The Turk

The Turk
Basel's dance of death, Turk
Der Tod.
Du falscher Türck und grosser Hundt,
Es ist jetzundt auch hie dein Stundt,
Dein Machomet hilfft dich nicht heut,
Noch auch dein Bogen zu dem Streitt,
Darzu dein Sebolt und dein Bundt,
Must sterben wie ein andrer Hundt.
You deceitful Turk and big dog,
now it's also your hour.
Your Mohammed won't help you now,
neither your bow to the fight,
and also your sabre(1) and your turban.
You must die like [just] another dog.
Der Türck.
O Machomet, ich ruff dich an,
Unnd mein gantz Geschlecht Solyman,
Die g'wunnen haben so vil Landt,
Wöllen mir hie thun ein Beystandt,
In grösser Noht bin ich nie g'sin,
Ich fahr darvon, weiß nicht wohin.
The Turk.
Oh Mohammed, I implore you,
and my whole family Suleiman,
who have won so much land.
Will you help me here.
I've never been in greater distress.
I'm traveling from here, and know not where.
Illustration from Frölich's book, 1581.
Scharffenberg, Turk

It is with the Turk as with the child: Neither of them are included in Merian's copperplates or in the works of any other artist, but both are known from written sources. We know the Turk from Der Todendantz, Ludwig Iselin's manuscript from 1577, Frölich's book from 1581, and Gross' book from 1623. These sources quote 6 lines for Death and for the Turk's reply.

Unfortunately these sources are not illustrated. Frölich's book does in fact contain 3 woodcuts, one of which is a handsome portrait of Emperor Suleiman I (picture to the right), but this was simply copied from older books, just like the two other woodcuts, the pope and Death.

The picture of the Turk at the top of this page has therefore, like the child, been taken from a picture book with copies of coloured gouaches from ca. 1600. Death appears behind the Turk and catches his arrow with one hand and his wife with the other.

The Turk hasn't always been a part of the dance, but has been added later as a part of Kluber's renovation in 1568. There are two proofs for this:

First of all, the heathen and the heathen woman originally used to be Turks. In Kleinbasel Death addresses the heathen: »Machmet mach dich nit bescirmen« (="Mohammed cannot protect you") and the heathen / Muslim regrets that he must leave all his wives: »Ich mosz al min frawen lon«, while the heathen woman implores Mohammed: »O Machmet los mich nit in noit« (="Oh Mohammed, don't leave me in distress"). After the dance was expanded to include a "real" Muslim, the Turk, their dialogues must have been changed in order to make them "ordinary" heathens. So in Großbasel in Frölich's and Merian's time, the heathen instead calls upon Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto.

In the 1588 and 1608-editions a stock inage of a Turk was used.

Secondly, the citizens of Basel have hardly had any relation to Muslims, when the mural was created around 1440. At that time heathens and Muslims seem to have been considered one and the same.

This was to change in the 1500's by Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1494-1566), who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520-1566, and conquered great areas including all of Hungary.

In 1529 the Ottomans put Vienna under siege, and started a collaboration with France against the House of Habsburg. Thus the Ottomans became a part of European high politics, and the portrait of Suleiman appeared in several books. All this explains why there is now a Turk in the dance of death.

Suleiman the Magnificent died 2 years before Kluber's renovation, and maybe it's Suleiman and his wife who appear in the dance of death? At least he calls upon »my whole family Suleiman«. In Der Todendantz the text has been altered so the Turk instead addresses Suleiman: »Und dein Geschlecht O Solyman, Die ir habt gwonnen so vil Landt«, but Der Todendantz is full of little variations like that.

Between the peasant and the painter's family there are two empty slots.
Feyerabend: Basel's dance of death

Another question is where the Turk has appeared in the dance. If we look at Feyerabend's watercolor (to the right), between the peasant and the painter's wife there's a picture of Adam and Eve with unicorn and eagle, which takes up the same space as 2 dancing couples. Scholars like Dr. Uli Wunderlich(2) think that this is precisely where the child and the Turk were placed, and that they have both been replaced by Adam and Eve after Emanuel Bock's restauration 1614-1616. In contrast our written sources: Iselin, Der Todendantz, Frölich, Gross and Tonjola place the Turk at the very end of the dance, after the painter. For further speculations about the position, see the page about Adam & Eve.

Behind the Turk's wife - at the right in the picture - stands a young man in black clothes. People with knowledge about these things(2) inform us that the man's dress and haircut show that he's from 1600-1625. It is therefore assumed that it's a self-portrait of the artist who made the picture book.


Footnotes: (1) (2)

Sebolt / bund. . .: The word "Sebolt" has caused a great deal of puzzlement. Frölich and Gross spell it "Sebolt", while the two lines don't appear on the coloured gouaches. Sebolt is a name (the same as Sebald), but Maßmann suggests that it's a misspelling of "Sebol[e]t", which isn't very helpfull, as there is no such word as "Sebolet".

Fortunately our oldest sources show us that the word is a misspelling. The manuscript by Ludwig Iselin from 1577 spells it "sebel" (»Dorzu dein sebel / und dein bundt«) and Der Todendantz spells it "Säbel" (»Darzu dein Säbel und dein bundt«).

"bund" is a cloth wound around one's head - that kind of cap the muslims are fond of. The German name for the flower Turk's cap lily is "Türkenbund", i.e. "Turks' turban". I'm indebted to Mischa von Perger for this explanation.

Uli Wunderlich. . .: in the article "Ein Bild Verändert sich. Die Bedeutung der neuentdeckten Gouachen für die Rekonstruktion des Basler Totentanzes."

The picture of the Turk and his wife is taken from this article.