The Moral of the Story
The text starts with a lecture and what is a lecture without a moral?
Most of the participants are scared and try
to decline the dance.
Death scolds them for not having prepared themselves in time. And how should they have prepared themselves?
This is told by Death himself in the very
"but consider well - at any time -
that you bring good works with you,
and become rid of your sins."
This is hardly astonishing: The Catholic Church sponsored the painting
and Death is acting as their mouthpiece:
The road to salvation goes through belief in God and through good deeds.
The only surprising part is that Death is able to dispense these nuggets of wisdom
and at the same time play the flute.
Only two people are getting an unconditional assurance from
Death that they will go to Heaven and these are the pious, world-renouncing
hermit and the hardworking peasant.
But of course it's very appropriate that the "reaper" is kind the peasants.
In order to go to Heaven you must believe in God and this holds true whether
you're a Protestant or a Catholic. Penance, repentance and the remission of sins. You might compare
the introduction with the 5 kinds of Death in Des dodes dantz from 1489
with the 4 kinds of Death in Copenhagen's Dance of Death,
which was written during or after the Reformation.
In 1463 the peasant was too busy eating his bread in the sweat
of his face to prepare for Death. Nevertheless he goes to Heaven because of his good works
(that has brought food on the tables of the church patrons).
In 1550 he was less lucky.
Catholics believe in salvation through good works. The dance of death texts are full
of allusions to two kinds of work, namely:
"Arbeit" - Manual labour, a very unpleasant thing that goes along with strife and pain.
Compare with God's parting words to Adam:
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground;".
The nice thing about Death is that it means that your work is over and you will receive the eternal reward
in Heaven - unless of course, the work was done to obtain temporal goods.
"Werke" - acts / deeds. These are unconditionally very helpful on the final day.
And just in case you haven't been diligent enough, it just so happens that some holy men have a surplus
of good deeds and that you can buy
this surplus from the church as a letter of indulgence.
Let's take just two examples -
showing the relationship between work on Earth and the reward in the hereafter -
one from the beginning of Des dodes dantz:
De stunde des dodes is beter wan der gebort,
Wente denne ga wi to dem lone vort,
Dat Cristus uns in der tît vorwerf,
Do he an dem cruce vor uns starf.
In der bort is dat arbeit anstânde,
Dat dâr is sorchvoldich mannigerhande.
The hour of death is better than the birth,(1)
because then we go forth to the reward,
that Christ in that time earned for us,
when he died on the cross for us.
In the birth is the work ahead,
that there [on Earth] is sorrowful in many ways.
...and one from the end of Des dodes dantz:
[...] deit bicht, ruwe unde bote vor sine sunde,
Desse de schal sik vrowen to des dodes stunde,
Wente denne kricht he sines arbeides einen ende,
Wan he schedet ût dessen jamerliken elende.
Dorch den natûrliken dôt entvange wi dat ewige lôn,
Alse dorch eine dôr ga wi dorch den dôt in Godes trôn.
[those who.....] make confession, repentance and penance for their sins,
they shall look forward to the hour of death,
for then his work comes to an end,
when he parts from this wretched misery(2)
Through the natural death we receive the eternal reward,
as through a door we walk through death into God's throne.
Good works (the Protestant way)
The key to Protestantism is Sola Fide (faith alone). There's nothing wrong with works and deeds,
but they won't bring you to Paradise. This will only happen through your own faith and God's mercy.
The hermit: holy man or lazy bastard?
Work is rarely mentioned in Copenhagen's Dance of Death
and when it is, it's mostly in order to taunt the lazy clergy like the abbot who -
after the Reformation - is only a guy who's too lazy to find a "real" job:
Kloster haffuer du giffuit dig i
for du ville vere for arbeyde fri
Convent have you entered
because you wanted to be free from work
Back in 1463,
was one of the very few
who was completely certain of going to Heaven. After the Reformation he has found himself a job
as a swineherd but this still doesn't satisfy Death,
who thinks that "such a fit man" should rather plough the fields:
Kiere broder Conrad, Skoufogit min,
Gaar du nu her oc vocter Suin.
Huad giør du her i denne Skou,
Du maatte saa gierne gaa hoss en Plou.
Est du ey karsk, oc sterck, oc før,
Hui gaar du her oc intet giør.
Dear brother Conrad, my forest ranger,
Are you going around here now and herding swine?
What are you doing here in this forest?
You might as well walk with a plough.
Are you not healthy and strong and fit,
Why are you going around here - doing nothing?
....and while the hermit is out with the plough - tilling the cursed ground - the nun might as well take over
the swine herding:
Din viiel oc kuuiil oc rosenkrantz skøn
der faare for du icke mere løn
(Ey heller for faste och læsning din)
End du haffde gangit och voctet suind
Your veil and cowl and beautiful rosary -
for that you get no more reward
(and neither for your fasting and reading)
than if you had been herding swine.
the hour of death is better than the birth....:
"A good name is better than precious ointment;
and the day of death than the day of one's birth.".
The original meaning of the Low German "elende" is out-land.
The word is related to Old Saxon "elilendi", where "eli" is related to alias,
and "lendi" to land.
People on Earth are out-landers — separated from their "real" home, Heaven.
»confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth« (Hebrews 11:13)
»pass the time of your sojourning here in fear« (1 Peter 1:17).