I sought in mirth to spend,
And little thought it thus would end.

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

Youngman whither wils't thou walk,
Turn thee away, this is my talk,
There thou shal thy amour find,
This I announce thee very kind.

With gluttoning an banguetting,
At night in the streets to court and sing,
I this I had my joy and pleasure,
And never thought of my departure.


Various Artists

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

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Iselin . . .: manuscript from 1577 by Ludwig Iselin; transcription by Mischa von Perger in Totentanz-Studien, pp. 93-132.

The two lines go: »Do wirstu din bulschafft nit findenn / Das dun ich dir ietzund uerkindenn«.

The Rod of Asclepius has a single serpent winding around the staff. The Hermes/Mercury staff (also called caduceus) has wings at the top and is entwined by two serpents.

The confounding of these two symbols — particularly in the USA — is a recent phenomenon.

François Maurer arrives at the same conclusion:

Die Buchstabenfolge WSMG / GM auf dem Zeichen am linken Oberschenkel des Jünglings (Schriftband, Blumenstaude, Vogel) könnte, rückwärts gelesen, auf die Restauratoren von 1658, Hans Georg Meyer und Samuel Wurstisen, zu beziehen sein (obschon das Zeichen sicher älter ist, […]).

(Die Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz, vol. 52, page 309, footnote 1)