Heidelberg's blockbook

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 text
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.

The pictures are only printed on one side of the paper, but later the pages have been pasted together two by two. It was probably at this time that the order was altered, for the dancers do not come in the same sequence as in the other versions: 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?. The first preacher is located at the back of the dance (but I have moved him up in front).

The pious nun follows confidently along.
Heidelberg, Nun
An apothecary is added to the 24 regular dancers.
Heidelberg's block book, Apothecary

An apothecary has joined the 24 regular dancers from Der Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. This probably also happened in connection with the binding of the book. Whether or not this is the case, some experts believe that the image of the pharmacist is a later addition.

The last half of the scenes have (laterally inversed) numbers. This has not been done consistently for there are no numbers 14-15, while "16" is printed twice on the same woodcut. The numbers 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.


Go forth

The dance starts with an uplifting sermon.

Click the images to read the dialogue

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

Links and Resources

Further information

Footnotes: (1)

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