Heidelberg's block book

Sermon
The pope
The emperor
The empress
The king
The patriarch
The archbishop
The cardinal
The bishop
The duke
The count
The knight
The abbot
The lawyer
The canon
The physician
The nobleman
The noblewoman
The merchant
The pharmacist
The nun
The cook
The peasant
The beggar
The mother
The child
The child: "Now I must dance and can't yet walk."
Heidelberg's block book, Child

In the university library of Heidelberg there's an old book from 1455-1458, which is really 7 little block books that have been bound into one. One of these 7 booklets is considered the world's oldest printed dance of death.

We know that the text is older still. It's the so-called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, as we find in a manuscript from 1443-1447, and more fully developed in the dance of death in Basel from ca. 1440.

In contrast to the old manuscript from 1443-1447, Death has now been assigned a speech for each dancer. Originally the text was simply a long series of complaints by dying people from all stations of society. In later versions, like the book that we're examining here, Death invites each participant to the dance, and the monologues have ostensibly been turned into dialogues.

An apothecary is added to the 24 regular dancers.
Heidelberg's block book, Apothecary

An apothecary has joined the 24 ordinary dancers from Der Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. The dancers do not come in the same sequence as in the other versions, but this might be an error that happened when the 7 booklets were bound into one volume. The order has been exchanged between patriarch, archbishop and cardinal, between bishop and duke, between knight and abbot, between cook, peasant and beggar, and between mother and child. The mother's speech: Oh child, I would have saved you is clearly a reply to the child's wail: Oh my dear mother. […] How can you leave me now?, even if the sequence has been reversed in the book.

Some of the pictures have (laterally inversed) numbers. There are: lawyer (13), nobleman (16), noblewoman (17), merchant (18), nun (19), cook (21), peasant (22), beggar (20), mother (24) and child (23). These numbers would be correct if the pages were in the ordinary sequence - and without the apothecary.

Nobody would accuse this book of being great art, but remember that this is a block book, which means that the entire page — both text and pictures — has been cut from the same matrix. So please send a kind thought to the artist: Not only has he had to cut the letters mirror-inverted, but woodcuts are relief prints, which means that the artist has had to cut away all the wood between the letters.

Notice that Death is polite and addresses most people in the plural: ir, euch, ewr (like Middle English ȝe, eow, eower(1) and Medieval English ye, yow, youre), except for the cook, peasant, beggar and child, where Death uses the more free and easy form and says du, dich, deyn (like in medieval English thou, thee and thine). This peculiarity is not reflected in my translation.

Pope
Heidelberg, Pope
Emperor
Heidelberg, Emperor
Empress
Heidelberg, Empress
King
Heidelberg, King
Cardinal
Heidelberg, Cardinal
Patriarch
Heidelberg, Patriarch
Archbishop
Heidelberg, Archbishop
Duke
Heidelberg, Duke
Bishop
Heidelberg, Bishop
Count
Heidelberg, Count
Abbot
Heidelberg, Abbot
Knight
Heidelberg, Knight
Lawyer
Heidelberg, Lawyer
Canon
Heidelberg, Canon
Physician
Heidelberg, Physician
Nobleman
Heidelberg, Nobleman
Noblewoman
Heidelberg, Noblewoman
Merchant
Heidelberg, Merchant
Apothecary
Heidelberg, Apothecary
Nun
Heidelberg, Nun
Beggar
Heidelberg, Beggar
Cook
Heidelberg, Cook
Peasant
Heidelberg, Peasant
Child
Heidelberg, Child
Mother
Heidelberg, Mother

Sources

Further information

First
page

Footnotes: (1)

If you're interested in Middle English, you might take a look at the dance of death in London.

Up to the medieval Dance of Death