Some of the dancers are easy enough to figure out, some are a tad more difficult, and some are almost impossible.
As already mentioned the participants are the same as in the printed version of the Danse Macabre, and Vostre has been kind enough to write the titles under each image. Therefore it doesn't take much work to identify figures like pope ("le pape"), emperor ("lempereur"), physician ("le medesin") or shepherdess ("la bergere"). To make it even easier, the pope has a giant cross, the emperor has sword and crown, the physician is staring at his urine-glass, while the shepherdess has a dog that looks like a sheep (or maybe it's a sheep that behaves like a dog).
It's a bit more difficult with titles that don't exist anymore (or have been downgraded). Titles like le connestable, le cheualier, le sergent and lescuyer. A "connestable" is the same word as constable (the word comes from "comes stabuli", meaning "a count of the stable"). An "escuyer" is a shield-carrier (Latin: "scutarius"), but instead of spending too much time figuring out what all those ranks meant back in the year 1495, it is easier to look at how they are placed in the dance. When our "connestable" appears in the start of the dance — before the archbishop — we can conclude that his position in society was far greater than that of a modern constable. When we see that "lescuyer" has a hunting falcon in his hand, we recognize the nobleman right away and deduce that an "escuyer" is a far more fancy title than the modern "esquire".
A greater challenge comes from le preuost. The provost has been placed in the dance where the Danse Macabre would feature "le bailly", the bailiff, (and indeed there is a "bailli" at this position in the English dance of death).
This ruins the structure of the dance, which is otherwise characterized by an alternation between ecclesiasticals and lay people. Both of these problems can be solved by remembering that bailiffs as well as provosts would function as judges. The old French magistrate rule had "bailie"-courts and "provost"-courts, where the "provost" was appointed and paid by the "bailie".
The 36 women in particular can cause headaches. Here "Fifteenth-Century French Women's Role Names" by Ann Tukey Harrison is required reading (see external link).
Anybody can figure out what a queen is, what is it that la regente rules over?
"la cheualiere", the knight's wife, is married to the "le cheualier", naturally. And la femme descine is married to our "lescuyer", and la balliue, bailiff's wife, is married to "le bailli", the bailiff, except as already noted, Vostre has replaced the bailiff with a provost.
On the other hand, la bourgoise, the citizeness, is not necessarily married to le bourguys, the citizen, and le cordelier, the Franciscan monk, is obviously not married to la cordeliere, the Franciscan nun. So what about la marchande, the merchantess? Is she married to le marchant, the merchant? Or is she running her own business?
The big woman, la femme grosse, isn't fat, but pregnant. If one is in doubt, one can consult the Dutch dance, which says Groet mit kind ("big with child"), while the Latin says Gravida ("pregnant").
To help understanding the titles it can be instructive to look at the dialogue in the Dance Macabre. For instance Vostre has portrayed the resales-woman, la reuenderesse, with her arms full of clothes and belts (picture to the left). In the Danse Macabre she relates how she has earned 2 ecus by subtle overcharging: »J'auoye hier gaigné deux escus / Pour forfaire subtilement«.
The housekeeper, la recommanderese, runs a hostel, and Death mockingly asks her to provide him with accommodation. Death needs a place to stay, for nobody will take him in: »J'ay bien mestier que on m'adresse / Car nul ne me veult héberger«.
Among the more ambiguous are the two "friendly" women, "la femme daceul" and "lamoureuse". The meaning of la femme daceul is "the hospitable / friendly / welcoming woman" and the text in Danse Macabre tells us how she has been a good hostess for family and friends: »Auiourduy parens et amis / Promettent et mons et merueilles«. In contrast, the amourous woman, lamoureuse, is simply a prostitute. Death addresses her as a "woman of low value who has lived in carnality": »Femme de petite value / Mal viuant en charnalite«
In Vostre's marginals these two ladies exchange roles. The Dutch translations of the friendly woman speak plainly and call her De Hoere (the whore) or "Bolerin". In the same way the Latin translation has the heading Lasciva, "the lascivious woman".
In contrast, the amourous woman is called in Dutch De vrijester, i.e. the suitor. This makes the young woman with a flower in her hand the female version of the male suitor, De vrier.
Is it possible that a chaste woman could assume the rôle of a "suitoress" in the dark Middle Ages? I don't know, but I think this question is irrelevant. Authors in the Middle Ages were able to create male/female counterparts, without being hindered by reality — for instance the tarot cards include a "popess" as a counterpart to the pope.(1) It should also be remembered that in the English translation, Lydgate had no qualms about adding "the Gentilwoman amerous" as a counterpart to "the amerous Squyere".
Is it possible on the other hand, that there are two "loose women" in the dance? Could the welcoming woman as well as the amourous woman be prostitutes? Yes, that too is possible. The great number of women in the dance in contrast to the limited roles for women in the contemporary society has resulted in great deal of redundancy: There's a spinster, old woman and woman with crutches. There's a newlywed, a bride and a sweet wife. And there's a young woman, virgin and young girl.
Another confusing person is la garde dacouchees. The words are relatively clear: She takes care of ("garde") the bedridden women ("d'accouchées"), that is: a midwife. The Latin version has the headline ministra puerperarum, i.e.: one who ministers to women who have just given birth.
On the other hand, the dialogue in Danse Macabre shows that she works as a bath house attendant. Death mentions baths and sheets several times, while she talks about baths for men and women — and about serving delicious pastries.
Another interesting figure is la theologienne. This "theologianess" is not in a monastery, for those rôles are already taken by the abbess, the prioress, the Franciscan nun and the ordinary nun, la religieuse.
The dialogue of Danse Macabre shows that she used to teach from the holy writ. Death greets her: »Nous direz vous rien de nouueau Ma dame la theologienne Du testament vieulx ou nouueau«: Won't you tell us something new, my lady Theologianess, from the Old or New Testament? In the Dutch version she is called "De wise" — i.e. the wise one.
Now follows a variant by Guillaume Godard.
The popess . . .: Some people argue that there was in fact a female pope viz. Pope Joan.
According to the legend Joan disguised herself as a man and rose to the rank of pope. She was revealed as a woman when she gave birth to a child. After that her career (and life) came to an abrupt end.
But the popess tarot card is not Pope Joan, who is usually portrayed with her baby. Furthermore Joan was not a popess but a pope, and finally the whole story is legendary, which goes to strengthen my point about how authors of the Middle Ages could create such characters without being hindered by reality.