Kort Vending / Sudden Reversal

Hans Christensen Sthen: Lyckens Hiul (The Wheel of fortune), 1581
Lyckens hiul

Kort Vending is a school-comedy in three acts from ca. 1570. The work is anonymous and exists only as a written copy, but there is agreement that the author is Hans Christensen Sthen, because there is great overlap between Kort Vending and Lyckens Hiul from 1581 (The Wheel of Fortune, picture to the left). Not only do they share a common theme, viz. the inconstancy of fortune, but several verses are verbatim the same.

Hans Christensen Sthen (1544 - 1610) was born in Roskilde, worked as curate and headmaster of a grammar school in Helsingør (Elsinore), and ended his days as a parish priest in Malmø (in Scania). According to contemporary ledgers from Elsinore, Sthen has several times received a fee for staging theatre plays using his pupils. Sthen was also an industrious author of hymns and to this day there are still 16 of his hymns in the Danish hymnal.(1)

The Plot

Bald-anderst later met Simplicissimus


Fortaleren (Opening speaker)
Fiiskeren (The fisherman)

Greffuen (The count)
Canekenn (The canon)
Munckenn (The monk)
Songnepresthen (The parish priest)
Krigs mandenn (The mercenary)
Burgemestherenn (The mayor)
Kremerenn (The peddler)
Kiøbmandenn (The merchant)
Embitzmanndenn (The craftsman)
Høstrwenn (The housewife)
Bundhenn (The peasant)
Burger sønnenn (The citizen's son)
Burger dattherenn (The citizen's daughter)

Second Act:
Ridderen (The knight)
Skriuerenn (The scribe)
Capellanenn (The curate)
Peblingenn (The grammar school pupil)
Staallddrengenn (The stable lad)
Snaphanenn (The robber)
Poßepillthenn (The beggar)
Thenn arme kiøbmandtt (The poor merchant)
Embitzmanden den andenn (The second craftsman)
Skøgenn (The prostitute)
Bunden thenn andenn (The second peasant)
Thiennisthe drengen (The servant boy)
Thienesthe piigenn (The servant girl)

Third Act:
Actor ad populum (At the people)

Greffuen (The count)
Ridderenn (The knight)
Cannickenn (The canon)
Schriffuerenn (The scribe)
Munnckenn (The monk)
Capellanenn (The curate)
Sogneprestenn (The parish priest)
Peblingenn (The grammar school pupil)
Krigs manndenn (The mercenary)
Stallddrengenn (The stable lad)
Borgemesteren (The mayor)
Snaphanenn (The robber)
Kremerenn (The peddler)
Poßepillthen (The beggar)
Kiøbmandenn then første (The first merchant)
Kiøbmanden then andenn (The second merchant)
Embitzmandenn then første (The first craftsman)
Embitzmanden then anden (The second craftsman)
Høstruenn (The housewife)
Skøgenn (The prostitute)
Bundenn then førsthe (The first peasant)
Bundenn then anden (The second peasant)
Børger ßønnen (The citizen's son)
Tiennisthe drengen (The servant boy)
Burgere daattherenn (The citizen's daughter)
Tiennsthe piigenn (The servant girl)

Epilogus (Final speaker)

The start of the play is a close copy of Baldanders by Hans Sachs: A fisherman tells the audience how he was out fishing, when a terrible storm began. He sought shelter on land, and soon he saw the creature that caused the stormy weather. The creature was constantly changing its appearance: Soon young, soon old; soon happy, soon angry; soon well-dressed, soon naked, &c.

The fisherman spoke to the creature, assuming him on account of the storm to be the god Vulcanus, but he was mistaken. In German the creature is named Baldanders (immediately different) and in Danish: Kortt Wendingh (sudden reversal).

But the story of Kort Vending continues, where Baldanders ends, for the fisherman interrupts his own tale, as he hears Kort Vending approaching. Kort Vending enters the scene, and the fisherman vanishes.

It turns out that Kort Vending is not only able to change his own appearance but that he intends to live up to his name, by reversing everybody's fortune: »Ieg acther mitt naffn fyllist att giøre« (i.e.: "I intend to live up to my name"). Thirteen different persons now enter the scene. One after another they all boast of their prosperity and are convinced that no harm will befall them. The mayor puts his trust in the city wall, moats and police, the craftsman trusts in his many skills, the citizen's son trusts in the riches of his parents, the citizen's daughter is confident in her beauty, and the farmer relies on his ability while mocking his brother who is being eaten by lice. In each case Kort Vending announces that he is about to reverse their fortune.

