Xylogr. 39, Munich's Block book

Abbot and knight
Xyl 39, Xyl 39

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.

This is how each page originally was structured.
Xyl 39, Xyl 39

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:

ManuscriptWoodcut

1   Her ritter jr seÿtt auch an geschriben
2   Da ir ritterschaft nw müst treiben
3   Mit dem tod vnd seinen chnechten
4   Euch hilfet weder schimpf oder vechten

Her ritter ir sit ach an geschriben
Da ir ritterschafft nu must triben
Mit dem tod vnd sinen knechten
Eüch hilffet weder schimpff oder [vechten]

5   Ich han als ain strenger ritter guet
6   Der welt gedient in höhen muet
7   Nw pin ich wider ritters orden
8   Mit disen tantz getzwungen worden

Ich han als ain strenger ritter gut
Der welt gedient in hohem mut
Nu bin ich wider ritters orden
An disen dantz gezwungen [worden]

The two texts show a number of similarities:

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:

ManuscriptWoodcut
  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:

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.

Go forth
 

Click on the thumbnails to join the dance.

First Preacher
Xyl 39 1465: First Preacher
Pope
Xyl 39 1465: Pope
Emperor
Xyl 39 1465: Emperor
Empress
Xyl 39 1465: Empress
King
Xyl 39 1465: King
Cardinal
Xyl 39 1465: Cardinal
Patriarch
Xyl 39 1465: Patriarch
Archbishop
Xyl 39 1465: Archbishop
Duke
Xyl 39 1465: Duke
Bishop
Xyl 39 1465: Bishop
Count
Xyl 39 1465: Count
Abbot
Xyl 39 1465: Abbot
Knight
Xyl 39 1465: Knight
Lawyer
Xyl 39 1465: Lawyer
Canon
Xyl 39 1465: Canon
Physician
Xyl 39 1465: Physician
Nobleman
Xyl 39 1465: Nobleman
Noblewoman
Xyl 39 1465: Noblewoman
Nun
Xyl 39 1465: Nun
Merchant
Xyl 39 1465: Merchant
Cook
Xyl 39 1465: Cook
Beggar
Xyl 39 1465: Beggar
Peasant
Xyl 39 1465: Peasant
Child
Xyl 39 1465: Child
Mother
Xyl 39 1465: Mother
Second preacher
Xyl 39 1465: Second preacher

External Link

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2)

Schreiber. . . : Manuel de l'amateur de la gravure sur bois et sur métal au XVe siècle, 1902, vol. 4, pp. 432-433.
Susanne Warda: »[…] dessen von 1480 stammende Holzschnitte in eine ältere Handschrift eingeklebt wurden«.

Memento mori: Bild und Text in Totentänzen des Spätmittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit, 2011, page 217.


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