The oldest dance of death in the world

Cpg 314
Cpg 314

The University in Heidelberg has a collection of various scripts bound into a single volume called Cpg 314(1)

This book was collected by Sigismund Gossembrot (1417-1493), who wrote a great part of the book himself — including the 4 pages, which contain the dance of death text that we are examining here.

The dance is very special in that it is written in both Latin and German. First comes one preacher in Latin, then the headline "Theutunice" (i.e. "German"), and then a German translation. Then comes the second preacher in Latin, one more time "Theutunice" and one more translation. Each of the 24 dancers speak two lines in Latin followed by the headline "Ad idem" (i.e. "the same") and four lines of German translation.

Family tree over the dances of death In a way it's misleading when I write in the headline that this is "The oldest dance of death in the world", since this part of the book is from around 1443,(2) while la Danse Macabre of Paris was from 1424.

On the other hand, this manuscript represents an early step in the evolution of the dances of death. The text is a variant of the so-called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, as we know it from Heidelberg and Basel, but compared to the present manuscript many changes had already been introduced in Basel around 1440 (see the sketch to the left): Death was added, the text was changed, and the number of dancers was increased from 24 to ca. 39.

Therefore Gossembrot's manuscript must be a late copy of a very old manuscript. It has 3 strange properties, which we will examine:

No Death

The child in Heidelberg ignores Death and calls for his mother.
Heidelberg, Child

The most remarkable thing is that Death doesn't appear. How can one have a dance of death without Death?

The 24 dancers introduce themselves: »I was a holy pope […]«, »I have, as king […]«, lament their fate, and let the next participant take over.

In all the other (newer) versions of Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, Death has been supplied with speeches, but the result is only ostensibly a dialogue: Death greets the humans energetically, vivaciously, ironically - even humorously - while the humans ignore Death's words, introduce themselves to the reader, »I was a holy pope […]«, »I have, as king […]«, whereupon they go on lamenting. In other dances of death, like the ones in Lübeck and Berlin, the dying might address Death directly and implore for respite, but this never happens in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz.

This is most clear at the end of the dance, where the mother ignores Death and addresses her son: »Oh child, I would have saved you;«, while the child in turn also ignores Death and calls for his mother: »Oh woe, my dear mother […] How can you leave me thus?«.

Read more about Death's Dance, or Line of the Dead?


The most interesting part is that the text is rendered in both a Latin and German version.

1. preacher
2. preacher

Scholars have fought over whether the German text is a translation of the Latin, or vice versa. In the 1800's, scholars like for instance Maßmann(3) were looking for an "Urtext": It was assumed that all existing manuscripts were imperfect copies (and copies of copies) of the original, perfect Urtext. In Maßmann's world the 4 pages in Cpg 314 bore the mark of an "imperfect copy" because the illustrations and Death's speeches were missing. When the German text in Cpg 314 was a "degenerated" copy, and the Latin text suffered from the same short-comings, none of them could be the "Urtext". Therefore the Latin text had to be a translation of the "degenerated" German text.

Today on the other hand it's agreed that the Latin text is the original. The reason is that the Latin text is simply better than the German. The Latin text is short and precise in Leonine(4) hexameter, while the German text is almost twice as long, less precise and with an erratic meter.(5)

The king in Heidelberg: "as a ruler I ruled the rule-dom".
Heidelberg's block book

An example is the king, who says »Ut ego rex urbem, sic rexi non minus orbem«. The text builds on an old word-play "urbem et orbem". Urbem means the city, i.e. Rome, and orbem is the globe or Earth. We could translate the King's speech as: "When I was king of Rome, I was in no less degree king of the whole Earth". The trouble with this translation is that the urbem/orbem wordplay has disappeared, the text is almost twice as long and it doesn't rhyme.

The German translator has faithfully tried to retain the connection between Rome and Earth, and he has added the word "gewaltiglich" in order to rhyme with "reich": »Ich han als ein kunig gewaltiglich / Die welt geregiert als rom das reich.«. This strange construction »als rom das reich« has been incomprehensible for the readers and in Heidelberg "rom" has become "reyn" »gereigiret als reyn das reich«. Now the clever word-play has been reduced to a clumsy line about the king having "ruled the rule-dom as a ruler".

The text abounds with patch-words like "gewaltiglich" - words that are evidently only added in order to make the verses rhyme. For instance the pope says in Latin »Sanctus dicebar, nullum vivendo verebar« i.e. "I was called holy. I, when living, feared nobody". In German it becomes »Ich was ein heiliger pabst genant / Die weil ich lebt, on forcht bekant«. The word "bekant" is totally superfluous, but it rhymes.

