The oldest dance of death in the world

This is the Latin and German text from the world's oldest dance of death, Cpg 314.

The text is taken from Der Ursprung der Totentänze by Wilhelm Fehse pp. 50-58, and compared with "Makabertanz" by Stephan Cosacchi, 1965, pp. 735-740. The German text is compared with an unpublished text by Mischa von Perger, while the Latin is compared with "Der mittelalterliche Totentanz" by Rosenfeld pp. 320-23. See the external links.

"dz" is resolved as "daz", and "vm̄" as "vmb". The punctuation is Fehse's, and, on the whole, the manuscript contains a very large number of rare abbreviations, so one often just has to rely on Fehse having interpreted them correctly.

The illustrations are from Heidelberg's block book and each picture is linked to the corresponding dancer in this dance. There is only one preacher in Heidelberg.

Original textTranslation
vide d' h° i albo codice d' qmda artiu a pn'° pict'as

    Der erst prediger.

O vos uiuentes huius mundi sapientes,
Cordibus apponite duo verba christi, venite
Nec non et ite, per primum ianua vite
Justis erit nota, sed per aliud quoque porta
Inferi monstratur: sic res diuersificatur.
Gaudia vel pene sine fine sunt ibi plene.
Hinc voce sana vos hortor spernere vana.
Tempus namque breue uiuendi, postea ve ue
Mors geminata parit, sua nulli uis quoque parcit.
Fistula tartarea vos iungit in una chorea,
Qua licet inuiti saliunt ut stulti periti.
Hec ut pictura docet exemplique figura.


The first preacher

O diser welt we˙sha˙tt kint,
Alle die noch in leben sint,
Setzt in ẅer hercz zwa˙ wort,
Die von cristo sind gehort.
Das ain gett her, daz ander gett hin,
Durch das erst die frummen hånd gw˙n
Mit dez himels port, die in geöffent ist.
Das ander die bösen we˙st
Ab zů der hellischen porten.
Also wirt in den worten
Gegeben ain söllich vnderscha˙d:
Das ain halb ist gantz fröd bera˙tt,
Anderhalb die pe˙n ach genczl˙ch,
Über al on ende ewikl˙ch.
Dar vmb ich ẅch getreẅl˙ch rått,
Ir tůt ẅch ab üppiger tått.
Wann die cze˙tt ist kurcz an disem leben.
Dar nach wirt achh vnd wee gegeben
Durch den czw˙fachen tod,
Der über n˙mant erbårmd hått.
Mit se˙ner hellischen pfe˙ffen schre˙en
Bringt er ewch all an ainen ra˙en,
Dar an die we˙sen alz die narren
Gezw[u]ngen in den sprüngen farn;
Als des gemäldes figuren
Sind s˙ ain ebenbi[l]d zů truren.

Oh, Children of the wisdom of this world,(1)
all who are still alive.
Put two words in your heart
that were heard from Christ.
The one is "come here", the other "go away"(2)
Through the first, the pious [people] have advantage
with Heaven's gate, which is opened to them.
The other leads the evil [people]
away to the gates of Hell.
Thus, in these words
is given such a difference:
For one half, complete pleasure has been prepared,
the other half, alas, pure pain
over all, without end, forever.
Therefore I advice you earnestly
that you avoid idle deeds
for time is short in this life.
Then there'll be "alas and alack"
through the double Death(3)
who has mercy on nobody.
With the screeches of his hellish fife
he brings you all into a dance.
where the wise [men] as [well as] the fools
are forced to join the dancing.
Like these painted figures,
they are a perfect image to mourn over.

Heidelberg, Preacher

Item alius doctor depictus predicando
in opposita parte de contemptu mundi.

O uos mortales, peruersi mundi sodales,
Finem pensate que futura considerate,
Qualibus ad primum tempus que requiritur, ˙mum
Pro loco duplatur, ubi fines perpetuatur.
Mors horrenda nimis est cunctorum quoque finis.
Qualiter aut quando venerit, manet in dubitando.
Sic etiam dura noscuntur inde futura
Propter ignotum remanendi locum quoque totum.
Pendet a factis in isto mundo peractis.
Ergo peccare desistite, si properare
Ad finem cupitis optatum, nam bene scitis,
Quod celum dignis locus est, sed fit malis ignis.


O ir tötl˙chen menschen all,
Die der falschen welt wölt wolgefallen,
Bedenkt, w˙e daz ende se˙,
Vnd merkett, waz künftig ist da p˙:
Zů dem ersten gehört w˙e vnd wenn,
Das letscht ist zw˙faltig benennt,
Wå die statt czů ple˙ben ist.
Der tod ẅch allen das end bewe˙st.
Aber w˙e oder wenn des todes cze˙tt
Kummen sol, des enw˙st ir nit.
Es wirt erkant ẅch allen: hertt,
Was ˙ederman dar nach ist beschertt
Vmb das vnkündig ist die statt,
Wå ˙[e]derman se˙n ple˙ben hått.
Das alles wirt an den werken hangen,
Die in diser welt sind begangen.
Dar vmb solt ir von sünden lån,
Wölt ir zů dem end gån,
Des ir alle se˙tt begirl˙ch;
Vnd ist dar zů wol w˙ssentl˙ch,
Das der himel wirt den frummen,
In das fuir die bösen kummen.

