Lübeck's Dance of Death

Jacob von Melle

Jacob von Melle (1659-1743), the vicar who transcribed the text from the old painting in 1701, was more than qualified for the job.

"guldgubber" from the Danish island Bornholm.
'Guldgubber' from the Danish island Bornholm
Jacob von Melle's epitaph.
Jacob von Melle's epitaph

He was born 17th June 1659 in Lübeck and studied theology, philosophy, philology, history and natural science at the university in Kiel. In 1684 he was appointed preacher in St. Mary's Church in Lübeck and in 1706 he was appointed vicar - a position he retained until his death 13th June 1743.

von Melle knew 10 languages and published countless books - among these a Low German dictionary with 20.000 entries and a book about the so-called "guldgubber" on the Danish island, Bornholm ("guldgubber" (gold old men) are tiny pre-historic gold-plates with a stamped human image).

von Melle is considered the father of Lübeckian historiography and in two of his books he has described the dance of death - namely his hand-written "Ausführliche Beschreibung der kayserlichen, freyen, und des H. Römischen Reichs Stadt Lübeck" and "Lubeca religiosa".(1)

How reliable a witness was Jacob von Melle?

Jacob von Melle is our only source for the original Low German text and fortunately it would seem that he did a good job. von Melle was able to read 4 lines at the beginning of the painting and they resemble the fragment in Tallinn. The few differences that exist are probably caused by the different dialects(2) in Lübeck and Tallinn, rather than misreading.

On the other hand it seems that von Melle has passed on his notes in a chaotic and disorderly way. In fact there are no less than three problems:

1) The Structure of the Dances of Death in Lübeck

The problem here is that the structure of the two dances of death are very different:

Jacob von Melle, Death to the physician.
Jacob von Melle

It's hard to believe that such a learned man as von Melle could miss such a fundamental fact, but take a look at the verse to the right: The heading is "Der Tod zum Artzte", which is High German (in Low German it would be "De Dot to deme Arstede"). It seems incongruous to have High German headings in a Low German text and when we recall there are no headings on the painting in Tallinn, we must conclude that the headings were added by von Melle.(3)

But the heading is wrong since the first 7 lines are Death's answer to the preceding dancer. Only the 8th line, "Follow after, Master Medicine", addresses the physician.

So the first problem is that Jakob von Melle has adorned his notes with headlines that are taken from the new painting — disregarding the fact that the structure is different.

The first one to point out this oddity was Karl Russwurm. He wrote (anonymously) an article in three parts in 1838 with the title "Der Todtentanz in der St. Nicolaikirche zu Reval". Russwurm was at that time resident of Tallinn, and he was the first person to edit and publish the text from the dance in Tallinn. From the start it was clear to Russwurm that the text in Tallinn could supplement the text in Lübeck, where the first half was missing: »Daher war es eine freudige Ueberraschung, die verloren geglaubte Hälfte dieser Unterschriften zum Theil hier wieder aufzufinden«.

When Russwurm started editing the text from Lübeck (using a book published by Schmidt), he was puzzled: The structure of the verses was the same as in Tallinn, but the headings were confusing: »Hier ist eine merkwürdige Ungenauigkeit, indem nämlich, wie es scheint, alle Reden des Todes, wie die Revalschen, sich auf die vorgehende Person beziehen, während die Ueberschrift die folgende nennt«. Russwurm also pointed out that Death's posture often made it impossible that he should be speaking to the following dancer.

Twenty-eight years later, in 1866, Mantels published his thesis about the dance in Lübeck. Evidently he was neither aware of Russwurm nor the dance in Tallinn, but he arrived at the same conclusion: That von Melle's headings are misleading, because only the last line addresses the person named in the heading.

This realization solves most of the problems, e.g. under the heading »Der Tod zur Jungfrauen« (Death to the maid) Deaths says: »En junk Man sik bi Tiden ker To Gade«.

But there are further problems:

2) Shuffling of the Dancers

The "Amtmann" in Lübeck is really a merchant with cloak and spurs.
The merchant with spurs

Even if we take the misleading headlines into account, there are more problems. We came to the conclusion that the first seven lines under the heading "Der Tod zum Artzte" addressed the previous dancer. The words of Death are extremely positive: »Grot Lon schaltu entfan«: "Great wages shall you receive. For your work that you have done, God will reward you thousandfold".

Jacob von Melle has headlined the previous verse: "Der Edelmann antwortet", and there is indeed a nobleman here with his hunting falcon. But the nobleman has exploited his poor subjects in order "to satisfy — to lust for idle things"; he has acted contrary to the moral of the story, and yet he is praised by Death.

Mantels therefore deduced that that the nobleman and the mayor had swapped positions.

