The first person to describe this work was Émile Mâle in "Revue des deux mondes", 1906, and later (with the same text) in "L'art religieux" in 1908:
Adam and Eve
Fall of man
After the Fall
Death and two angels
Cain and Abel
Noah and the ark
Even more interesting for us is the curious poem entitled the Mors de la Pomme, which was composed around 1470.
Curiously enough, this late work seems to take us back to the very origins of the Danse macabre.
The poet explains to us that Death was born in the earthly paradise, at the very moment when our first parents committed the Offence. The angel who drove Adam and Eve out of the earthly paradise at the same time gave Death three long arrows and a scroll with the seal of God. In this brief, God speaks as a sovereign ruler, and declares to all that he gives full power to Death.
What makes the work so interesting and novel is that the characters are not isolated; they do not present themselves under the aspect of social abstractions: Death strikes them in full action, in the street, in the midst of the crowd, at the family table.
Here is Death striking the Pope in the midst of his cardinals and the emperor in the middle of his court: she [Death] pierces the man-at-arms in the midst of battle, and the young girl in her room, in front of her mirror: she snatches the child from its mother, the lover from the beloved.
The illustrated manuscripts of the Mors de la Pomme certainly inspired the artist who composed, for the publisher Simon Vostre, the borders of the Book of Hours of 1512.
Was it the illustrated manuscript of the Mors de la Pomme that caught the eyes of Holbein, or was it Simon Vostre's book of Hours? It is difficult to say - but what seems certain to me is that Holbein knew one of our French originals.
(Mâle: L'art religieux de la fin du moyen âge en France, pp 410-411(1))
As Mâle points out, this text differs greatly from La Danse macabre. It begins with Man's Fall, and — one might add: Ends with Judgment Day. The participants are not representatives of all social classes of society, dancing hand in hand, but individuals who are surprised by Death in their daily lives among friends, lovers and colleagues.
Mâle notes that "Mors" has inspired Accidens de l'Homme from the margins of Simon Vostre's books of hours, and thus directly or indirectly inspired Hans Holbein's Great Dance of Death. And Mâle is absolutely right, except that he could also have mentioned La dance aux aveugles, Loups Ravissans / Accident and Hardouyns: La Vie de l'Homme.
The next to describe "Mors" was Frédéric-Edouard Schneegans in 1920. It is unclear why Màle wrote "manuscripts" in the plural, for Schneegans commented in a footnote that he only knew 1 manuscript: »Un seul manuscrit semble avoir conservé ce texte ce manuscrit« (page 538).
This manuscript was the BnF Français 17001 from 1468-1470(2) (picture to the right), but Schneegans had discovered one more source: the divine authorization given to Death by God, had once been written as part of a Dance Macabre at Amiens' Cathedral.
Schneegans transcribed the manuscript, but he had problems with the order. Why was Judgment Day placed in the middle of the action? Why was the crucifixion of Jesus located after Judgment Day? And why were the doctor and the lovers attacked by Death between the crucifixion and before the end with the torments of Hell?
Schneegans' solution was to correct "une erreur évidente" by advancing the doctor and the lovers in front of the crucifixion, which came just before the punishment of hell. This solution was not very apt in the clear light of hindsight, and is not used here.
The next year, Angelo Monteverdim wrote an article in Archivum Romanicum. It turned out that there was another edition of "Mors" in Italy: namely the Ambrosiana, S. 67. Sup. This manuscript is slightly older, from 1461(3) and it has shortcomings of its own: First of all, it lacks the illustrations that constitute an integral part of the work, secondly, great parts of the text are missing: lines 58, 93-96 and the entire epilogue: 380-428.
The simple explanation for Schneegans' problem was that two leaves (with 4 scenes per leaf) in the French manuscript had been swapped during binding. The error could not be with the Ambrosiana manuscript, for here the pages are not divided by two verses per page, so an exchange of pages would be evident. Specifically, pages 113r / 113v and 111r / 111v have been exchanged. With the right sequence, the crucifixion was placed in the middle of the dance, just like in Berlin.
The Italian manuscript could also help with other shortcomings: The chambermaid had only two lines, but with the Ambrosiana manuscript she got four lines and a Latin quote like everyone else. The prologue is also 2 lines longer.
