Title page

Niels Prahl (1724 - 1792) was an author and translator with a voluminous production, but most of his work was anonymous. His last — unfinished — work was a translation of Schummel's "Der kleine Voltäre" (i.e. The Little Voltaire). This had to be completed by others, but library secretary Frederik Ekkard took the occasion to write a eulogy for Prahl: An introductory chapter with a biography, where he also attempted to track down and list all the anonymous works originating from the industrious Prahl. We find Døde-Dands on this list (page XXV).

Tell, reader! can you here see for certain
Who was squire and peasant of these?
Detail from title page

The Human life's Flight or Døde-Dands was printed in Copenhagen in 1762. On the title page above one can see the name Thomas Larsen Borup, and it is believed that it was he who published the book and for all we know he might also have designed the woodcuts. But as mentioned, the author was in all probability Niels Prahl.

The rhymed introduction is signed Thomas Larsen Borup, but was doubtlessly written by Niels Prahl as well. The author tells how he himself has created the woodcuts: »Jeg dem møysommelig i Træ udgravet har, Naar mig en Times Tid fra andet øvrig var« (i.e. I have painstakingly excavated them in tree, when an hour or so was free from other work). He also states that he believes to be the first to ever have printed a dance of death in Danish:

Jeg, kjære Læsere! har ogsaa havt for Øje
Med dette lidet Verk, at gavne og fornøje;
  Vi ingen Dødedands, saavidt mig er bekjendt,
  I vores danske Sprog har forhen havt paa Prent.
I, dear readers! have also had in mind
with this small work to benefit and to amuse;
  We no dance of death, as fas as I am aware,
  In our Danish language have so far had in printing.

This is not quite true, since there was already Copenhagen's dance of death, Dødedantz, Den Lybekske Dødning-Dantz (only in the Danish section) and Typus Omnium Morientium.

After this introduction and a concert with dead men's music come the individual dances: Death to the dying (12 lines), the person's answer (12 lines) and the author's conclusion (4 lines).

Death makes no bones (pun intended) about telling that he is God's messenger. This sometimes results in a rather condescending language. Particularly towards the (Catholic) pope and the "infidel" Jew and Turk.

Døde-Dands was reprinted in 1770, 1814 and 1967.

Dead men's music
Death to the pope
Death to the emperor
Death to the king
Death to the queen
Death to the cardinal
Death to the bishop
Death to the nobleman
Death to the priest
Death to the stargazer
Death to the physician
Death to the jurist
Death to the merchant
Death to the townsman
Death to the monk
Death to the hermit
Death to the maiden
Death to the dancing master
Death to the fencing master
Death to the hunter
Death to the chef
Death to the soldier
Death to the innkeeper  
Death to the servant girl
Death to the pedlar
Death to the watchman
Death to the peasant
Death to the Jew
Death to the miser
Death to the Turk
Death to the lovers
Death to the old man
Death to the old woman
Death to Harlequin
Death to the children
Death to the beggar
Christ's victory over Death
Psalm. 90 Chap. 12 v.

The entire text in Danish (1814-edition): Døde-Dands

Døde-Dands in Swedish

The Doctor in Danish
The Human life's Flight or Døde-Dands
Swedish translation.
Det mänskliga lifwets obeständighet

Døde-Dands has been translated into Swedish: »Det mänskliga lifwets obeständighet eller Samtal, imellan döden och människor af allehanda stånd. Öfwersatt ifrån Danska Språket«. The picture to the right is taken from Aldred Warthin's book, "The Physician of the Dance of Death".

Judging from this small sample, the Swedish text is markedly tamer than the original: There's no reference to the doctor killing his patients and no parallel is made between the two glasses, the doctor's urine flask and Death's hourglass. The two tools of the two killers:

Hr. Doctor! det er Tid, du kunsten maae opgive,
Og ey methodice fleer Mennesker aflive.
  Du paa Urin-Glas seer, som Styrmand paa Compas;
  Men glemmer derimod dit Lives Time-Glas.
Herr Doctor nu är det tid, att konsten din uppgifwa,
Du får ej längre tid att fler resepter skrifwa.
  Se att ditt timglas re'n till botten runnit är,
  Som wittnar att ditt lif ej längre skonas lär.
Mr Doctor, it is time that you must give up your art,
and not methodically put away more people.
  You at your urine glass stare, as coxswain at compass,
  But in contrast you forget your life's hourglass.
Mister Doctor, now is it time to give up your art,
You will now longer have time to write more prescriptions.
  See that your hourglass already[?] has run to the bottom
  Which testifies that your life no longer will be spared.
The Danish cook
Døde-Dands, Cook
The Swedish cook (not to be confused with the Swedish chef from Muppet Show)
Døde-Dands, Døde-Dands

Det mänskliga lifwets obeständighet was first printed in Stockholm 1777. According to some sources, the last edition was printed in Falun 1822, but Warthin writes that his image is from a copy from 1838.

