The Three plagues
Alexander the Great
Delilah & Myrrha
Request from the Dead
Francis Douce describes this book:
This is a very bitter satire, in the form of a dream, against the clergy in general, but more particularly against Popes
and Boniface VIII.
A wolf, in a lecture to his children, instructs them in every kind of vice and wickedness, but is opposed, and his doctrines refuted, by an allegorical personage called Holy Doctrine.
In a second vision Death appears to the author, accompanied by Fate, War, Famine, and Mortality. All classes of society are formed into a Dance, as the author chooses to call it, and the work is accompanied with twenty-one very singular engravings on wood, executed in a style perhaps nowhere else to be met with. The designs are the same as those in the second Dance of the Horæ, printed by Higman for Vostre, No. I. page 61.
(Francis Douce: The Dance of Death Exhibited in Elegant Engravings on Wood, page 146)
The book is named "Les loups rauissans" (i.e. "The ravening wolves") from the story in the first part. The author is sitting in his bed. He has just received a dream / revelation about how the arch-wolf (archilupus) is spreading his message to his wolf-disciples, while "Saincte doctrine" — the saintly doctrine — preaches to her sheep (pictured at the top of this page).
What is more interesting — in a dance of death context — is the second part of the book. The author ends the wolf story by announcing that he has had an even more terrible vision »vision trop plus horible & merueilleuse que ceste«, about how Death and "someone named Accident" were leading a dance, »que la mort & vng nomme accident qui […] menoient vne dance«, and the participants were those people, who in their life had followed the bad doctrine of the false Archilupus, that is the devil: »en laquelle estoient dancans plusieurs gens qui en leur vie […] auoient ensuyui la doctrine & instruction mauuaise du faulx loup archilupus / cest du dyable«.
This is not the first book to make use of allegorical characters or personification of abstract concepts. The dances of death being obvious examples of this genre, other examples are "Everyman" and Kort Vending.
The character Accident appears in other books, e.g. in "Le Pas de la Mort" from the middle of the 15th century, where Accident is one of the two knights serving Lady Death. The two knights represent the two ways of dying: The slow death from old age is personified as "Antique le Débile", while Accident symbolizes the sudden and unexpected death. Accident is a warlike creature, who rides on a terrifying fantastic animal with crossbows for antlers and knives as forelegs, with which to trample on humanity. An accident waiting to happen (picture to the left).
In "Le chevalier délibéré" (The resolute knight) the two knights serve Atropos — a skeleton representing Death. Accident's steed looks like an ordinary horse, except that the word "Arrogance" is written on it. On his sword is written "Oultrecuidance" (presumption), while the sword of Old Age is named "Trop de iours" (too many days).
We also know Accident from the Dance of the Blind, La danse aux aveugles, where Death uses Accident together with "the three hard rods" (»ces trois verges dures«), with which he torments the people: Mortality, War (»Guerre«) and Famine. Then comes Death's "faithful maid, Malady (»ma loyal servant, Maladie«), and Old Age (»Aage«).
The division of roles is slightly different in the book we are looking at here: Death begins the story, but she immediately leaves the spotlight for the main character, Accident, who has the task of punishing people who break God's law.
In this book there is not much difference between Death and Accident, but it is Accident who introduces the three "rods": Mortality, War, and Famine (picture above to the left) — later comes Malady, while Old Age does not appear in this story.
These three plagues are sometimes called "personnaiges", and at other times "verges", i.e. rods for punishing the people. Among themselves they are called "chamberieres", chamber maids, for la guerre, la famine and la mortalité are all female in the French language. War calls himself (or is it herself?) the first chamber maid: »Guerre ie suis premiere chamberiere«.
The text is extremely long: More than 3,200 lines, i.e. almost twice as long as des dodes dantz. And that's just for this second vision, which only makes up a fifth of the book.
The author and the six "personnaiges" (Death, Accident, War, Mortality, Famine and Malady) take turns speaking, while some of their victims are allowed to speak as well.. The humans may be from the Bible (Adam, Cayn, Shechem, Haman), historical persons like Alexander the Great, Cicero and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, or mythological creatures like the fire-breathing giant, Cacus, who was killed by Hercules.
The text can not be called a dance of death in any sense of the word. It's true that there are over thirty allusions to "dance", "dancant", "danceurs", etc., but this must be attributed to the fact that the text is based on La danse aux aveugles.
Firstly, it is Accident, and not Death, who is the main character. One might argue that the difference is insignificant, since these two "personnages" look quite similar (pictured right), but Death in the Dances of Death is the great equalizer, who takes both king and peasant when their time has come, while Accident is an active protagonst, who has constantly intervened in the course of history, every time powerful criminals have deserved a punishment.
Secondly, there is no dialogue. The different "personnages" and their victims take turns giving speeches, interrupted only by the author's own comments. In this way, the story of Accident has more in common with Kort Vending.
