Lübeck's Dance of Death

Hermann Bote's prose dance of death (ca. 1518)

The end of the dance.
Herman Bote

Hermann Bote (ca. 1450 - ca. 1520) was a diligent writer and chronicler. His handwritten "World chronicle" exists in two copies. According to the register, the most recent of these two editions originally ended with eight additions, large parts of which have unfortunately disappeared nowadays.

One of these "Anhänge" is a dance of death, but the start is missing. The first existing page (pictured further down) starts with cardinal, bishop, king and duke. There are 26 participants in total, and the sequence as well as the text is reminiscent of Des dodes dantz from 1489.

The dance differs from most other dances in that there is no dialogue; only Death speaks, and the text is unrhymed prose. On the other hand, the dance element is emphasized again and again, and even though the speeches are short, almost every verse alludes to the dance. Take the first four in the picture further down: »du most hir mydde anden dans«, »tret mydde an mynnen dans«, »du most myde dansen« and »DAnse vort«.

After the 26 participants comes the only illustration, namely of Death with a scythe (pictured right) and the following text in red ink: »O Mynsche dencke wur du bist her gekomen <bist> vnd wat du nu bist vnd wat du werden schast in korter tyt«. This is almost verbatim the same as in Des dodes dantz on the front page and at the end of chapter 66: »O mynsche dencke wor du bist her ghekomen vnde wattu nu byst. unde wat du schalt werden in korter vryst«. The difference is mainly that Bote has converted poetry to prose, so instead of rhyming "byst" with "vryst", he writes "tyt".

Towards the end of the dance, Bote adds a Jew and a heathen, as in Basel and Bern. The Jew will be judged along with "all those who practice usury with this Jew" (there were no usurers in Des dodes dantz). The attitude towards the heathen is milder: Although he "is a heathen, and knows not God, and is not baptized, and has not been taught by the priests of the holy church," he can still hope for the judge's (God's) mercy.

The attitude towards the (servant)girl and boy is also negative: »du denstmaget, […] Hastu dyne hussfruwen nicht bestolen […]« — "you service maid […] if you have not robbed your housewife […]".

At the end there are two pages of moralizing conclusion, reminiscent of Des dodes dantz as well as other contemporary edifying books.

The eight "Anhänge" — and thus the entire manuscript — ends by quoting the Book of Sirach 41:1: »O mors, quam amara est memoria tua homini pacem habenti in substanciis suis ecclesiastici XLI«. This is exactly the same ending as in Des dodes dantz.


Cardinal, bishop, king, duke.
Herman Bote

The text was transcribed by Conrad Borchling in 1902 (see external link), but amazingly he overlooked an unusual detail: The first letter of each verse (the oversized letter) follows the alphabet. To take the first four verses (pictured left):

Cardinal:Alle dyne insage, her kardenal, […]
King:Bystu eyn konigk hoch geboren […]
Bishop:Cum her du leue bischop, […]
Duke:DAnse vort, du gude hertoge, […]

The alphabet is the Low German one, where I=J and U=V, and this is followed until the maiden in the 21st verse: »Wes to frede du schone Juncfruwe«. After that, it was evidently difficult to find words starting with X, Y and Z, so the last 5 verses start with random letters: I, T, D, O and K.

This was first discovered by Peter Honegger in 1975 (see external link), and it shows that this dance was written by Bote himself, and that it is thus not just a copy. The fact is that Bote also made acrostics in other of his books: The 21 chapters in "De koker" ("the quiver of arrows") start, like the dance of death, with the letters A-W, while the chapters in "Dat Boek van veleme Rade" ("the book of many wheels") start with the letters HERMEN BOTE.

Honegger had shortly before discovered another acrostic in the legendary Till Eulenspiegel: In the earliest editions of the book, the last 6 chapters (i.e. before Till's tombstone) began with the letters: "ERMAN B". Honegger's discovery contributes to today's relatively general consensus that Bote is the author of Eulenspiegel.(1)

Honegger and later scholars overlook that the acrostic tells us two more things:

  1. Ever since Borchling, it has been assumed that the start of the dance is missing, because it starts with the cardinal, whereas Des dodes dantz starts with pope, emperor and empress.(2)

    But since the cardinal's verse starts with "A", »Alle dyne insage«, he must be the first in the dance. Of course, this does not rule out the possibility that there once was an introduction which has now been lost.

  2. The words to the peasant must start with Q.

    Therefore I have taken the liberty of correcting Borchling's transcription from »O wele und wrake« to »Qwele und wrake« (torment and punishment).

The Text

The text was transcribed by Conrad Borchling, who added punctuation (see external link). The last two pages with the moralizing ending evidently did not interest Borchling, since he ends the transcription with "etc. etc.".

Borchling's footnotes are marked in green. Mouse over to see details.

