Death's Dance, or Line of the Dead?

Death from Lübeck
Death from Lübeck
Death from Berlin

Death from Lübeck skips around in the dance. All 24 dancers are pulled away by the same emaciated cadaver in the same burial shroud. The headlines in the printed books make it clear that this cadaver is Death himself: »De Doet«.

It's the same story in Berlin, where the cadaver in the shroud proudly declares that he is Death: »ik byn dy doet« to the sacristan, preacher, priest and canon.

The humans in Lübeck implore Death for respite, e.g. the usurer »Oh, you most unexpected Death, I have thought [neither] little nor much of you«. The king says, »Oh Death, your speech has terrified me«, while the empress thinks Death is crazy: »I know, Death means me! […] I thought he was not in his right mind«.

In Lübeck's dialogue it's always the cadaver to the left who invites the next dancer, but the cadaver to the right who finishes the dialogue. In other words: All of the 24-25 cadavers are the same creature who skips around in the dance; just like the fool does in the carnivals and in the tarot cards.(1) There is only one Death: "de Dood van Lübeck".

Kleinbasel, 2 corpses leave the ossuary.
Kleinbasel, Charnel house

This is not the case with Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. In 1906 Fehse(2) pointed out how this text-tradition is very different from the other dances of death.

In this tradition Death seems to have a number of "helpers" or "followers", who are referred to as "Death's fellows", "Death's kin", "Death's troop", "Death's number", "black brothers", wild wolves, monkeys, the misshapen and so on. So Death is not alone, and the illustrations also show how the dances in Basel are introduced by 2 corpses in the ossuary (see picture to the right).(3)

This crowd of dead are pulling the living into a "reie", a German word which like the English word row has several meanings such as series, line, (chain)dance, round dance and noisy merriment. Here in this "row", the living are forced to »let the dead greet you« and »run with the dead«.

The corpse who grabs the living, never introduces himself as Death — on the contrary, Death is constantly spoken of in the third person: »Death will strike up the dance for you« (to the pope), »Death has come sneaking to you alone« (to the empress), »Death takes neither goods nor gifts« (to the merchant). It's tempting to assume that Death employs pluralis majestatis to sound more solemn, but this explanation doesn't always hold water. For instance the corpse says to the merchant:

Der tot nympt wedir gut noch goben
Tanczt mir noch her wil euch haben
Death takes neither goods nor gifts.
Dance after me - he will have you.
Codex xylogr. 39, Death and the child
Codex xylogr. Monac. 39, Death and the child

This dead man clearly distinguishes between himself and Death. It's not just a type-o because we find the same quote in most of the manuscripts. Two of the manuscripts Berol and Augsburg have been changed to "correct the error": »Dantz mir noch, ich wil dich haben«.(4) In Kleinbasel the problem has been solved by re-writing the text completely: »Der tod nympt weder gelt noch güt. Nun dantz her noch mit friem müt« (= "Death receives neither money nor goods. Dance now here in high spirits").(6)

The nobleman is dragged away by a woman.
Heidelberg, Nobleman

We find similar examples when the corpse says to the king: »I well lead you by your hands into this black brother dance. There Death will give you a wreath«, to the bishop: »I will draw you to the dance where you cannot flee Death« and to the peasant »At the end of this dance; there will Death find you«.

The illustrations for Heidelberg's block book also shows that it's not the same corpse on all pictures. At least it's clearly a female corpse that picks up the nobleman (picture to the right).(5)

The conclusion is that pictures and (particularly) text describe a long line of dead people traveling around and dragging the living along. Death himself does not appear in the dance.

This also explains another idiosyncrasy of Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz, viz. the lack of social criticism. In all other dances of death the fundamental part of the text is that Death reproaches the humans for their crimes and godlessness. Other dances function as a memento mori: Remember to live without sin as a good Christian, so you don't end up in Hell.

In the Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz the only point being made is that the living must leave their goods and power, and will soon become like the dead, who carry them away.


The dances of death in Basel and Kleinbasel belong to the family Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, but the 24 regular participants are here expanded by 15 for a total of 39.

The fool: "then I must away with you.
Büchel, Fool

If we compare there 15 "new-comers" with the 24 regulars, we see the manner in which the text in Kleinbasel(6) deviates from the family. Now it's no longer a "Line of the Dead" but a proper "Death's Dance".

  1. It never happens in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, that the living people address Death (or his men), which is quite natural when we remember that in the original text Death and his men doesn't appear at all.

    The 15 extra participants in Basel have no problem with speaking to Death. The major complains to "the hard Death" with the cruel heart: »O herter todt wie mag das sin […] Wie godt es dir so wenig zo herzen«. Other examples are the fool: »so mus ich mit dir do hin« (= "then I must away with you"), and the blind: »Das du mich da von wilt tringen« (= "that you will force me away from").

