The Danse Macabre of Amiens

Cloître des Machabées, 1825
Mors de la Pomme, Amiens

Most dances of death from the Middle Ages have disappeared without a trace. One of those where we still know a bit of the text was located in a cloister behind a chapel at the cathedral of Amiens.

In 1806, one could apparently still read part of the text.

Par cette chapelle on entre dans le cloître des Machabées. C'est improprement, et par suite d'une erreur bien facile à commettre, qu'on dit depuis long-tems cloître du Machabée: ce lieu se nommait originairement cloítre du Macabré, parce qu'un auteur de ce nom a exprimé en vers latins une danse peinte sur les murs, dans laquelle la mort conduit en branle le Pape, les Cardinaux, les Patriarches, des Archevêqués, Évêques, Abbés, des Empereurs, des Rois, des hommes et des femmes de tout âge et de toute condition. Le peuple le nomme encore la danse des morts: il est situé derrière la paroisse de la Cathédrale à laquelle il a servi long-tems de cimetiere.

Les vers latins dont je viens de parler, se trouvent dans un livre intitulé Chorea Joannis Macabri (la danse de Jean Macabré.) Cet ouvrage in -4°. existait dans la bibliothèque des Prémontrés d Amiens.

On lit sur les murs intérieurs de ce cloitre les vers suivans.

(Maurice Rivoire, Description de l'église cathédrale d'Amiens, 1806, pp. 127-128)

According to Rivoire, there had been (in the past?) a dance painted in the cloister, where Death danced away with pope, cardinals (in the plural), emperors (plural), kings (plural), and so on.

Latin verses were written below, and the dance was not called Maccabean (»Machabée«), but "Macabre" after the writer of these Latin verses. The verses can be read in a book called »Chorea Joannis Macabri«, which means the dance of Jean Macabré.

Rivoire could apparently still read some lines on the walls (»On lit sur les murs«). We shall look at them immediately, but first let's see how researchers have reacted to Rivoire's information.

Gabriel Peignot mentions the dance very briefly (Recherches historiques et littéraires sur les danses des morts, 1826, page xlvij). He has heard of this dance, but he has not been able to obtain Rivoire's "brochure".

Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois refers to Rivoire in "Essai […] sur les danses des morts", vol. 1, pp. 220-221. Unfortunately he writes 1836 and not 1806. Langlois has not been able to find »Chorea Joannis Macabri« and he doubts it exists. He quotes the verses from the wall, without comment.

Frédéric-Edouard Schneegans in 1920(1) is apparently the first to see the connection between the text on the wall in Amiens and Mors de la Pomme (pages 541-543). He has read Langlois' book, but he is also unable to trace a copy of Rivoire's book from "1836".

Angelo Monteverdi in 1921(1) couldn't locate the 1836-book nor the »Chorea Joannis Macabri« (page 119). But he points out that Guy Marchant published Chorea ab Eximio Macabro in 1490, and this text is largely a Latin translation of La Dance Macabre of Paris. If "Macabré" were the name of the poet, he could not have given his name to both the Danse Macabre in Paris and to a dance in Amiens.

Furthermore, Monteverdi points out that the author of "Mors de la Pomme" expressly remains anonymous and calls himself "the author who does not give his name" »lacteur qui point ne se nomme« (line 426). Therefore, he could not have given his name to a Danse Macabre in Paris, Amiens or elsewhere.

The Text

Let's forget Rivoire and his imaginative description. He never tells us from where he got his details about this dance with emperors, patriarchs, kings, etc.

What is interesting are the verses that Rivoire quotes, and he probably read them in a book from 1782:

Page 473. Le machabé, que le vulgaire nomme la danse des morts, est un endroit spacieux, situé derrière la paroisse de la cathédrale à laquelle il sert de cimetière. Il est entouré d'un cloître assez vaste & dégagé. On y lit:

Dieu le vif éternellement,
Sans fin & sans commencement
Regnant en sainte Trinité
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Savoir faisons en général,
Et par cest mandement moral,
Que nous volons que la mort fasse
Comparoir par-devant nos faces,
Tous ceulx qui sont & qui seront
D'Eve & de Adam si rendront
Compte de leurs faits justement
Et en particulier jugement.
Si donnons pouvoir à la mort
Pour y contraindre feble & fort,
Et que nulle opposition
Ne vaille à l'exécution;
Car ainsi volons qu'il soit fait
Pour pugnir qui ora meffait,
Et aux bons donner à toudis
Les joies de no paradis.
In sæculum fiat fiat.

(Louis-François Daire, Histoire littéraire de la ville d'Amiens, 1782, 460-461)

Mors de la Pomme: Death's mandate
Mors de la Pomme, A license to kill

The text is the same as The Mandate of Death — i.e. the roll of parchment that Death constantly exhibits as proof of her divine permission to kill people. There are (of course) small deviations: The most exciting is that it says » mandement moral«, while it says »mandation mortal« in the BnF Français 17001,(1) but in fact it also says »mandement moral« in the Ambrosiana manuscript.

And in a way the text on the wall in Amiens is more complete, for it ends with a Latin quotation from the Book of Psalms, just as almost every other verse does in Mors de la Pomme. In this case, »In sæculum fiat fiat«, which is from Psalm 41:14 (40:14 in the Vulgate): »Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen«.

Schneegans believed that the mural in Amiens was the original source of the manuscript Français 17001, and that this would explain the sketch-like nature of the illustrations. Monteverdi did not agree: the text was incomplete (a line is missing after »Regnant en sainte Trinité«), and when a line was missing, this could not have been the original source.

Schneegans replied back in 1925 that it was impossible to tell whether there had once been a line that had succumbed to the ravages of time. Here both learned men overlooked that a dotted line clearly shows that there has been a line, which apparently was illegible in 1782.

What is more important is that the quoted text is French and thus has nothing to do with Rivoire's amazing account of Latin verses written in an unknown book called "Chorea Joannis Macabri" — and therefore not with a dance with emperors, cardinals and archbishops.

The fact is that "Mors de la Pomme" is not a dance at all, and makes no attempt to look like one. Unlike Loups Ravissans / Accident, where the text after all uses the words "dance", "dancant", etc. 30 times, there are in Mors de la Pomme no allusions to dance, music or musical instruments, neither in text nor image.

One last question is when the cloister was torn down. Schneegans writes that it happened in 1817, which of course he can not reconcile with the "fact" that Rivoire's book was supposed to be from 1836. Other experts have proposed other years, and perhaps various section of the cloister were demolished at different times? The image at the top of the page is signed "1825" in the lower left corner.

Footnotes: (1)

Schneegans / Monteverdi / BnF Français 17001

See the main page about Mors de la Pomme for context and for external links.