There's a similar problem when Death says to the craftsman: »Hefstu anders nicht bedreven, In Kopenscop« ("Have you done nothing else, in commerce"), while he says to the merchant: »Gi Amtes Lude alghemeine« ("you craftsmen — all of you"). Evidently the merchant and the craftsman had also been interchanged.

This explanation wasn't accepted without resistance. In 1873 Hermann Baethcke wrote the book "Der Lübecker Todtentanz: Ein Versuch zur Herstellung des alten niederdeutschen Textes". Baethcke believed the structure was the simple one, where Death speaks 8 lines, and the human answers in the next 8 lines. Therefore he rejected most of Mantels' solution, — in fact he was convinced that Mantels had just created an even greater confusion.

Mantels' reply came the same year in Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen pp. 721-741. Noticeably irritated he wrote, that it appeared as if Baethcke had already written the outline of his book (page 5-6, footnote 7), before becoming aware of Mantels' book, and that he was now being stubborn.

Baethcke had not only rearranged some of the verses — he had also found it necessary to change the text for his solution to work: He had changed Death's call to the parish clerk, »Koster, kum, it wesen mot« to a call for the merchant: »Kôpman, kum, it wesen mot«. Mantels pointed out that »it wesen mot« goes well together with the clerk's answer, »Ach Dot, mot it sin gedan«. In the same manner, Baethcke suggested that the call for the merchant, »Kopman, wilt di ok bereiden« had originally addressed the Carthusian monk: »Karthuser, wilt di ok bereiden«, but Mantels pointed out that the words »wilt di ok bereiden«, fit with the merchant's reply »it is mi verne, bereit to sin«

Finally Mantels played his trump card: During the 7 years since 1866 he had now become aware of the dance in Tallinn. He quoted 3 consecutive verses: Death, the empress and Death. Here it is clear that when Death says, »You were chosen, […] to protect and preserve the holy churches of Christianity with the sword of justice«, the words are meant for the emperor to the left and not for the empress to the right. It becomes even more obvious when the Death to the right says, »Keiserinne hoch vor meten« to the empress.

Mantels' explanation is generally accepted by all today.

3) Usurer or Citizen?

Jacob von Melle copied the dance of death text in two handwritten history-books: Lubeca religiosa and Ausführliche Beschreibung. The former, Lubeca religiosa, is the oldest, but for many years it was lost in the Soviet as spoils of war.(1)

In the printed books there's a citizen instead of an usurer.

The biggest difference between these two transcripts is that the person, who is called usurer in one text, is a citizen in Lubeca religiosa. This is true for Jacob von Melle's High German headings: »Der Todt zum Bürger« and »Der Bürger zum Todt«, as well as for the Low German text, where Death says »Borger, volge van Stunden an« instead of »Wokerer, volghe van Stunden an«.

Which transcription is the right one then? Is the person an usurer or a citizen?

In the book Totentanz-Studien (picture to the right) pp. 25-36, Mischa von Perger argues convincingly that originally there was in fact a citizen at this position in the dance, just as there is in Des Dodes Dantz and Dodendantz (picture to the left).

Normally an usurer would be criticized for his odious occupation: blinded by greed, heartless and tough on the poor. But that's not how the text is in Lübeck: Here the usurer / citizen regrets that he has collected goods and grain (but evidently not money), and he's being criticized for having chosen the pleasures of this world instead of having prepared himself for Death. In short: Criticism that could be true of any citizen.

So why did von Melle choose to turn the citizen into an usurer? Partly for the same reason as his other changes: there was an usurer in the "new" painting from 1701, but also as a consequence of the mess that he himself had made out of the text. The verse which von Melle has given the heading "Death to the Usurer" is really Death's answer to the physician, and Death says: »You shall receive a just sentence […] You have […] brought many into great danger. Taken large fees from the poor, […] Always you took great sums for it«. These words could easily be taken for the usual criticism of usurers.

The last question then is how and why the dancers had been shuffled. We will discuss that subject on the page about Mantels.


Further information:

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

After the 2nd World War, Lubeca religiosa was among the millions of German books that were distributed all over the Soviet Union as spoils of war.

In 1996 the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, decreed that Georgia's share of the spoils should be returned. Among the 1,850 books that were thus returned to Lübeck was Lubeca religiosa, although it is not entirely clear whether the book returned was Jacob von Melle's autograph or a very old copy.

For details, see this external link: Aus Georgien zurück, Ein Beispiel für Restitution von Bibliotheksgut. Thanks to Mischa von Perger for alerting me to this story.

A thorough analysis of the language(s) in the two paintings by Robert Damme can be found in the book Der Totentanz der Marienkirche in Lübeck by Prof. Hartmut Freytag et al.
Just as the headings on the present site, e.g.: "Death answers the physician", are added by me to facilitate the reading.