  2. The 15 new dancers are being carried away by Death himself, as opposed to the 24 "old dancers", who are just picked up by a corpse. We have just seen how the major is dragged by The Hard Death: (»O herter todt wie mag das sin […] Wie godt es dir so wenig zo herzen«) and the same is true for the executioner: (»Oh herter doit musz es den si«). Other examples are the hermit: »Als ich es hab von todt vernonmen« (= "as I have heard it from Death"); the maiden: »Der todt hat mich hinder kumen Vnd zücht mich an sin dantz zo kummen« (= "Death has tricked me and drags me to come to his dance"); the pagan woman: »Sich wie zwingt mich der toidt« (= "see, how Death subdues me"); and the Jew: »Der todt da in bescriben stait Ich hat sin oder wenig acht Nun zvingt er mich myt siner macht«

  3. Along with Death Personified come the edifying social criticism and the repentance of the dying.

    To the Jew: Your Talmud his lied much.
    Büchel, Death and the Jew

    Death warns the lawyer »Bis tu dem Vnrecht ye Bi gestanden Des kumpst du hie zo groissen Scanden« (= "Have you helped doing injustice, then you'll come into great shame"), and the lawyer bewails that he hasn't followed God's commandments but has lusted for money and goods: »Het ich gelept in dinem gebot Das mir gelt vnd goit ye Wart so leib Das clag ich got der am crutz verscheid« (in Großbasel the lawyer has been replaced by a councilman).

    The major apparently fears Hell where his sins will cause torment: »Wie godt es dir so wenig zo herzen wie mich min sund werden smertzen«. The executioner's heart is full of displeasure over the life he has lead: »Nun ist min hertz grosz ummütz vol Das mir mit vorteil ie Was so Wol«. The usurer has been presumptuous in his search for money: »o we wes hab ich gezigen […] Min golt vnd silber motz ich lon« (= "O woe, how I have presumed [myself]. My gold and silver I must leave").

    We see the well-known formula: If you have been good, then you don't have to worry. Death says to the beguine: »Begin hastu got gedeint nacht vnd tag Dorumb got dir wol helfen mach Es mag aber einen anderen begin neit g[…] Die sich erhenck mit bosen ducken« (= "Beguine, have you served God night and day, for this God will help you well. This can another beguine not [see?], because she hangs around with evil girls") (in Großbasel the beguine is replaced by a peddler). A few letters are missing in the painting of the major, but we still see the same pattern: »[schu]lthes hastu dinen gewalt ir geben […] vor rechten sachen das kumpt dir nit eben« ("Major, have you used your power for right causes ...").

    On the other hand there aren't any "if"s when it comes to the godless. Death tells the Jew: »Din talmüt hat vil gelogen Do mit bistu balt betrogen« (= "Your Talmud has lied much, therefore you are much deceived"). The pagan woman loses her (false) faith: »Din glaub der ist verloren gantz«, while the pagan man who has apparently worshiped Mohammed, receives a double-barreled blast: »Machmet mach dich bescirmen Din lib gib Ich den bosen Wormen Du mosz gar teif in die helsche pin Vnd lucifers geselle Ewig syn« (= "Mohammed cannot protect you, your body I'll give to the evil worms, you must quite deep in the hellish torment, and become Lucifer's companion for ever").(7)

So there is quite a marked difference between the 24 dancers, who traditionally appear in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, and the 15 new ones. This is one of the reasons why scholars assume that the text on the murals in Basel is an extension of the manuscripts. The opposite — that the manuscripts were shortened copies of Basel's famous dance of death — would imply that the copiers accidentally had included the 24 dancers from "The Line of the Dead" while ignoring the 15 dancers from "Death's Dance".

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)

In fact it was while researching for my wife's tarot site that I got interested in dances of death.
Fehse . . .: William Fehse in the book Der Ursprung der Totentänze, 1906. Most of the arguments on the present page are taken from this book, which can be downloaded from The Internet Archive: Der Ursprung der Totentänze.

It was also Fehse, who invented the name Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz.

There are also two corpses in Basel for the painter, but this scene is a later invention from 1568 by Hans Kluber. There are also two corpses for the child in Basel, but this must be a later addition, since there's only one corpse in Kleinbasel.

There are lots of examples of 2 or more corpses for each human in Holbein's dance of death-alphabet and his great dance of death, particularly around the charnel house, but that's another (and newer) story.

Fehse writes ("Ursprung" page 15), that M3 has been corrected in the opposite direction, so "mir" has been replaced by "im": »Dance after him - he will have you«. However, this does not appear from the notes in the "Ur-text" he published a few years later ("Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz", page 88).

Massman is, as usual, confusing: He lets this variant, "Tanzet im nâch", be the original one in his "Ur-text".

In his notes he writes that M1+3 and H2 have "mir nach", which would imply that M2+4 and H1 have "im nach". However, this is not the case.

Concerning the names H2, M1, M2, Berol, etc.: See the main page for the list of manuscripts.

In Großbasel, the queen is dragged away by a female corpse, but the scene with the queen wasn't added before 1568. cripple is greeted by a one-legged corpse, but it's uncertain whether this is a newer change. There's a child-corpse playing with the painter's materials, but this was an addtion from 1568.

There are also female corpses in Holbein's dances of death, e.g. initial I and the empress, but again: Holbein is another (and newer) story.

Kleinbasel. . .: We have to limit ourselves to the text in Kleinbasel because the text in the famous dance in Großbasel has been changed too much through the years.

I must warn against relying too much on my attempts at translation. I have spent many hours with Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch but the text in Kleinbasel is very difficult:

Lucifer's companion for ever . . .: The dialogue seems to be inspirered by the old song about Judas:

O du armer Judas, was hastu getan?
Das du deinen Herren also verrathen han,
Darumb mustu leiden in der helle pein
Lucifers gesellen mustu ewig sein,

Oh you poor Judas, what have you done?
That you have thus betrayed your Lord!
For that you must suffer torment in Hell.
You must be Lucifer's companion for ever,
Kyrie eleison.