This book came to the royal library of Bavaria in the early 19th century. Bavaria was within a process of secularization and the chairman of the Library Commission, Freiherr (i.e. Baron) Johann Christoph von Aretin, travelled around all over the kingdom to look for old books that would enrich the king's library. In a letter dated 5th April 1803 he tells about his lucky findings in the monastery of Weihern:
An alten Druckdenkmählern erhielten wir einen
Wahren Schatz. Ganz unerwartet fanden wir
drey xylographische Produkte, nämlich die Biblia
pauperum, das speculum humanae salvationis und
den Todtentanz. Die beiden ersten sind vom Herrn
von Heinecke in seinen Nachrichten von Künstlern
und Kunstsachen ausführlich beschrieben und
hinlanglich bekannt. Das leztere aber finde ich
weder bey diesem, noch bey Panzer**) angezeigt,
und werde es daher, so bald es ausgepackt werden
kann, ausführlich beschreiben .
(Beyträge zur Geschichte und Literatur, 1803, vol. 1, page 50)
The picture to the left shows how the book is structured today: On the left side of every page-opening two woodcuts have been glued in, and on the right side the corresponding dialogues have been written in ink. This is not true for the two preachers located respectively at the beginning and the end, who are larger and each take up a whole page.
It is somehow contradictory that the book is called "Münchner Blockbuch". First of all one would assume, since the book is labelled "Xylogr. 39", that the library in Munich had at least 38 other block books. Secondly, the book is no longer a block book. Originally images and text were cut in one, single printing block, but these texts have since been cut away and replaced by a handwritten text.
At first it was believed that these woodcut-texts were lost, but in 1839 two pieces were discovered that had been used to reinforce the binding. The first fragment was the knight's dialogue, and on the reconstruction to the right I have placed the text in its original position.
The question then is how these two texts, the handwritten and the woodcut, are related to each other. In the old days the experts believed the handwritten text to be the older one. Alexander Goette argued that for linguistic reasons the two texts had to have originated from two different areas, and therefore they couldn't be copies of each other:
Endlich sei hier noch hervorgehoben, dass die Handschrift und
die Reste des xylographischen Textes sich sprachlich unterscheiden,
also auch aus verschiedenen Gegenden stammen und jedenfalls keins
die Kopie des anderen ist.
(Alexander Goette, Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder, 1897, page 102)
The only explanation that Goette could see was that the manuscript was created first and adapted for images, "not yet present, but which would appear later":
Die einzig mögliche Auffassung des Thatbestandes scheint mir
also die zu sein, dass die Handschrift M2, wie dies früher nicht
selten geschah (s. WACKERNAGEL, S. 328), für Bilder eingerichtet
wurde, die nicht gleich zur Stelle waren, sondern sich erst später
einfanden. Sie müssen aber vor der Herstellung dieser Handschrift
existiert und der Schreiber davon gewusst haben; nur mag er die
Einrichtung der Holzschnitte, ihre Grösse und den Textanhang nicht
gekannt haben , so dass sie zunächst nur lose zwischen die Blätter
der Handschrift gelegt sein werden.
(Alexander Goette, Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder, 1897, page 103)
This somewhat bizarre theory survived for over 100 years because other researchers generally did not have access to the book. Schreiber was able to decipher two words: "gût" and "ritts", which he compared to the corresponding words in the manuscript: "guet" and "ritters".(1) Even a relatively new book as Memento Mori by Susanne Warda from 2011 repeats that the manuscript is older than the images.(2) However, Warda emphasizes that she haven't had access to the book.
As mentioned, Goette based his argument on the two texts being very different, but his transcription of the texts was so bad that there was almost a bigger difference to Goette's version, than between the handwriting and the woodcut. Apparently it has escaped both Goette and Schreiber that the small squiggle in "ritt's" is not an apostrophe, but an abbreviation. An abbreviation that is a bit uncommon, but is used elsewhere in the same verse.
The two texts are shown here. I have ignored the red ink in the manuscript (headlines, capitalization, punctuation). The bottom of the woodcut is missing, so the last word in both verses ("vechten" and "worden") has been put in square brackets:
1 Her ritter jr seÿtt auch an geschriben
Her ritter ir sit ach an geschriben
5 Ich han als ain strenger ritter guet
Ich han als ain strenger ritter gut
The two texts show a number of similarities:
And not only that: Both versions employ a relatively rare abbreviation, where "od" and a squiggle renders "oder". It is the same squiggle that turns "ritt's" into "ritters" in the woodcut.
Both Goette and Schreiber seem to have missed the second part (in two fragments). These two fragments give us a bit of the final preacher, and are transcribed here:
1 O jr tödlichen menschen alle
4 Vnd merckt was chunftig ist da beÿ
5 Zu dem ersten gehort wie vnd wenn
6 Das letzt ich zwifaltig benenn
7 Wa die sint ze beleiben ist
8 Der tod ew allen das end peweist
9 Aber wie vnd wenn des todes zeit
10 Chomen sol das wist ir nicht
11 Es wirt erchant ew allen hertt
O jr dötlichen menschen alle|
Vnd merk was kunftig ist da by
Ze dem ersten gehört wie vnd wenn
Das lest ich zwifalt benenn
Wa die sint ze beleben ist
Der tod ew allen das end bewist
Aber wie oder wen des todes zit
Komen sol das wist ir nit
Es wirt erkant ew allen hert
These two text are also rather similar:
Line 6: There may be a difference between "zwifaltig" and "zwifalt", but it isn't great. In fact there is empty space in the woodcut for two additional letters. Maybe they were deleted?
Line 7: Both versions write "sint", which doesn't make any sense. Our other sources have different variants of "statt".
Linie 9: Here is the only real difference: "oder" or "vnd".
There is another weakness in Goette's explanation about a handwritten book waiting for some woodcuts: At the bottom of the frame that surrounds each image is a small number. The woodcuts come in the sequence indicated by these numbers, and so do the handwritten texts.
But this sequence deviates from all other versions we know of the so-called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. Compared to these, the sequence has been exchanged between the merchant and the nun and between the beggar and the cook.
If a manuscript had been prepared and was just "waiting for some images", it would have been a miracle that the manuscript followed the same wrong sequence as the images.
The most obvious explanation is therefore that the handwritten text is a copy of the original woodcuts. Of course, this does not answer the question of why somebody would treat an expensive book so barbarically.
Click on the thumbnails to join the dance.
Footnotes: (1) (2)
Memento mori: Bild und Text in Totentänzen des Spätmittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit, 2011, page 217.