Lübeck: The physician

The physician
The physician

The physician

Ik hadde wol Vordrach, mochte it wesen.
Vele Minsken hebbe ik ghenesen,
De van groter Suke leden Not.
Mer jeghen di klene noch grot
En helpet nine Kunst noch Medecin.
Nu bevole ik mi sulven de Pin.
Van deme Dode bin ik beseen,
Wat Ordel dat mi schal bescheen.

I would like postponement, if it might be;
I have cured many people
who were suffering from great diseases.
But against you [helps neither] small nor great;
neither [medical] art nor medicine helps.
Now I surrender myself to the pain.
I have been looked at by Death,
what judgment that shall happen to me.(1)

Death answers the physician

Recht Ordel schaltu entfan,
Na den Wercken, de du hefst ghedan.
Du hefst ghedan, dat God wol wet,
Mengen in grot Eventur gheset,
Den armen swarlik beschat,
Des he vaken billik hadde to bat.
Al nemestu grote Summen darvan,
Wokerer,(1) volghe van Stunden an.

You shall receive a just sentence
according to the works that you have done.
You have, God knows this well,
brought many into great danger.
with heavy fees you have taken from the poor,
that which often rightly belonged to him.
Always you took great sums for it.
Usurer,(2) follow from this moment.

The red area shows the location in the chapel in Lübeck
The painting in St. Mary's Church in Lübeck.
Lübeck #5

The physician seems to break the over-all sequence with alternating clergy and laity. This is because the physician is considered a cleric — having studied at the university — and in contrast to the "lowly" barber-surgeon / bonesetter who is regarded as a craftsman. The same thing holds true in Des Dodes Dantz for the physician and the student, and in Paris and London for the astronomer, the physician and the lawyer.

The distinction is even clearer in Berlin's dance of death. All the 14 clerics are placed to the left of Christ and here we find the doctor with the urine glass among priests and monks.

Three figures
3 persons from 1701

Notice the three small figures at the extreme right in the black and white picture. In contrast to the rest of the painting, these persons are not dressed in medieval costumes. Apparently they were added by Anton Wortmann when he copied the painting in 1701.

Commit or feel?

Reyneke commits the rooster to God because he has become a holy man who doesn't eat meat-.
Reynke de Vos, Hermit

The physician commits himself to the pain. Here we presume that "bevole" corresponds to High German "befehlen". Like it does for the physician in Des Dodes Dantz, who commits "all these things" to God: »Hir vmme ik god alle desse sake beuele«.

People in the dances of death often commit, commend or entrust themselves to God. In the same way as the physician, the king in Des Dodes Dantz also commends "all these things to the Lord: »O here, alle desse sake ik di bevele!«, and so does the wet-nurse: »O here Got, desse sake bevele ik di!«. The hermit commends his soul into Gods hands: »Mine sele bevele ik in dine hende«, thus echoing Jesus' last words on the cross: »Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit« (Luke 23:46). So does the beguine: »Hîrumme, leve Jesus, ik bevele mi di in dine hende«. So does the hermit in Dodendantz: »Myne sele bevele ick in dyne hende«, while the wet-nurse in Copenhagen's dance of death commits herself: »Thi wil ieg mig nu Gud befale«.

Baethcke agreed with this translation, and he referenced Reyneke de Vos line 370, 1354 and 4375.

There is the technical problem that the word "pin" should be in dative: "der Pin", but Baethcke explains that this was normal in the 15th century, and in his "reorganized" text he writes: »Nu bevele ik mi sulven der pin«.(3)

The physician inspects a urine sample
physician with urine sample

A bigger problem in my un-German eyes is that when you commit, commend or entrust something to someone, you hand over the responsibility. Typically, people commit their soul to God, however there are other variants: For instance line 370, where Reyneke de Vos no longer eats meat, and therefore commits thee (i.e. the rooster) to God: »Gode, deme heren, bevele ik di« (image to the left), and in line 1354, where Reyneke must leave his wife and therefore entrusts her with their children.

Therefore it could be argued that it doesn't make sense to "hand over the responsibility to the pain", even if "Pain" may here be understood as a theological concept along with "Sin" and "Evil."

Plague doctor. The strange "beak" is full of fragrant herbs to protect the physician from infection and the stick is for poking the patient. With doctors like that you didn't need diseases.
physician with mask

The other option is to translate "bevole" as "to feel" (modern German: befühlen). All his life the physician has felt the pain of his patients, but now he feels it himself.

This interpretation is chosen by Freytag,(4) but without giving any particular reason. On the contrary he quotes Luke 23:46: »Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit«.

Luke 23:46: And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

This translation I think is even worse. "Befühlen" means, "to run one's hands over and examine (possibly in a sexual way)". A physician can "Befühl" a patient for broken bones and abscesses, but he can not "Befühl" a pain.

Moreover, as we have already mentioned, this doctor is a learned person as can be seen from his position in the dance, between the two lay persons mayor and usurer. He wouldn't dream of "feeling" his patients; this kind of menial work was best left to the low-class bone-setter / sawbones / barber-surgeon, who is considered a mere craftsman.

The physician's modus operandi is to inspect the patient's urine (pictured right), and then write a prescription for some herbs. As he says in Dodendantz: »Up der appoteken is nicht eyn krud, Dat jegen den doet kan wesen gud — In the pharmacy there is no medical herb, that can do any good against Death.

The plague doctors of the era wore a beak-like FFP2 face mask (pictured left). The stick in his hand was to poke the patients so he didn't have to "Befühl" them. The physicians of that time were almost as hysterical as they are today over covid-19.

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

The physician has been "looked at" by Death, as he himself is used to look at his patients, and is now waiting to hear the verdict, i.e. the "prognosis" from the "doctor".

In the next verse, Death reminds him that the right judgment, "Recht Ordel", is the judgment of Christ.

Wokerer / Usurer . . . : Jacob von Melle gives us two versions of the text, and in the less known version this dancer is not an usurer but a citizen.

For more details, see the following page.

Hermann Baethcke, Der Lübecker Todtentanz: ein Versuch zur Herstellung des alten niederdeutschen Textes. 1873, page 68. His solution for the text is at the bottom of page 49.

On this website we know Baethcke for his transcription of Des Dodes Dantz and his Low German glossary.

Hartmut Freytag, Der Totentanz Der Marienkirche in Lubeck und der Nikolaikirche in Reval, 1993, page 232