1. Kardenal.

De doet: Alle dyne insage, her kardenal, enhelpet dy nicht, du most hir
mydde anden dans. Bystu rechtuerdich gewesen alse dyn stad schal syn so de
hiligen appostelen weren, so dorff dy nicht gruwen vor dem richter.

2. Konigk.

De doet: Bystu eyn konigk hoch geboren, so tret mydde an mynnen dans
vnd dar bistu nicht to eddele to geboren. Wur sunt de anderen konigk
gebleuen myt dem dede erste konigk was alse Nemrot?(3) Hestu de kronen myt
eren dragen, so hestu de kronen van dem richter.

3. Bisschop.

De doet: Cum her du leue bischop, du most myde dansen. Hastu dyn
stichte wol reygeret myt eyner korekappen, an penser vnd hernesch, so ma[ch]stu
gar otmodigen myt dynem bischopbate vor den richter ghan.

4. Hertogen.

De doet: DAnse vort, du gude hertoge, dat swert dy beuolen is, dat wel
dy snyden vor dem richter dorch dyne sele vnd liff. Hestu weddeuen vnd weysen
vnd dyne herstrate beschermet, des kumestu nu to vunde.

5. Abbet.

De doet: Eya gude her abbet, du most mydde dansen den reygen des
bitteren dodes, alse dyn vorvaderen, de hiligen bichtiger, hebben gedan, de den
orden hebben gefunderet. Hastu dat so geholden, so gha.

6. Cruceheren.

De doet: Frunt tret her myt dynem cruce, her hogemeystere vth Prusszen
edder van Rodijs. Hestu wol gefochten so dyn orde vth wyset vmme des cristen
louen willen, so is dat cruce dy eyn guth teken vor dem strengen ryke des

7. Monick.

De doet: Gude broder monnick, du most mede anden dans, du sist wat du
sist van clede, swart wit grauw blau. Hestu dat geyslike cleyt also gedragen
alse yt dy gemaket is, so gha froliken vor den richter.

8. Grauen.

De doet: Hyr anden dans, du graue vnd banrehere, dyn wapen hilppet hir
nicht to, ick wil myt dy striden dat du in de dupe most vorroten inder erde.
Kan dyn hernesch denne dy to hulpe komen vor deme gestrengen richte, des
warstu enwar.

9. Canoneken.

De doet: Ik segge dy vorwar, kum du her myt dyner bessen an mynnen
dans, de vetten prouen helppet nicht. Hestu de nicht vnnuttliken vortert myt
quaserie vnkuscheyt, o so magstu den richter so froliken anseyn vnd myt frauden
to ome gan.

10. Riddere.

De doet: KOne riddere, vechte nu myt dynem swerde, ik wil dy bringen
anden dans. Du bist to ridder slagen; hastu dat wol gevoret, des wultu to
vunde komen, dat de rychter nicht to dode sla myt deme blodigen swerde.

11. Papen.

De doet: LAngk her dyne hant, her domyne du gude pape, vnd danse
mede, yt wel so wesen. Hest du dyne tide vnd myssen geholden na deme
alse dy be uolen is, so decke vp vnd wyse dyne platten dem strengen richter
myt eren.

12. Borgermester.

De doet: MY duncket dat du eyn borgemester bist, so volghe vnd tret
anden dans. Hestu dat gemeyne guth wol vorestan vnd gerichtet noch na
gunste na gyft vnd gaue, so gha myt frygen herten vor den richter, bistu
ane sunde.

13. Clucener.

De doet: Nycht leue clusener, du most anden reygen alse de leue hilige
man Paulus Antonies Jheronymus Eusebeus, der ensedeler mere. Hastu oren
reggelen gevolget, so geyst du gerne vor den richter.

14. Borger.

De doet: O Du borger vth der stad, kum vnd danse dussen reygen mede,
alse mennigh huswerd hest gedan. Hastu nu behorsam gewesen vnd dyn brot
gegetten in swete, so magstu vor den richter ghan mit groter werdicheyt.

15. Nunne.

De doet: Plichtich bistu nunne andussen dans, ga her myt den wercken
vnd dogeden de du indem closter hest gebat. Ane den twyuelden hat de leyder
vnder juck nunnen is, so sunt gy alse liggliken wolrukende krude vor deme

16. Bure.

De doet: Qwele und wrake, du bur, du most hir anden dans. Hastu
vnderdanigh gewesen vnd gegeuen dynen rechten tynsz vnd teghen, neymet
affgeegget edder geploget, so gha vor den richter myt otmodicheyt etc.

17. Begyne.

De doet: REke her dyne hant, du gude begyneke, vnd danse vort vnd
tockere nicht. Hastu dy[n] cleyt an sunde vnd schanden dragen vnde dyne
weddeuenstade so geholden in eren, so ga vor den richter demodigen.

