Der Doten Dantz mit figuren is among the very oldest printed dances of death. Among the German incunables(1) we only find the two editions of Der Doten Dantz mit figuren from ca. 1488 and 1492, together with the two editions of Des Dodes Dantz from Lübeck 1489 and 1496.
The dance primarily exists in four variants: Three printed and one manuscript. The first person to transcribe the text, Max Rieger,(2) called the dance »Der Jüngere Todtentanz«, and sometimes it's known as »Jüngerer achtzeiliger Totentanz« to distinguish it from the Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. A third name is »Mittelrheinischer Totentanz«, because of the language, places of publication and certain characters, like for instance the innkeeper from Bingen.
The oldest of the printed versions is from ca. 1488 and was printed in Heidelberg. This gives the dance one more name: "Heidelberger Totentanz", not to be confused with Heidelberg's block book.
The opening page shows a full page dance (picture to the left), where the happy corpses urge the reader to enter "this dance-house". The next page shows even more dancing corpses, but also a body in an open coffin, who is regretting that he died unexpectedly and unprepared.
Then starts the proper dance with 38 scenes. Oddly enough there is no peasant, even though he is normally a staple character in these dances, but on the other hand, the last scene addresses all ranks — all those who are not yet in the dance.
The layout can be seen on the picture to the right: Death's complaint to the left and the human's answer to the right. The text flows around the big initials.
The dance ends with another full-page woodcut, reminiscent of the two at the beginning, and a longer text about how everyone becomes equal in the ossuary.
The order of dancers is very illogical, but this may be related to the fact, that there are two different artists. One has cut the two initial woodcuts, the dance-house and the man who died unprepared, and the first 24 dancers up to and including the gambler, while the other has produced the last 14 dancers beginning with the thief, and also the final scene in the ossuary.
In the next printed version, from ca. 1492, printed in Mainz, the order has been changed to make it a little more logical. As the picture to the left shows, the typographer has made room for the big initials, but he evidently has discovered in the middle of the work that he did not have these initials.
The third edition from ca. 1520, printed in Munich, follows almost the same order as in 1492. The typographer no longer lets the text flow around large initials, so instead each line starts separately. This layout gives more space for the text, and there are quite a few small and large deviations.
The last of the primary witnesses is a manuscript in Kassel. The manuscript is richly illustrated (pictured left) and has almost the same text as in the printed 1488 and 1492-editions.
The manuscript lacks the opening and closing scenes at the ossuary, and they may never have existed. There are only 35 of the 38 dance scenes: The doctor is missing, the chaplain has been turned into a priest, while the knight is transformed into the duke (i.e. the chaplains' and the knight's own dialogues are missing).
One thing that characterizes Der Doten dantz mit Figuren is the very large number of musical instruments that Death handles. Out of 38 scenes, there are only three where Death is not handling one instrument or another: Trumpet, organ, harp, triangle, bells, etc. The same goes for Kienzheim and for Kassel. On the picture to the left Death meets the pope with a "portative", a small hand organ.
Another thing that characterizes the printed books and the dance in Kienzheim is the long snakes, constantly sticking out of the dead (picture on the left) combined with toads and mice.
Der Doten Dantz mit figuren is thought to have been inspired by the French Danse Macabre, but the similarities are not so great: The child has some parallels; the man who died unprepared (picture to the left) may reflect the dead king, who finishes the dance in Paris; and both dances have eight-line verses. The king has a fleur-de-lis on his banner, but Holbein's king also has such a decoration, and for that matter so has King Ahasuerus. Maybe it also means something that a doctor from Paris appears?
These four primary editions of the "Doten Dantz mit Figuren" are part of a larger familiy called the Mittelrheinischer Totentanz. To this family belongs the copy written by Count Wilhelm Wernher von Zimmern and which he illustrated in his "Vergänglichkeitsbuch" ("book of perishability", pictured right). Count Zimmern's "Vergänglichkeitsbuch" was later copied by three others including the Donaueschingen 123.
There once was a large and well-executed mural in Kienzheim, although today we unfortunately only have the text along with a thorough description of the scenes. This dance has to a large extent been inspired by the Doten Dantz mit Figuren.
Finally we have a manuscript (no illustrations) of a North-Bohemian dance of death and four fragments of a written dance of death from the area around Kleve.
The dance starts in the dance-house.
The article starts on page 257, the transcription on page 263. Rieger's text particularly follows the manuscript in Kassel. Remember, that A somewhat illogically is the 1492-edition, B is the 1488-edition, while C is the Kassel-manuscript (Rieger was not aware of the 1520-edition).
Totentänze […] Die Deutschsprachigen Spätmittelalterlichen Totentänze unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Inkunabel, Des dodes dantz, Lübeck 1489 by Brigitte Schulte.
Can be downloaded: Des dodes dantz - LWL
The short introduction (pages 105-119) starts with a general discourse on poems about death. The section about dances of death is in particular based on Helmut Rosenfeld. On page 112 the reader is informed that »Auch die mittelrheinische Totentanzüberlieferung als deren erste Zeuge eine Kasseler Pergamenthandschrift (um 1460) gilt, weist Verbindungen zur französischen Totentanzliteratur auf, […]«, but the reader is not told that the dance of death that is the subject of the entire book also beongs to the family "mittelrheinische Totentanz", or that the manuscript in Kassel contains precisely the same text.
Footnotes: (1) (2)
Heidelbergs block book is even older, but is not an incunable, since block books are not printed with movable type.
Max Rieger in 1874. See the external link.
The text published by Max Rieger primarily follows the manuscript in Kassel, but is collated with the printed versions from 1488 and 1492. Rieger was unaware of the edition from 1520.