Thirdly, it lacks the mirror of society that is the backbone of dances of death: Death picks up everyone from the mighty pope and emperor, over citizens and peasants to the baby in the cradle. In contrast Accident and his "comrades-in-arms" only attack criminals, especially those in power who have abused their office. The people are not presented in order of their status in society, but are grouped together according to their sins.
To sum up:
|Dances of Death (before Holbein)||Loups Ravissans|
|The main character is Death||The main character is Accident|
|Death works by himself, or gets help from the dead.||Accident gets help from Mortality, War, Famine and Malady.|
|Death fetches the dying when the time has come.||Accident causes people's death.|
|Dialogue between Death and the dying.||Only long monologues.|
|The humans are about to die.||The humans died hundreds and thousands of years ago.(2)|
|People often ask Death for respite.||People never ask for respite (follows from the previous two points).|
|The dance of death is a sign that the end of the world is neigh.||Accident has been working since the creation of the world.|
|Sometimes there is a preacher / authority at the beginning and the end.||The authority keeps speaking constantly throughout the book.|
|Death chooses his victims in a strict hierarchical order.||Accident's victims are grouped according to their sins.|
|Death's victims represent a role in society (eg. duke, craftsman, young man, child).||Accident's victims are concrete examples of sinners.|
|Death's victims are from the contemporary society.||Accident's victims are from the Bible, antiquity, history and mythology.|
|Death takes his victims throughout society.||Accident only takes criminals.|
|Death is the great equalizers: He treats emperor, citizen and peasant equally.||Accident only takes criminals.|
|Death is a messenger.||Accident is judge and executioner.|
The book is, as Douce states, without date, but the author declares that he had his first vision (about the wolves) on 1st January 1505: »ce premier jour de janvier mil cinq cens et cinq«. Later on we hear about how Accident saddened many treasurers in 1505: »Comment l'an mil cinq cens et cinq a Paris / maintz tresoriers par accident marris«.
On the other hand there's a limit to how late the book may have been published for there are also references to Accident's more contemporary victims, for instance Olivier Le Dain and an unnamed constable. Mortality boasts how she delivered two popes to Death within a month in 503: »quon dit cinq cens et trois / Qua mort liuray deux papes en vng moys«.
Accident boasts how he once made the bridge of the Notre Dame tumble down into the water:
|Je suis Accident qui jadis|
En l'eau si feiz trébucher
Le pont Nostre Dame pas dix
Ans n'y a qu'on tenoit si cher,
La ou je feis fort empêcher
Ungs et aultres en les tuant,
Et les aultres aucuns en les noyant
Pour les apprendre a dancer.
Homme qui ne veult forvoyant
Aller, doit a sa fin penser.
The bridge did in fact tumble into the water along with 60 houses. This happened in 1499, and if this was less than 10 years ago (»pas dix Ans«), the book must be from before 1509.
On a sidenote, the publisher Antoine Vérard was painfully aware of this incident. His own business had been located on this bridge until it fell down. The colophone of books published by him before 1499 would typically sound like this: »for Antoine Vérard bookseller staying in Paris at the image of St John the Evangelist on the Bridge of Our Lady«.(3)
The edition used for the text on these pages was published by Michel le Noir March 15, 1506, and if we assume — along with all the experts — that Vérard's edition is the original, Vérard's edition must have been from 1505. After all, it must have taken some time for Michel le Noir to copy the more than 500 pages.
The tale is illustrated with some very animated woodcuts. Douce writes (quoted at the top of this page): »executed in a style perhaps nowhere else to be met with«, and Douce is right, for when wrote this in 1833, it would still take another century for this expressionistic style to come into fashion.
Unfortunately, no copies of Vérard's edition have been digitized, perhaps due to the size of the text. The text on these pages is therefore taken from Le Noir's edition, which has no illustrations, so the pages are illustrated with images from Vérard's edition, found in various places on the Web.
I have followed the headlines to divide the 3,220 lines into 76 sections, which I have grouped into 24 pages according to the 24 pictures in Vérard's edition.
The text can be in its entirety here or under the images here: Introduction.
The dance starts with a short introduction.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)
John XXII . . .: I am not going to read through the 300+ pages of the first part of the book to check if Douce is right, but the second part, which is the subject of this section, attacks John XII, not XXII.
The most current of the victims that are allowed to speak is Béthisac, who was executed in 1389.
Then comes the popes Boniface VIII (ca. 1230-1303) and John XII (937-964).
This particular example was taken from Croniques de France, 1493.
In the original French it went: »pour Anthoine verard libraire demourant a paris a limage saint Jehan leuageliste sur le pont nostre dame«.
On the present site we also know Antoine Vérard as a publisher of several editions of La Danse Macabre.