18. Ruther.

De doet: Spring her, du haueruter myt dynem perde, dyn rossgut mach
dy nicht helpen noch vordem dode ock vor dem richter. Schastu nu wedder
geuen dyn rossgut vnd is vordobhelt vnd vortert, o wu drouegen geystu vor
den richter.

19. Fruwe.

De doet: TO dussem danse most du fruwesname ock. Hastu dy[n] echteleuent
geholden, dyne kindere vpgetoghen in eren vnd dogeden, dynnem huswerde
so gedenet alse du dat gerne nemest, so gha vor den richter in frolicheyt.

20. Jodde.

De doet: UOlge du hunt dynes leuendes, du snode jodde, an dussen dans
vnd alle dejenne de myt deme jodden wokerie driuen. Dyn vngeloue vnd wokerie
wel de richter wisen inde affgrunde, wu drouegen wultu den richter anseyn.

21. Juncfruwe.

De doet: Wes to frede du schone Juncfruwe vnd danse vort, du weyst
doch vele to dansen. Hestu dyne otmodicheyt gewandelt in houerderie to
dansen to spele, so bist du sorualdich vor dem richter.

22. Jungelin.

De doet: Jungelin du bist schone vnd suuerlick, du most mydde andussen
dans. Hestu vader vnd moder geerd, behorsam gewesen vnd din leuent nicht
geendet myt dobbelen drincken vnd quaserie, so gha frolicken vor den richter stan.

23. Maget.

De doet: Tret hir an, du denstmaget, to dussem dansen bist du geboren.
Hastu dyne hussfruwen nicht bestolen, nicht to spilde wat gebracht dat tobroken
edder vorloren wart vnd nicht vnhouesch gewesen in worden vnd in wercken, so
ga fry vor den rychter.

24. Knecht.

De doet: Du denstknecht, gha her vnd danse mede. Hastu dynem heren
myt truwen denet alse eyn from knecht synem heren denen schal, so gha myt
frolichheyt vor den richter.

25. Heyden.

De doet: O Du heyden du vmbekanden mynschen, du most mydde andussen
dans. Wal bistu eyn heyden vnd kenst gode nicht vnd bist nicht gedofft vnd
nicht belerd dorch de prester der hiligen kercken, hir so magstu vorden richter
gan vppe syne barmherticheyt.

26. Dat kint.

De doet: Kum her du kyndeken myt dyner wegen vnd danse myde dussen
reygen. O welck eyn leyslick dot: ane twyuele eyn kint dat gedofft is vnd
sterfft jungk, dat is eyn engele vor deme richter godes.

O Mynsche dencke wur du bist her gekomen <bist> vnd wat du nu
bist vnd wat du werden schast in korter tyt.

De doet: Hyr an hir an jungk vnd olt, arme vnd rike, eddele vnd vnedele,
alle de vnder dussen vorbeschreuen staten beseten syn se [moten] myt one komen an
dussen dans. Gy hebbet gesmecket de drangk des bitteren dodes de juck Adam
geeruet hefft indem paredise. Weset dar inne bereydet vnd alle stunde vnd
ogenblicke bin ick by ju vnd wettet nicht, wanner dat ick ju wil drepen. Ick
kome sliken also eyn deyff, dencket nicht dat gy morgen tide noch hebben etc.

Eyn islick mynsche alse hir beuoren inden dans getoge[n] wart, de
kurre dar nicht wedder, men he wese dar inne duldich vnd beter sick in synem
state vnd in synem leuende, dat is de wille godes, vnd lere to tiden steruen.
Doch wa wol wen eyn mynsche alle tijt vppe den bitteren dôt dechte, so were
he nummer frolick. Dar vmme is hir nicht nutters to, men dat me wol do vnd
wese frolick, so dorff he nicht myt angeste leuen, wente vns nale de jungeste
dach, dat de almechtige got wert komen inden wolcken vnd wel richten ouer
de leuendigen vnd ock de doden. etc. etc.

Links and Resources

Further information:

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Honegger also argued he could find an entire alphabet in the rest of the book about Till Eulenspiegel, but this is more disputed, for it requires the chapters to be rearranged more chronologically, and in many cases the words to be replaced by other Low German words with the same meaning, or that the spelling be changed.

Critics have pointed out that if the same principle of chronological repositioning were used on the last 6 chapters, "ERMAN B" would disappear, because these 6 chapters also do not come in the "correct" order.

Brigitte Schulte, page 242: Der Totentanz setzt, wahrscheinlich weil die vorangehenden Blätter der Weltchronik verloren gegangen sind, mit der Figur des Kardinals ein.
(See external link)

Ellen Breede: Durch Beschädigung der Blätter ist der Anfang des Totentanzes verloren gegangen; die Reihe der erhaltenen Figuren sieht folgender- massen aus: Kardinal, König, Bischof, […]
(Studien zu den lateinischen und deutschsprachlichen Totentanztexten, page 166)

According to the Bible, Nimrod was the first king:

"Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior." (Genesis 10:8)