Monteverdi shared only the most interesting differences between the two manuscripts, but in 2012, Maria Colombo Timelli published "Une Nouvelle Édition Du Mors De La Pomme", which is mainly based on the Ambrosiana manuscript.
As Mâle wrote, the story begins with Adam and Eve. Death gains power over humans because of the Original Sin.
Death receives three arrows with which to torment humans. This is a familiar concept from the time, e.g. the image to the right from »Miroir de la salvation humaine«, which was also translated by Jean Miélot.
Usually, these three arrows are plague, war and famine, just like Accident's three scourges, but here "Mors" deviates from the norm, for these three arrows are of blood, fire and ashes.
The first victim is Abel, who is killed by his brother. Death is not content to watch, as Accident does, but thrusts her arrow, the arrow of blood, into Abel. The next two victims are the young virgin, killed by the arrow of fire, and the old man, who gets the ash arrow.
Then follows a long line of victims who, unlike the normal dances of death, do not come in any particular order. As Mâle points out, the victims are attacked by Death in their everyday lives, just as Holbein would let Death do half a century later.
About halfway through the action (if you can talk about an "action"), Jesus appears on the cross. The killings continue, however; Jesus' sacrificial death brought reconciliation with God, but as is well known, Death did not stop at Calvary.
The row ends with a deathbed — a scene that could have been taken from one of the many books of Ars Moriendi, the art of dying (well).
Then comes the judgment. The text several times refers to this as the "jugement particulier". That is, the individual soul comes to judgment as soon as he or she dies, instead of having to wait for the great collective resurrection at Judgment Day.
We don't see how it goes for the good people, but the last two pages provide detailed images of the tortures of Purgatory and Hell.
The pictures are just as important as the text. In the prologue the reader is constantly encouraged to look at the pictures, e.g.: "look here, and see how" (»Regarde cy et voy comment«, 25); "it [i.e. the story] comes in figure" (»en figure le verra«, 18); and "see the high judge" (»Voy du hault juge«, 43). At the end with the scene from purgatory, the author continues: "man, who looks here and reads" (»Homs qui cy regardes et lis«, 397); and "see the souls in purgatory" »Voy les ames en purgatoire« (401).
The BnF Français 17001 is written in Middle French ("moyen français") by Jean Miélot. The manuscript contains lots of texts, including some by Cicero, which Miélot has translated into French. Therefore, no one believes that Miélot is the author of "Mors". Already Schneegans pointed out that peculiarities in the text indicate that the original text had been written in the Picard language.
This was confirmed with the discovery of the Ambrosiana manuscript, which is written in a purer Picard. In this manuscript, Death is consistently referred to as "le mort", even if this is clearly not a random "dead man", but a creature that has been active ever since Adam and Eve. This is because in the Picard language, "le" is the female article.
This is not so surprising, since Miélot ends the preface: »Fait d'Lille«, and concludes the translation of Cicero's letter by calling himself "native of the diocese of Amiens": »natif du diocese d'Amiens« (quoted in the previous footnote(2)). Lille and Amiens are two cities in Picardy, and as mentioned before, a small part of the text was once found in the Danse Macabre at the Cathedral of Amiens.
Therefore it is recommended to check Timelli's article (see external link). At the end is a small glossary which is usual for those of us, who don't have Middle Picard as our mother tongue.
The humor in the text is a chapter in itself. Usually, dances of death are full of satire and social criticism. The dance exposes the pope, who has lived the good life by selling indulgences, but who is now afraid of purgatory; the clergy who have ostensibly forsaken the earthly life, but still fight for their life against Death; the nun who is visited by her beau in her cell; the abbess, who has become slightly pregnant; emperors and kings who must put up with taking commands from a naked intruder; the doctor who has made a fortune from the sick, but cannot cure himself, the judge, who now himself must go before the high judge; the lawyer, who now has to plead his own case; the astrologer who cannot see his own destiny in the stars, etc.
This type of humour and criticism is totally absent from "Mors de la Pomme".
The humour must be found in wordplay, where two words sound alike. We see this already in the title, "Mors de la Pomme", "Mors" means "a bite" or "morsel", but is pronounced like "Mort" in French. A bite from the apple resulted in Death from the apple.