Oh all you mortal humans,
who wish for pleasures in this false world.
Consider how the end will be
and notice what is imminent thereby.
Firstly there's how and when
the last is mentioned twice:
Where the continuing place is.(4)
Death will show you all the end
but how and when the time of Death
shall come, you don't know.
It will be realized by you all, hard,
what each man then has been allotted:
concerning that the place is unknown
where each man has his continuation;(5)
that everything hangs on to the works,
that are done in this world.
Therefore you shall refrain from sinning,
if you want to go towards the end.
This you should all desire,
and it is also certain
that the pious [people] go into Heaven;
The evil come into the fire.


Sanctus dicebar, nullum viuendo verebar
Friuole nunc ducor ad mortem, vane reluctor.

    Ad idem.


Ich was ain ha˙liger babst genant,
Die we˙l ich lebt an forcht bekant,
Nu wird ich gefürt freuenl˙ch
Zů dem tod, ich weer mich üppikl˙ch.

I was called a holy pope.
While I lived I didn't know fear.
Now I'll be outrageously lead
to Death. I defend myself vainly.
Heidelberg, Pope


Culmen imperii vincendo magnificaui,
Morte sum victus, non cesar, non homo dictus.

    Ad idem.


Ich kund daz re˙che in hocher eren
Mit stre˙tt vnd fechten wol gemeren,
Nu håt der tod überw[u]nden mich,
Das ich pin weder ka˙ser noch menschen gle˙ch.

I could honour the empire highly,
increase it well with struggle and fight.
Now, Death has defeated me,
so that I am neither like emperor nor human being.
Heidelberg, Emperor


Deliciis vsa viuens vt cesaris vxor,
Morte confusa nullis modo gaudiis vtor.

    Ad idem.


Wollust hett me˙n stolczer le˙b,
Do ich lebt alz ains ka˙sers we˙b.
Nu håt mich der tod zů schanden bråcht,
Daz mir dehain fröd ist mer erdacht.

My proud body had sensual pleasures,
while I lived as an emperor's wife.
Now has Death destroyed me,
so that no happiness can be found for me anymore.
Heidelberg, Empress


Ut ego rex vrbem, sic rexi non minus orbem.
Nunc miser in penis mortis constringor habenis.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån als ain konig geweltikl˙ch
Die welt gereg˙rt als rom das re˙ch;
Nun pin ich mit todes panden
Verstrikt in se˙nen handen.

I have as a king mightily
reigned over the world, like Rome the kingdom.
Now I'm with Death's bonds
ensnared in his hands.
Heidelberg, King


Ecclesie gratus fui per papam piliatus;
Mortis proteruam nunc stringor adire cateruam.

    Ad idem.


Ich was mit babstl˙cher wal
Der ha˙ligen k˙rchen kardinal;
Nun pin ich dor zů gezw[u]ngen gar,
Das ich tancz an des todes schar.

I was through papal election
cardinal for the holy church.
Now I am completely coerced to it
that I'm dancing in the troop of dead.
Heidelberg, Cardinal


Duplici signatus cruce sum patriarcha vocatus,
Et mortis dire cogor consortes adire.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån das zw˙fach crücz getragen
Als ain patriarch pe˙ me˙nen tagen;
Nun w˙l der tod mich zwingen,
Mit se˙nen gesellen zů springen.

I have carried the double cross
as a patriarch in my days.
Now Death will force me
to dance with his fellows.
Heidelberg, Patriarch


Doctrina fultis hoc signum pretuli multis,
Metropolitanus nunc cum vanis ego vanus.

    Ad idem.


Ich trůg in hocher wirdika˙tt
Das crücz vor der pfaffha˙tt,
Als ain erczbischof daz tragen sol;
Nun gen ich an der toten zal.

I carried with high worthiness
the cross before the clergy
as an archbishop shall carry it.
Now I go to this number of dead.
Heidelberg, Archbishop


Nobiles eduxi, quorum dux ipse reluxi,
Sed nunc vt adeam cogor cum morte coream.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån die edlen herren fert
Als ain herczog gereg˙rt mit dem schwert;
Nun pin ich in fechen cla˙dern glancz
Gezw[u]ngen an des todes tancz.

I have lead the noble men -
governed as a duke with the sword.
Now I am - in the splendour of gaudy clothes -
forced to the dance of death.
Heidelberg, Duke


Presul egregius venerabar hic quasi dijus;
Hew nunc distorti presummunt me dare morti.