In the second act another 13 persons enter the stage, but these are all down on their luck. One thing they all have in common is that they trust God to help them out. The Snaphane(2) may not be pious but at least he trusts in God. Kort Vending promises them all that they will soon come into prosperity.

Between the second and third act the actors swap clothes with each other: The actor playing the rich count trades his clothes with the poor knight, the rich canon with the poor scribe, the rich farmer with his lice-eaten brother, &c.

In the third act all 26 persons enter the stage again, and it turns out that they belong together two by two, which might not have been so evident until now, since a 1,000 lines of text have separated each pair. The well-nourished priest has lost his cushy job (after the Reformation) and doesn't understand all these newfangled (Protestant) theologians. The Pebling(3) has taken over the position (and the costume), and he is outraged over the old priest who neither bothered to read nor teach.

The mayor is weeping because his city was burned down by a traitor, and this arsonist turns out to be the Snaphane. One of the craftsmen(4) is ruined because he knew too many crafts which all have gone out of fashion, the other has become rich because he stuck to his work as a Suder (shoemaker). The poor farmer has become rich, but he promises that will help his (now) poor brother, more than the brother used to help him.

The structure of the play does break down at places. Partly because the audience cannot be expected to keep track of the different couples through several thousand lines of text (with songs during the pauses), and partly because the correlation is not always clear. There is a strong connection between the priest and the Pebling, between the two craftsmen, and (particularly) the two farmers. At other times the connection is more strained: The Snaphane has burned down the mayor's city, but this doesn't make himself a mayor (even though this is in fact, what he says: »Ieg er nu kommen wdj borgemesthers sted« ("I have now come into the the mayor's stead", 2409); The rich wife loses family and wealth, while the whore gets a decent life, but the two women know nothing of each other, and even if the two actors have swapped their costumes, there is no indication that the whore takes over the wife's home, or that the wife should be forced to prostitution.

It can in fact be strenuous to keep track of all the many participants through the more than 3,000 lines of text, and since there is no plot progression one could instead use the index to the right in order to follow each pair across the text.

Kort Vending and Copenhagen's Dance of Death

Copenhagen's Dance of Death starts with a request for the audience to keep quiet

Several scholars have pointed out the similarities between Kort Vending and the dances of death. In both cases the protagonist has a godly power over all people, as he leads the entire society, ordered by their rank, to proclaim their individual verdicts. It is in this description of the members of the society that the both texts have their strength.

Both works are characterized by a total lack of plot, action and suspense — the only action in Kort Vending happens behind the stage when the 2 × 13 actors swap their costumes. The various actors never meet each other, and apparently they are also unable to see Kort Vending, so the whole play consists of 84 monologues. The dance of death does after all have dialogue between Death and each of his victims.

There are even more parallels with one particular dance of death, viz. Copenhagen's Dance of Death, which as opposed to most other dances of death is conceived as a playact. A curious detail is that the mercenary speaks Low German (465-484; 2255-2280), just like the rider and the journeyman do in Copenhagen's Dance of Death.

It is very possible that Sthen has had a copy of Copenhagen's Dance of Death in his hands. There is a clear parallel at the beginning where the fisherman interrupts himself, because he hears Kort Vending approching: »I faa hanem selluff well att høre, / Mig tyckis handt staar here hoß mitt øre;« ("you yourself will hear him / I think he stands here at my ear", 219). In Copenhagen's dance of death the initial sermon ends: »Therefore, stand still to see and hear / what Death has to bring / I believe I see him coming now«.

The audience are requested to be quiet: »Om y wille hanem høre och tiiæ« ("if you would listen to him and be silent", 134) »Wille y mig høre oc icke lee« ("will you listen to me and not laugh", 138), »Nu wiille wy tige stiille oc høre« ("Now we will be silent and hear", 1831), just like in the dance of death: »will you all now be quiet« and: »Therefore pay attention to this play«.

There is a similar parallel towards the end, where the epilogus says: »I gode fo[l]ck, i haffue nu hørtt / Paa thenne leg ind ende«, ("you good people, you have now heard, an end of this play", 3379-3380), which is reminiscent of the end of the dance of death: »Christian friends, you have now seen / what has been acted out for you«.

It should be added though that all these parallels also hold true for the German Fastnachtspiel / Shrovetide plays, e.g.: Henselyns Boek, that also consist of representations of various ranks each delivering a monologue. We cannot exclude the possibility that Sthen has found his inspiration outside the dance of death in a (today unknown) Fastnachtspiel.

The Stone in the Green Valley

Originally I was made aware of Kort Vending by Nils Afzelius, who is researching a prophecy known as the Green Valley Prophecy.

