Heidelberg's Dance of Death

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 Juror
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 Dance of Death, Child

In the university library of Heidelberg there's an old book from 1455-1458, which is really 7 little blockbooks 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 Dance of Death, Apothecary

The result is that the dancing partners are often talking at cross-purposes: Death greets the humans energetically, vivaciously, ironically - even humorously - while the humans ignore Death's words, introduce themselves to the reader, and keep on lamenting. This is particularly evident at the end of the dance where the child calls for his mother: »Oh my dear mother. […] How can you leave me now?«, while the mother ignores Death and replies to her son: »Oh child, I would have saved you«.

An apothecary has joined the 24 ordinary dancers in Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige 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. Some of the pictures have (laterally inversed) numbers: juror (13), noble man (16), noble lady (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. The mother's speech: »Oh child, I would have saved you« is clearly a reply to the child's wail, even if the sequence has been reversed in the book.

Nobody would accuse this book of being great art, but remember that this is a blockbook, 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.


Further information


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