Lübeck's Dance of Death

Thomas Nugent

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

Thomas Nugent travelled 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 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.

Unfortunately Nugent doesn't tell us the name of the young lady, who made the translations. The dance of death ends with two extra dancers: 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 ?

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 Døde-Dands.

On this site, 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.

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


Further information

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