    Ad idem.


Ich pin wirdikl˙ch geeret worden,
Die we˙l ich lebt in bischofs orden;
Nu z˙echen mich die vngeschaffen
Zů dem tancz als ainen affen.

I have been worthily honoured
while I lived in a bishop's office.
Now the misshapen are drawing me
to the dance as a monkey.
Heidelberg, Bishop


Nobilis imperii comes in mundo reputatus
Morte nunc perii corisantibus associatus.

    Ad idem.


Ich was in der welt genant
Ain edler gråf dem re˙ch bekant;
Nun pin ich von dem tod gefellet
Vnd hie an se˙nen tancz gestellett.

In the world I was called
a noble count - renowned in the empire.
Now I'm felled by Death
and placed here in his dance.
Heidelberg, Count


Ut pater ar[c]taui monachos et optime paui,
Nunc ego met stringor et mortis regula cingor.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån vil monn˙ch als ain apt gelert,
Streng gezogen vnd wol genertt.
Nun wird ich selber hie gezw[u]ngen,
Mit des todes regel gedrungen.

I have - as an abbot - taught many monks;
strictly brought up and well nourished.(6)
Now I myself am here subdued
and under compulsion of Death's rule.(7)
Heidelberg, Abbot


Strenuus in armis deduxi gaudia carnis,
Contra iura mea ducor in ista chorea.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån als ain strenger r˙tter gůt
Der welt ged˙nt in hochem můt;
Nun pin [ich] w˙der r˙tters orden
An disen tancz gezw[u]ngen worden.

I have - as a stern knight -
served the world well with noble mind.
Now I have - against knights' order -
become coerced to this dance.
Heidelberg, Knight


Non iuuat appello de mortis ultimo bello;
Succumbunt iura legesque sub ista figura.

    Ad idem.


Es hilff dehain appell˙ren nit
Von des todes letzsten stre˙tt.
Er überwindet mit se˙nem geschlecht
Das weltl˙ch vnd das ga˙stl˙ch recht.

No appealing helps
against Death's last dispute.
He defeats - with his kin -
the worldly and the ecclesiastical law.
Heidelberg, Juror


In choro cantaui melodias quas adamaui;
Discrepat iste sonus et mortis fistule tonus.

    Ad idem.


Ich hon alz ain korherre fre˙.
Gesungen manig l˙ebl˙ch melod˙;
Des todes pfe˙ff stett dem nit gl˙ch,
S˙ hot gar sere erschreket mich.

I have as a free canon(8)
sung many lovely melodies.
Death's fife is not like it;
it has terrified me so much.
Heidelberg, Canon


Curavi multos iuuenes mediocres adultos.
Quis modo me curat? Mihi mors contraria iurat.

    Ad idem.


Ich hån mit me˙nem harnschawen
Gesund gemacht mann vnd fråen.
Wer w˙l mich nun machen gesund?
Ich pin zů dem tode w[u]nt.

I have with my urine-watching(9)
made man and women sound.
Who will now make me sound?
I am wounded to death.
Heidelberg, Physician


Armis consortes in uita terrui fortes;
Nunc mortis terror me terret, ultimus error.

    Ad idem.


Ich hon manchen man erschrekt,
Der wol mit harnasch was bedekt;
Nun erschrekt mich hie der tod
Vnd pringt mich in die jungsten not.

I have frightened many men,
who were well covered by armour.
Now Death is frightening me here
and brings me in extreme distress.
Heidelberg, Nobleman


Plaudere deberem, si ludicra vite viderem,
Fistula me fallit mortis, quae dissana psallit.

    Ad idem.


Ich solt tre˙ben juchtzens vil,
Sech ich vor mir der fröden sp˙l.
Des todes pfe˙ff mich betrügt;
Disß tanczgesank hie fälschl˙chen luigt.

I ought to shout with joy a lot
[when] I see before me this happy play.
Death's fife deceives me;
this dance song, it lies falsely.
Heidelberg, Noblewoman

    Mercator sew civis.

Viuere speraui thesauros elaboraui,
Munera mors spernit, ab amicis meque secernit.

    Ad idem.

Merchant or Citizen

Ich hett mich zů leben versorget wol,
Das k˙sten vnd kasten wårn vol.
Nu håt dem tod me˙n gåb verschmåcht
Vnd mich vmb le˙b vnd gůt bråcht.

In life I had provided well,
that chest and [money]box were full.
Now Death has disdained my gift
and have separated me from body and goods.
Heidelberg, Merchant


In claustro grata seruiui cristo velata.
Quit valet orare, me mors iubet hic corisare.

    Ad idem.


Ich han in dem closter me˙n
Got ged˙net alz ain gewe˙ltes nünlein
Was hilfft mich nun me˙n beeten
Ich můsß des todes ra˙en treten.