The odd part is that there are two of these Green Valley Stones, one in Denmark and one in Sweden. The Danish Grøndal is located in the parish of Sønder Vinge in Ulstrup, while the Swedish Grönan Dal is in Jämtland.

There is a great disagreement about the contents. One of the oldest Danish sources is Ole Worm, who quotes a Jens Christoffersøn, who in 1503 should have read the following text carved with copper letters:

Kircker skulde bliffue til Fangetorn,
oc Skalcke skulle trifuis,
oc Eldinge [sic] fordriffuis,
oc Danske Mend wgieffue,
oc fange Tydske Sæder,
oc Hærremend skulle bliffue Kiøbmend,
oc Præster til Bønder
oc Bønder til Widunder.
Churches shall become donjons,
and villains shall thrive,
and nobility be driven away,
and Danish men become dishonourable
and acquire German customs,
and lords shall become merchants,
and priests into peasants
and peasants into objects of scorn.

For inscrutable reasons this prophecy appears in Kort Vending. There is a echo in the last words of the Snaphane: »Thett skeer end thitt, att skallcke triffuis / Oc godtt eractigtt follck fordriffuis« ("It happens often that villains thrive / and well respected people are driven away", 1207-1208).

The second craftsman delivers a more extensive quote. He was the one who made his fortune by sticking to his trade as a shoemaker: He says (2755-2767):

Nu wiille embitzmendtt bruge kiøbenskaff,
  Thenem ßelluff thiill staar schade oc taff;
Ther nygis icke nu mangen mandtt
  Mett sitt embitt, ther handtt kandtt.
Embitzmendtt wiille nu kiøbmendtt bliffue,
  Theris erlliige embeder offuer att giiffue,
Kiøbmendtt ßlaar støre handdell wpaa,
  End the well betalle maa;
Borgere wiille nu bønner werre,
  Bynder wiille nu thiill schole att lere,
Clercke wiille oc werre bynder,
  Saa bliffue oc mange tiill wiunder;
Now craftsmen wish to practice the merchant trade,
  Causing themselves great damage and loss;
Now there is not many a man who is satisfied
  With his craft which he knows.
Craftsmen want to be merchants now
  and abandon their honorable crafts,
Merchants are making larger deals,
  that they may well have to pay.
Burghers want now to be peasants,
  Peasants want to [go to] school and teach
Clerics want to be farmers,
  in this way many become objects of scorn.

It is not very clear what the prophecy is supposed to mean, particularly since "vidunder" doesn't mean the same in Danish as in Swedish. At the time of Worm and Sthen the Danish word vidunder meant "object of scorn", while the Swedish word means "monster".

It is also uncertain whether the peasants are going to school to teach or to learn (it's the same word in Danish). And why would Sthen, who was head master of a grammar school, object to peasants going to school, or for that matter: that people learned a new trade?

The prophecy only has a peripheral relation to Kort Vending (which in turn only has a peripheral similarity with the dance of death), so I will end here and refer to the external link about the Green Valley Prophecy.

So without further ado, here is: the (Danish) text from Kort Vending.


Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

The hymns (and their numbers) are: 52, Du, Herre Krist; 53, Hav tak, o Herre, for evig trøst; 106, Af højheden oprunden er; 110, Nu vil vi sjunge og være glad; 489, Guds nåde højt jeg prise vil; 498, Gud, efter dig jeg længes; 499, O Jesus, livsens Herre; 553, Min største hjertens glæde; 555, Jeg ved et evigt Himmerig; 640, Hvem skal jeg klage mit sorgfulde mod; 641, Mig rinder så mange tanker i hu; 679, Et trofast hjerte, Herre min; 736, Den mørke nat forgangen er; 737, Jeg vil din pris udsjunge; 738, O, Gud ske lov til evig tid; 757, Den lyse dag forgangen er, og natten.
A snaphane is simply a highway robber, and the text makes it clear that this snaphane is guilty of several murders.

A hundred years later during the resistance fight in Scania, the Swedes called the local resistance movement "snaphaner" in order to mock them. The Snaphanes took on the name and today the word has a far more positive connotation. At least in Denmark.

A Pebling is a grammar school pupil. The word means "little priest". It derives from "pape", which in Low German means ecclesiastical.
Embitzmand means craftsman.

The word can easily be misunderstood, and the problem is the same in German where a craftsman used to be an "Amtmann". In modern Danish "embedsmand" and "amtmand" are different sorts of civil servants.

This misunderstanding prompted the burghers of Lübeck in 1701 to change the sequence in their famous painting. See the page about Wilhelm Mantels.