Der Doten dantz mit figuren

Der Doten Dantz, 1488
Figuren, Figuren: Dance-house
Der Doten Dantz, the child
Figuren, Figuren: Child

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.

1492, the physician.
Notice the space reserved for the big initials.
Figuren, Figuren: Physician
1520, The pope
Figuren, Figuren: Pope

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.

Kassel, the pope is accompanied by a "portative".
Figuren, Kassel: Pope
The canon is taken away accompanied by a harp.
Figuren, Figuren: Canon

The last of the primary witnesses is a manuscript in Kassel. The manuscript is richly illustrated (pictured left) and has 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.

The man who died unprepared, notice the long snakes
Figuren, Figuren, Ossuary
Zimmern's Vergänglichkeitsbuch, the maid
Zimmern, Zimmern: Maid

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.

Go forth

The dance starts in the dance-house.

Der Doten dantz mit figuren

Figuren: Dance-house
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Dance-house
Figuren, Ossuary
Figuren 1488: Figuren, Ossuary
Figuren: Pope
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Pope
Figuren: Cardinal
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Cardinal
Figuren: Bishop
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Bishop
Figuren: Official
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Official
Figuren: Canon
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Canon
Figuren: Priest
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Priest
Figuren: Chaplain
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Chaplain
Figuren: Abbot
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Abbot
Figuren: Physician
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Physician
Figuren: Emperor
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Emperor
Figuren: King
Figuren 1488: Figuren: King
Figuren: Duke
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Duke
Figuren: Count
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Count
Figuren: Knight
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Knight
Figuren: Nobleman
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Nobleman
Figuren: Armor-bearer
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Armor-bearer
Figuren: Robber
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Robber
Figuren: Usurer
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Usurer
Figuren: Citizen
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Citizen
Figuren: Craftsman
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Craftsman
Figuren: Young man
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Young man
Figuren: Child
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Child
Figuren: Innkeeper
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Innkeeper
Figuren: Gambler
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Gambler
Figuren: Thief
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Thief
Figuren: Evil monk
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Evil monk
Figuren: Good monk
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Good monk
Figuren: Hermit
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Hermit
Figuren: Doctor
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Doctor
Figuren: Mayor
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Mayor
Figuren: Senator
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Senator
Figuren: Lawyer
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Lawyer
Figuren: Scribe
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Scribe
Figuren: Nun
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Nun
Figuren: Citizeness
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Citizeness
Figuren: Young woman
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Young woman
Figuren: Merchant
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Merchant
Figuren: All ranks
Figuren 1488: Figuren: All ranks
Figuren: Ossuary
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Ossuary
Kassel: Pope
Figuren 1488: Kassel: Pope
Kassel: Young woman
Figuren 1488: Kassel: Young woman
Kassel: Mirror
Figuren 1488: Kassel: Mirror
Kassel: Robber
Figuren 1488: Kassel: Robber
Kassel: Citizeness
Figuren 1488: Kassel: Citizeness
Figuren: Pope
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Pope
Figuren: Child
Figuren 1488: Figuren: Child
Figuren: Pope
Figuren 1520: Figuren: Pope


In this section

Footnotes: (1) (2)

incunable . . .: "cradle print" - a term for books printed with movable type before 1501.

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.