Lübeck's Dance of Death

Thomas Nugent

Map of Mecklenburg
Map of Mecklenburg - Lübeck is to the far left.

Thomas Nugent traveled through several North German cities in 1766. Later his travelogue was published in two volumes in the form of letters to an imaginary friend: "Travels through Germany - With a particular account of the courts of Mecklenburg : In a series of letters to a friend; Embellished with elegant cuts".

The third letter (page 89-139) is about Lübeck - it is dated September 6, 1766 - and Nugent has this to say about the dance of death in the Marienkirche:

      But the most noted thing in St. Mary's
church, is the painting called Death's Dance, so
much talked of in all parts of Germany. It was
originally drawn in 1463, but the figures were
repaired at different times, as in 1588, 1642, and
last of all in 1701. Here you see the represen-
tation of Death leading an emperor in his im-
perial robes, who with his other hand takes
hold of such another figure, which leads up a
king; and so alternately a figure of Death and
a human person through all conditions and
stages of life. The intention of the artist was
to shew that Death pays no regard to age or
condition, which is more particularly expressed
in the verses underneath. They were composed
at first in Plat Deutch, or Low Dutch; but
at the last repair in 1701, it was thought
proper to change them for German verses,
which were written by Nathaniel Schlott of
Dantzick. A young lady of this town, who
by dint of application, has made a great profi-
ciency in our language, undertook to turn
them into English verse. She has been so kind
as to favour me with a copy ; and I imagined
you would be pleased with such a speci-
men of the progress, which even the ladies of
this country begin to make in English literature.

Nugent's translation of the dance of death

Nugent also supplies a rather loose translation of the dance of death, which he ascribes to a young woman of Lübeck: »A young lady of this town, who by dint of application, has made a great proficiency in our language, undertook to turn them into English verse«.

Oddly enough, the text ends with two extra dancers that don't belong to Lübeck: the dancing-master and the fencing-master:

L. Death to the Dancing-master.

Monsieur, your dance is excellent,
And for to learn I'm fully bent;
You cut so true, with nimble feet
So fine, so gallant, and so neat,
That when we both do dance together,
We'll trip as light as any feather;
I'll force this truth from petit-maîtres,
There's none like me for cutting capers.

LI. The Dancing-master's answer.

Upon my word, I cannot say,
I like to teach at all to-day.
Nay, do not press me, I protest,
I cannot dance so well at best ;
Besides, look here, I've hurt my toe,
Upon it I can hardly go.
Lord, how you press one when refus'd ?
'Deed, brother, I would be excus'd.
LII. Death to the Fencing-master.

Thou art a clever fellow true,
As ever foil or small sword drew;
Let's have fresh tryal of thy skill,
At this, or that, or what you will.
Adzooks, take care, or sure as nuts
I'll whip my sword quite through your guts.
I have done it, faith, there is no doubt,
For see, good friends, they're tumbling out.

LIII. The Fencing-master's answer.

O all is o'er, I lost my breath;
But who the De'el can fence with Death ?

Døde-Dands: Fencing-master
Døde-Dands, Fencing master
Døde-Dands: Dancing-master
Døde-Dands, Dancing master

These two figures do not appear in any other Low German dance of death and it is strange that they should appear at the end of the dance — after the baby — rather than among the other burghers. The language too differs from the rest of the dance — being more alive and humorous. Maybe they were added by Nugent himself?

My own guess is that Nugent found these two dancers in the Danish Døde-Dands from 1762 (pictures to the left and right).

Fenciing- and dancing-master
Dood is 't slot

What is really strange is that two images in a Dutch almanac from 1799 are very reminiscent of these two scenes from Døde-Dands.

This means that the Dutch publisher has looked in the Danish Døde-Dands and has selected precisely those two scenes that Nugent had added to Lübeck.

