The pope

The pope in Tallinn
The pope

The pope

Och here got wat is min bate
al was ik hoch geresen in state
Unde ik altohant moet werden
gelik als du een slim der erden(1)
Mi mach hocheit noch rickheit baten
wente al dink mot ik nalaten
Nemet hir excempel de na mi sit
pawes alse ik was mine tit

Oh dear God, what use is station?
Reached the peak of my vocation
I become, for so I must,
Like yourself, Death, earth and dust.
In rank and wealth no use I find
Now I leave all things behind.
Take example, future host,
You who’ll bear the weight I lost.

Death answers the pope

[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
her keiser, wi mote dansen

[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
Emperor, now we must dance!

English version © Jack Freckleton-Sturla, 2021. The following is a more literal translation:

The pope

Oh Lord, what does it avail me
though I had risen high in station,
and I must at once become
like you, a pile of earth.
Neither highness nor riches avail me,
but I must leave everything.
Take here example, those who after me are
pope, as I was in my time!

Death answers the pope

[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
[...]
Mr emperor, we must dance!

The red area shows the location in the chapel in Lübeck
The red area shows the location in the chapel
The painting in St. Mary's Church in Lübeck.
Lubeck #1

The photo and the text are from the fragment in Tallinn.

The dance starts — as always — with the pope, who is the world's mightiest mortal.

Most of Death's reply (seven lines) is missing. In 1838, Russwurm meant he could read the first line as: »Dat were gud in ly. bekennt« / "that were known to God in "ly."".

When it came to translating "ly." Russwurm's best suggestion was the Danish word "ly", meaning shelter/cover mostly against bad weather. This didn't make much sense, particularly if the punctuation was meant to suggest a missing letter.

It is still possible to see single letters and parts of letters, but ever since Russwurm, nobody has tried to interpret them.

 

However, the last line is fairly legible: »Mr emperor, we must dance!«, which shows the unique structure of the text in Tallinn / Lübeck: Death's eighth and last line addresses the next dancer, in this case the emperor:

In this way, the verses are connected in a chain, just like the dancers in the picture. This applies to the text in Tallinn as well as in Lübeck, and this is one of the reasons why we without hesitation can use one text to complement the other.

The only other dance of death that has the same structure of the verses is the Spanish La Dança general de la Muerte.

Footnotes: (1)

slim der erden . . .: Compare with Genesis 2,7: »And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth«.

"Slime" means »Soft, moist earth or clay, having an adhesive quality; viscous mud« (Webster).