There are many of these patch-words — i.e. rhyming words, which don't have a counterpart in the Latin text. The count says »Ich was in der welt genant / Ein edler graf, dem reich bekant«, where the Latin text could only justify one of the words "genant" or "bekant". The patriarch has carried the double cross "in my days" in order that "tagen" may rhyme with "getragen".

The opposite is not true. There are no Latin rhyme-words that aren't reflected in the German text. On the contrary the translator has carefully attempted to copy each and every Latin word. It's typical that the translator tries to include as many words as possible in the first line, and then returns to pick up the remaining words for the second line.

As an example the text starts with »O vos viventes huius mundi sapientes«. In the first line the translator has managed to include almost all the words: »O diser welt weisheit kind«, but there's a "viventes", missing, so this goes into the second line: »Alle die noch im leben sind«.

The Latin text continues »Cordibus apponite duo verba Christi: Venite«, which in German becomes »Setzt in euer herz zwei wort«. Here the translator has "forgotten" Christ, so he comes in the next line: »Die von Cristo sind gehort«.

All this goes to show that the original text has been in Latin, and that we in this manuscript have an important transitional stage of the text, which later was to appear in the more famous dances of death like Heidelberg and Basel.


Picture from "the white book"
Augsburger totentanz

There are no pictures on the 4 pages, but three things seem to prove that the text has been copied from a book, which has been illustrated.

Firstly the first preacher refers to "painted figures" (German: gemeldes figuren, Latin: pictura […] exemplique figura).

Secondly Gossembrot states in the headline that the second "doctor" is depicted preaching: »Item alius doctor depictus predicando in opposita parte de contemptu mundi«.

Thirdly Gossembrot himself in a note urges us to look elsewhere for the pictures. At the top of the first page he writes: »vide d'hO in albo codice d'qmda artium a pnO pictsas«. This "puzzle" has been solved as »vide de hoc in albo codice de commenda artium a principio picturas« or in English: "see the pictures in the white book with the custody of the [seven free] arts at the beginning".(6)

Augsburger Totentanz
Augsburger totentanz

It's thought that this "white book about the seven free arts" is another one of Gossembrot's book, which is called Clm 3941(7). This book contains a totally different dance of death, which is normally called the Augsburger Totentanz (picture to left and right), but evidently Gossembrot has realized that a proper dance of death need pictures.

A peculiar property of the Augsburger Totentanz is that it isn't a traditional chain-dance, where Death takes each dancer by the hand. Instead Death leads 4-5 dancers (of which the last one always is a woman) away in a row. Therefore the pictures fit well with Cpg 314, which doesn't have a dialogue between Death and the humans.

Still, on this site I will not use the Augsburger Totentanz, but rather Heidelberg's block book for illustrating the text of the world's oldest dance of death.

Gå fremad

Read the world's oldest dance of death with a translation.

External Links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)

Cpg 314. . . : Cpg is short for Codices Palatini Germanici. Thus Cpg 314 is the name of the 314th German-language book in Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg.

The four pages with the dance of death are called H1 as opposed to Heidelberg's second dance of death, which is called H2 (for an explanation of these names, se the main page about The High German 4-line Dance of Death).

The leaves 54-103 (where the dance of death is placed) belong together and have the same watermark: A balance scale within a circle. A text by Freidank on leaves 82-94 ends thus: »Explicit Fridankus In Augusta Anno domini Mo cccco xliiio« [1443].

This information is taken from Mischa von Perger, Totentanz-Studien page 247, who in turn quotes Matthias Miller, Die Codices Palatini germanici pages 56-66.

Other pages towards the end of the manuscript are dated 1447 and 1449.

Maßmann. . . : I'm quoting from Der Schatzgräber in den literarischen und bildlichen Seltenheiten p. 123 bottom.
Leonine. . . : poetic style where the middle and end of each respective line rhyme. Popular in the 12th century, and named after its inventor, Leoninus, a canon of the Church of St. Victor, in Paris.
Many of these arguments are taken from Wilhelm Fehse's article Der Oberdeutsche Vierzeilige Totentanztext in Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, 1906, pp. 67-92.
with the custody. . . : Originally I had written "with the recommendations", but I have received the following clarification from Mischa von Perger (who was also kind enough to correct countless other errors):

»Your translation, "with the recommendations", suggests the latin expression "de commendatione". Some people thought that Gossembrot must have had in mind "de commendatione" when he actually wrote "de commenda". If you think so, you should render the latin text in line 7 as "de commenda<tione>", indicating that the last syllables of the word were left out by Gossembrot. However, "commenda" is a common low latin word. Maybe Gossembrot wanted to suggest that the founders of the arts gave them to us "in commendam", i.e. that they committed the arts to our trust. The "white codex" actually begins with a text about the founders of the arts.)«

Clm 3941. . . : Clm is short for Codices Latini Monacenses — i.e. Latin books from Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in München/Munich.