The title and the whole work might be thought of as an extension of Death's word to the astrologer in the Danse Macabre: "All must die for an apple" (»Tous fault mourir pour une pomme«) or in Lydgate's translation: »And al schal dye / for an appil rounde«. In the Danse Macabre each verse ends with such a proverb.(4)
"Mors de la Pomme" also employs proverbs frequently, although not as often (after all, there are only 4 lines per verse). Instead each verse ends with a Latin quote which is almost always taken from Psalms.
The unknown author is fond of "rich rhymes", where the rhyme is not only in the last syllable (e.g. "Asservie" and "servie"), and specifically there is a very large number of "equivocal rhymes", where two words are identical but with a different meaning (like "Mors/Mort" in the title).
One example could be: »en sa main tient / […] son regne maintient« ("in her hand holds / […] her reign upholds"). Other examples are the child, where "monde" can mean both "world" and "purified"; the princess (picture to the right), where "entremetz" can mean both "a dessert" and "to meddle"; the queen: "volez" (will) and "volez" (fly); the giant: "[je] sens" (i feel) and "sens" (my senses); and the centurion: "la croix" = "the cross", "le crois" = "I believe it" (or "you believe it", or a command: "believe it").
The text presented here is basically transcribed literally from the BnF Français 17001, and the illustrations are taken from here as well (since they are missing in the Ambrosiana manuscript).
However, text and images are presented in the order given by the Ambrosiana manuscript, and the lines missing in Français 17001 are taken from here and marked with square brackets.
The line numbers follow Timelli's text, i.e. this combination of the two manuscripts. The Latin quotes that end each verse are not given a number.
The text can be read in its entirety here or together with the pictures here: Prologue.
The text starts with a prologue.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)
My (and Google's) translation of:
Plus intéressant encore pour nous est le curieux poème intitulé le Mors de la pomme, qui fut composé vers 1470. Chose curieuse, cette ouvre tardive semble nous faire remonter aux origines mêmes de la Danse macabre. […] Le poète nous explique que la Mort est née dans le paradis terrestre, au moment même où nos premiers parents commirent la faute. L'ange qui chassa Adam et Eve du paradis terrestre remit en même temps à la Mort trois longues flèches et un bref où pendait le sceau de Dieu. (3) Dans ce bref, Dieu parle comme un souverain, et fait savoir à tous qu il donne plein pouvoir à la Mort.
[…] Ce qui fait l'intérêt et la nouveauté de l'ouvre, c'est que les personnages ne sont pas isolés ; ils ne se présentent pas sous l'aspect d'abstractions sociales: la Mort les frappe en pleine action, clans la rue, au milieu de la foule, à la table de famille. […] Voici la Mort frappant le pape au milieu de ses cardinaux et l'empereur au milieu de sa cour: elle perce l'homme d'armes en pleine bataille, et la jeune fille dans sa chambre, devant son miroir: elle arrache l'enfant à sa mère, l'amante à lamant.
[…] Les manuscrits illustrés du Mors de la pomme ont certainement inspiré l'artiste qui composa, pour l'éditeur Simon Vostre, les bordures des Heures de 1512
[…] Est-ce le manuscrit illustré du Mors de la pomme qui tomba sous les yeux d'Holbein, ou est-ce le livre d Heures de Simon Vostre? Il est difficile de le dire, - mais ce qui me paraît certain, c'est qu'Holbein a connu un de nos originaux français.
See the eksternal links
1468-1470 . . .: The introduction ends: »Fait d lille lan. iiiic. lxviii.« (page 2r); the translation of Cicero's letter ends: »[…] translatee de latin en francois par Jo. mielot prebstre natif du diocese damiens &c. lan mil. CCCC. soixante huyt. &c.« (page 34v); yet another section ends: »[…] en flandres lan mil iiiic. lxiii.« (page 97v).
On the other hand, a chrological table on page 34v includes the year 1470.
According to Monteverdi, the manuscript consists of two parts. of which the second and oldest part is from 1411.
The first and youngest containg "Romuleon" by Benvenuto Rambaldi, was written by the same hand as "Mors", and marked with »absolutum Rome 1461 die 18 aug.«.
On a sidenote, Miélot was himself interested in proverbs and made a list with 338 of them, alphabetically sorted. No. 314 is: »Tous fault morir pour une pomme«.
See Français 12441 pp. 65v and forward.