German translations

Nugent's books seems to have been popular in Germany, where they were published in 1781: "Thomas Nugents Reisen durch Deutschland und vorzüglich durch Meklenburg ; Aus dem Englischen übersetzt und mit einigen Anmerkungen und Kupfern versehen" and re-published in 1938 and 2000.

It would have been interesting if the German translator could tell us more about the young woman, who had translated the dance of death into English, and about the two added dancers.

Unfortunately the section about the painting in St. Mary's Church is quite brief.

Auch ist noch in dieser Kirche das so berühmte Gemälde, der Todentanz, welches zuerst im Jahr 1463 verfertigt und nachher zu verschiedenen malen, nemlich in den Jahren 1588 1642 und 1701 wieder aufgepuzt worden. Auf diesem Gemälde präsentirt sich nemlich zuerst ein Todtengerippe, das einen Kaiser im kaiserlichen Schmuck bey der Hand faßt; dieser faßt wiederum mit der andern Hand ein neues Skelet, das ein König bey der Hand leitet, und so geht dies immer, daß ein Gerippe mit einer Menschenfigur wechselt, und zwar durch alle Stände und Alter des Lebens. Die Absicht des Künstlers war: anschauend zu zeigen, wie der Tod nicht Alter oder Stand schont, welches noch deutlicher in den unter jeder Figur geschriebenen Versen ausgedrückt ist.*)
(Thomas Nugents Reisen durch Deutschland, 1781, pp 94-95)

The translator explains in an expanded footnote that he has skipped the dance of death text, because the English translation would have been without value to the German readers who could easily find the original text elsewhere:

*) Daß diese Verse hier weggelassen sind, wird der deutsche Leser verzeihen, da ihm die englische Uebersetzung unnüz; und die deutschen Originalreime, die in so vielen Beschreibungen vorkommen, überflüssig gewesen seyn würden. Ueberhaupt wird man sowol hier als in der Folge mehrere dergleichen Raritäten vermissen, die ich beym Uebersetzen übergangen habe; allein ich denke, diese schicken sich, mit samt dem dudelnden Esel zu Hamburg besser für Berkenmeier Willebrand, und Consorten A. d. Ueb.
(Thomas Nugents Reisen durch Deutschland, 1781, page 95)

In the same manner the translator has cut down on the material, which he thought would be "more fitting to Berkenmeier, Willebrand and their consorts".

"Willebrand" is presumably Johann Peter Willebrand (1719-1786), lawyer, judge and police Commissioner in Altona, author of: Hansische Chronik, 1748, Historische berichte und practische Anmerkungen auf Reisen in Deutschland und andern Ländern, 1758, and Lübecks Annehmlichkeiten für einen Ausländer beschrieben, 1774.

"Berkenmeier" is presumably Paul Ludolph Berckenmeyer, author of Curieuser Antiquarius (1720, 1746), in French: Le Curieux antiquaire, 1729.

Berckenmeyer does in fact mention the dance of death briefly: »In der kleinen Orgel=Capelle ist rundherum der Todten=Tanz gar alt, aber wohl fürgestellet, welcher Anno 1701. sehr schön gemahlet und mit artigen Versen renoviret ist« (page 762 of the 1746-edition).

It does sound as if Berckenmeyer was just quoting Die Beglückte und Geschmückte Stadt Lübeck af Johann Gerhard Krüger from 1697: »In dieser kleinen Orgel Capell ist rund herumb der Todten-Tantz gar alt, aber wolgethan«. There is the small twist, though, that in 1697 the original painting had not yet been replaced by a copy by Anton Wortmann and a new High German text by Nathanael Schlott.

Gå fremad

Read Thomas Nugent's translation of the dance of death.


I have placed Nugent's translations — along with the original German text — beneath the engravings of Ludewig Suhl.

Suhl, part 1Suhl, part 2Suhl, part 3Suhl, part 4Suhl, part 5Suhl, part 6Suhl, part 7Suhl, part 8
Click the little pictures to get into the dance.

Further information