Lübeck's Dance of Death

Apocalypse Now Soon

Summary: How Death and the Day of the Lord are one and the same.

The last of the 66 books in the Bible, the Revelation, speaks about the end of the world and Judgment Day where humans have to do their reckoning, after which they will go to Paradise or Hell. But when was this supposed to happen? Jesus himself once said "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28).

Der Hemeliker Apenbaringe
Der Hemeliker Apenbaringe, Cologne Bible, 1478.

In the Revelation of St. John this concrete deadline (pun intended) is replaced by "shortly":

As the years passed by, purgatory was invented - where the sinners are staying "Till the foul crimes done in [their] days of nature are burnt and purg'd away". This meant that judgement would happen for the individual person at the time of death - or as is written in the Bible (Romans, 14,12): "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God".

In reality, the difference was less than clear: For the individual who fell prey to the plague, cholera, the 100-years war, famine etc., death was the start of the personal reckoning but at the same time these catastrophes were regarded as forebodings of the coming apocalypse and the great collective reckoning.

The result was that the day of reckoning was no longer a great collective event that would fit into the great scheme, but was now a very personal experience that might arrive at a very inconvenient time - maybe without giving you time to pay penance for all of your sins.

It's a recurring theme in Lübeck's dance of death, that the humans complain that Death is coming unexpectedly and inconveniently. This is particularly true for the merchant:

Mine Rekenscop is nicht klar.
Hadde ik mine Rekenscop ghedan,
So mochte ik vrolik mede ghan.
My reckoning is not ready.
Had I done my reckoning
then I would gladly go with you.

But when was this going to happen? We read in 2nd Peter 3:4 that people grew impatient(1) and asked "[...] Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation". Peter (who hadn't been a fisher for nothing) gave them a wonderful explain-all, namely "[...] that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." (v8) and then he added ominously (v10): "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night(2);[...]"

As a thief in the night

So Death and the day of the Lord was the same and both would come unexpectedly. In Lübeck's dance of death, Death tells the youth:

In der Nacht der Deve Gank
Slikende is min Ummewank,
In the night the thieves walk.
I sneak around.

Death is quoting Job 24:14: "The murderer rising with the light killeth the poor and needy, and in the night is as a thief". The English Bible uses a different wording than the German Bibles: in Luther's Bible the phrase is "des Nachts schleicht der Dieb" (in the night the thief sneaks) and in Elberfelder "in der Nacht geht der Dieb um" (in the night the thief goes around). In Lübeck, Death combines them and says "Slikende is min Ummewank" (literally: sneaking is my around-going).

Death as a sneaking thief appears in all the dance of death manuscripts:

Lübeck 1489

Wuste de huswerd to welker tyd
Dat de deef queme, he wakede myt vlyt
Uppe dat de deef em nenen schaden dede,
Unde he syn gud mochte beholden in vrede
[...]
Hir umme waket, wente de doet sendet iw nenen bref;   
He kumpt slyken recht so eyn deef.

If the goodman knew what time
that the thief came, he would watch with diligence
So that the thief didn't do him any harm
and he could keep his goods in peace.
[...]
Therefore watch, because Death does not send you any letter;
He comes sneaking just like a thief.

Lübeck 1520

De doet sendet jw neenen breff
He kumpt slyken recht so eyn deff

Death does not send you any letter
He comes sneaking just like a thief

Copenhagen 1550 

Viste hosbonden i huilcken tiid
at tyffuen ville komme han vogede mz flid

If the goodman knew what time
the thief would come, he would watch with diligence

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498).

This time the Bible(3)quotes are really lining up:

Notice that the youth had himself just used he word "sneaking":

Do hefst de Tyt ovel raket,
Du kumpst slikende her geghan,
You have chosen the time badly.
You come here, sneaking,

First the youth complains about the bad timing (compare with the top of this page) and then says literally "you come sneaking here going". This may explain why Death feels like showing how well versed he is in the Bible - in front of the youth who probably couldn't care less.

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

This was neither the first nor the last time that a cult has predicted the imminent end of the world. There's a whole site dedicated to those failed prophecies (the author calls herself "Alma Geddon"). You may also want to take a look at A Brief History of the Apocalypse.
You may wonder how the day of the Lord can come in the night, but as is written in Amos 5:20: "Shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?".
Another quote which is "outside the canon" is the gospel according to Thomas (which was discovered in 1945): " [...] if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house (their domain) and steal their possessions. As for you, then, be on guard against the world. [...] When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it" (verse 21)

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