Between 1485 and 1486 Guy Marchant expanded la Danse Macabre from 30 to 40 dancers. At the same time, he founded another tradition: Padding his books with a number of texts and poems on the theme of the perishability of life.
One of these extra texts is about a hermit, who gets a vision about the impermanence of power, wisdom and beauty.
The only surviving copy of this book is damaged and lacks some pages, but Marchant published the text again in the Latin edition of 1490, Chorea ab Eximio Macabro, and in a book from 1491 (pictured left) and in 1492. In 1613, Chorea ab Eximio Macabro was reprinted (without pictures), and now at last the title was added: »Visio Heremitę«, the hermit's vision.
The text is often attributed to Pierre Desrey because his name is on the frontpage of Chorea ab Eximio Macabro: »Chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita, et a Petro Desrey Trecacio, quodam oratore, nuper emendata«. But even if Desrey had amended ('emendata') the Latin verses for the dance of death in 1490, The Hermit's Vision had already been published in 1485/86. This means that the only argument for attributing the text to Desrey falls away.
As we shall see, the text is a lot older.
The text is relatively rare, but is found in several editions in both Latin and German.
The Latin text is found in three manuscripts. The text is the same as in Marchant's printed editions, except that Marchant lets the authority / author end with eight extra lines, for a total of 192 lines.
One manuscript is CLM 14053 from 1497-1524 (see external link), which is illustrated with four woodcuts. As the image to the right shows, these images have probably been cut from the same sheet.
According to the index and the heading at the beginning, the poem is called: »Speculum humane felicitatis« (The mirror of human happiness) — according to a later headline: »Speculum humane mortalitatis« (The mirror of human mortality).
The second manuscript is Brussels KB II 270, from approx. 1500, illustrated with beautiful color pictures of the seven participants (the hermit and the three couples).
The third is Wiesbaden Landesbibliothek HS 84, from the 15th century. The poem is not illustrated, although space has been set aside for images.
But the text was also discovered in an even older German version in Münster in Westfalen. A piece of parchment found in the binding of a book contained 46 (some only partial) verses.
The parchment has disappeared again, but had been transcribed twice, and the two professionals who had it in hand judged it respectively to be from the last half of the 14th century or from approx. year 1400.
There is also a slightly newer German version in Count Zimmern's Book of Transience. To the right is an image from Donaueschingen 123, where you can see an angel and the sleeping hermit below. Above, Death threatens a king, queen and doctor with his skull-arrow. Count Zimmern also gives us a German title: "Spiegel menschlicher tötlickait".
However, this is not a translation, but a retelling. Count Zimmerne changes the order so that the woman (who in this edition is a queen) comes before the doctor. The poem is included in all three copies except that a page has been torn out of one manuscript.
This is what the family tree looks like:
The story starts with the hermit receiving a vision. According to the text, he is lying in his bed, and he does so in the picture in KB II 270. On the woodcut to the left and in the various editions of Count Zimmern's Book of Transience the hermit, on the other hand, sleeps outdoors and is visited by an angel who holds an infant (the hermit's soul) in his arms.
Then the hermit meets "vana potencia", transient power, embodied by a king, followed by "Rex mortuus", the dead king.
Then he sees "Vana prudentia", transient wisdom, in the form of a jurist. In the "Book of Transience" he is a doctor: »das was a˙n kśnig / a˙n künigin / vnd a˙n doctor«" (page 139v) and »Darnach fieng an der doctor mit aüfgebläsnem gantz stoltzem«" (page 143r).
Finally he meets "Vana pulchritudo", transient beauty, in the shape of a beautiful woman. The text does not indicate that she should be of noble birth, and in the pictures in KB II 270 her and Death's heads are covered only with cloth.
In the woodcut to the left, in contrast, the woman and Death wear a crown. The same is true for the "Book of Transience", where the text plainly states that she is a queen: »das was a˙n kśnig / a˙n künigin / vnd a˙n doctor« (still 139v) »Ich bin ain künigin jüng hüpsch« and »Darnach fieng an die kśnigin […]« (page 141v).
But "vana est pulchritudo", beauty is vain (Proverbs 31,30), and the woman is followed by "Femina mortua", the dead woman.
The king, doctor and woman are confronted with their dead counterparts, and thus the story is ultimately a variant of The Three Living and the Three Dead, in which there is also a hermit. On the other hand, the story also recalls La Danse Macabre, with an angel at the beginning and a dead king.
Each line consists of fifteen syllables with the rhyme on the 8th and 15th syllable:
O vos omnes qui transitis per viam actendite
The text that follows was transcribed from Chorea ab Eximio Macabro.
Read the full text.