Warthin also informs us that »The same woodcuts used in the Danish edition are repeated, reduced in size, and reversed«. This statement is true for the physician, which was the only character that Wartin was interested in, but the two other samples I have found are not reversed. Compare the Danish cook (to the left) with the Swedish cook (to the right) and the Danish fencing master with the Swedish fencing master.

Inspiration for Døde-Dands

Christ's victory over Death
Døde-Dands, Christ
Die menschliche sterblichkeit
Meyer 1650: Die menschliche sterblichkeit

The most obvious inspiration for the woodcuts in Døde-Dands is Rudolf and Conrad Meyer's Die menschliche sterblichkeit, unter dem titel Todten-tanz from 1650.

Døde-Dands, Usurer
Die menschliche sterblichkeit
Meyer 1650: Usurer

This is particularly clear in the cases of Christ's victory over Death (above) and the usurer (left and right).

Other examples are the innkeeper, who is standing with his jug, while Death kicks him and flogs him with a moneybag (Meyer); the monk, who is pulled away by his own sash cord (Meyer); and the nobleman, who is wrapped up in his own cloak (Meyer).

Døde-Dands, Cook
Basels' dance of death

On the other hand, the cook (to the left), holding his empty jug, while Death carries his frying spit as a spear, is inspired by the cook in Basel (picture to the right).

In the same manner the Jew was copied from Basel. This is also true for the Jew by Meyer, but in Meyer's version the coins (and dice) are already lying on the ground and Death only pulls the Jew's clothing. In Basel and Døde-Dands Death tugs the Jew's beard and the coins are still in midair. There are however no dice in Døde-Dands.

Døde-Dands, Dancing master
Døde-Dands, Fencing master

Døde-Dands might in turn have influenced Thomas Nugent. In his book Travels through Germany from 1768 he included a rather free translation of Lübeck's dance of death, and without any explanation he has added two extra dancers at the end of the procession, namely the dancing-master and the fencing-master.

Nugent's text is very different from Døde-Dands, but it could be that the presence of these two figures was inspired by Døde-Dands.

More about Thomas Nugent.


The book was reprinted in 1967.

Images from Døde-Dands

Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Music
Døde-Dands 1762: Pope
Døde-Dands 1762: Emperor
Døde-Dands 1762: King
Døde-Dands 1762: Queen
Døde-Dands 1762: Cardinal
Døde-Dands 1762: Bishop
Døde-Dands 1762: Nobleman
Døde-Dands 1762: Priest
Døde-Dands 1762: Astrologer
Døde-Dands 1762: Physician
Døde-Dands 1762: Lawyer
Døde-Dands 1762: Merchant
Døde-Dands 1762: Citizen
Døde-Dands 1762: Monk
Døde-Dands 1762: Hermit
Døde-Dands 1762: Maiden
Dancing master
Døde-Dands 1762: Dancing master
Fencing master
Døde-Dands 1762: Fencing master
Døde-Dands 1762: Hunter
Døde-Dands 1762: Cook
Døde-Dands 1762: Soldier
Døde-Dands 1762: Innkeeper
Døde-Dands 1762: Chambermaid
Døde-Dands 1762: Peddler
Døde-Dands 1762: Watchman
Døde-Dands 1762: Peasant
Døde-Dands 1762: Jew
Døde-Dands 1762: Usurer
Døde-Dands 1762: Turk
Døde-Dands 1762: Lovers
Old man
Døde-Dands 1762: Old man
Old woman
Døde-Dands 1762: Old woman
Døde-Dands 1762: Harlequin
Døde-Dands 1762: Children
Døde-Dands 1762: Beggar
Døde-Dands 1762: Christ
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands
Døde-Dands 1762: Døde-Dands

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