I have in my monastery
served God as a veiled nun.
What does my praying avail me now?
I must step into the dead's dance.
Heidelberg, Nun


Pavper mendicus viuenti turpis amicus,
Morti carus erit, illum cum diuite querit.

    Ad idem.


Ain armer ge˙ler hie in leben
Zů ainem frẅnd ist n˙mant eben;
Aber der tod w˙l se˙n frẅnd se˙n,
Er nimpt in mit dem re˙chen hin.

A poor beggar here in life;
Nobody is a friend,
but Death will be his friend.
He takes him away along with the rich.
Heidelberg, Beggar / Cripple


Fercula condita quamuis in mundo paraui,
Raptus a uita mortem minime superaui.

    Ad idem.


Ich han erlärt vil pfeffer sek
Vnd gemacht daz süsß geschläk,
Vnd kund dez köstlins doch nit finden,
Dar mit ich den tod möcht überwinden.

I have emptied many sacks of pepper
and made sweet goodies -
and yet can't find any delicacies
with which I might defeat Death.
Heidelberg, Cook


Hic in sudore vixi magnoque labore;
Non minus a morte fugio contraria sorte.

    Ad idem.


Ich han gehebt vil arba˙tt grosß;
Der schwa˙sß mir durch die hwt flosß.
Noch wolt ich gern dem tod empfl˙chen,
So hån ich des glüks nit hie.

I have had much hard work,
the sweat was flowing through my skin.
Still, I would like to flee Death;
in this I have no luck here.
Heidelberg, Peasant

    Puer in cunabulo.

O cara mater, me vir a te trahit acer,
Debeo saltare, qui nunquam sciui meare.

    Ad idem.

Child in cradle

O we l˙be můter me˙n,
Ain schwarczer man zeucht mich do hin.
W˙e w˙ltu mich also verlån?
Můsß ich tanczen vnd kan nit gån!

Oh woe, my dear mother.
A black man drags me away.
How can you leave me thus?
I must dance and can't [yet] walk.
Heidelberg, Child in cradle


O filij care que te volui liberare,
Morte preuenta saliendo sumque retenta.

    Ad idem.


O kint, ich wolt dich haben erlöst;
So ist enpfallen mir der trost.
Der tod håt das fürkomen
Vnd [hat] mich mit dir genomen.

Oh child, I would have saved you.
Thus I have lost my consolation,
Death has forestalled it
and taken me along with you.
Heidelberg, Mother

External Links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

children of the wisdom of this world. . .: is a reference to 1stCorinthians 1:20 where the wisdom of this world is false wisdom as compared to the superior Christian wisdom: Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

The allusion is even clearer in the Latin text: ģhuius mundi sapientesĢ, the same three words that end 1 Corinthians 1:20 in the Vulgate: ģUbi sapiens? ubi scriba? ubi conquisitor hujus sæculi? Nonne stultam fecit Deus sapientiam hujus mundi?Ģ

The dances of death in Lübeck, Paris and London also started with an allusion to wisdom and eternal life.

Come here / go away. . . The preacher refers to Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats:
Matthew 25:34: Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
Matthew 25:41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
The Double Death. . . reference to Judgement day and the eternal torment:
Revelation 2,11: He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
Revelation 20,6: Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
Revelation 20,14: And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
Revelation 21,8: But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

In the next line, The Double Death becomes personified.

continuing place . . .: the Latin text "remanendi locum" shows that "statt czu pleyben" means "permanent residence" (modern German: Stätte), and not "city" (modern German: Stadt).

In everyday German it's not unusual to mix the words up in "bleibende Statt/Stadt/Stätte" and thus the German translator might have meant for "statt czu pleyben" to be an allusion to Hebrews 13:14 ģFor here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to comeĢ, which in German sounds ģDenn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt, sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.Ģ

Notice that this allusion is not present in the Latin text, where "locum" (i.e. place) could hardly be confused with the "civitatem" (i.e. city) of the Vulgate Bible.

The German translator is struggling, but he's hard to follow, and it doesn't help things that he has added an "vüch allen" (= "by you all"), which isn't in the Latin text. The Latin text means: ģHow and when he [Death] will come remains uncertain and therefore the future will also be known as hard, because the continuing place is totally unknown as wellĢ.
nourished . . .: nourished with the daily bread, God's word, of course.

In Cpg 438 the abbot instead says ģgemertĢ (= "increased").

rule . . .: The code of regulations observed by a religious order or congregation: The Franciscan rule (Webster).
canon...: a priest attached to a cathedral. The canons are so called because they lead a rule bound life, "vita canonica".
Physician with urine glass.
Physician with urine glass
urine-watching . . .: Watching a urine sample was an indispensable part of medieval medical practice.

See picture to the right from the dance of death in Lübeck.