The High German 4-lined Dance of Death
Cpg 314, the two preachers
Codex xyl. 39, Death and the child
A number of dances of death from southern Germany and Switzerland
are collectively called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz:
"Oberdeutscher" because the language is High German — as opposed to the Low German dances of death in Lübeck,
Tallinn and Berlin — and "vierzeiliger"
because each verse consists of 4 lines — as opposed
to the 8-lined der doten dantz mit figuren.
The oldest of these texts, Cpg 314(1)
(picture to the left),
shows how the German text is a translation from Latin.
In this old manuscript Death doesn't appear, and the text only consists of the complaints of the dying people.
It is easy to see the inspiration from the Vado Mori-literature.
The 24 dancers introduce themselves:
»I was a holy pope […]«,
»I have, as king […]«, etc.,
lament their fate, and let the next participant take over.
In all the other (later) versions of Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz,
speeches have been added for Death,
but the resulting dialogue is only ostensibly a dialogue:
Death greets the humans energetically, vivaciously, ironically - even humorously -
while the humans ignore Death's words, introduce themselves to the reader,
»I was a holy pope […]«,
»I have, as king […]«, etc.,
whereupon they go on lamenting.
In fact the German word "Wechselrede" is more precise:
Death and the dying take turns speaking.
The child ignores Death and calls for his mother:
"How can you leave me thus?"
This is most evident at the end of the dance, where
the mother ignores Death and addresses
her son: »Oh child, I would have saved you;«,
while the child in turn also ignores Death and calls for his mother:
»Oh woe, my dear mother […]
How can you leave me thus?«
In other dances of death, like the ones in Lübeck and Berlin,
the dying might address Death directly and
implore for respite,
but this never happens in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz —
precisely because the humans' speeches were written many years before Death appeared on the scene.
Strictly speaking Death still doesn't appear anywhere.
What we have here is a "real totentanz",
where a row of dead people drag the living away.
Read more about Dance of Death or Line of the Dead.
The most famous dance in this family is Death from Basel.
There were 2 dances in Basel and both had increased the number of dancers from 24 to 39.
In Kleinbasel the text is still familiar, but the famous
dance in GroßBasel had been changed so thoroughly through repair and renovations
that it can only be partly recognized.
Cod xyl. 39, Death and the pope:
"Der tod zu dem Bapst spricht"
We know the text from a number of sources.
The first person to correlate the texts were
in 1847, who named his sources H or M,
depending on whether they resided at the library in Heidelberg or Munich:
- H1: Four pages from Cpg 314.
This text is the most original and thus at the top of the family tree.
In this old manuscript Death doesn't even appear.
- H2: Cpg 438, Heidelberg's block book
- M1: Cgm 270(3)
- M2: Codex xylogr. Monac. 39.(4)
The illustrations are from a block book (i.e. picture and text made out of one woodblock),
but the pictures were cut out
in the 15th century and have been supplied with a newer handwriting.
- M3: Cgm 2927, leaves 13" - 15". Handwriting which at places is illegible.
»Dye erst predig. Diser werlt weyse kint / all dy noch in leben sint …«
- M4: See below.
- Basel's dances of death. The dance has been expanded with 15 extra dancers in Großbasel and Kleinbasel.
As the family tree shows, the text in Kleinbasel
is at a more developed stage compared to the others.
In 1908 Fehse,(5)
pointed out that the source that Massmann had designated M4 wasn't a source at all,
but was a printed version of Cgm 270,
which had been "improved" with a little help from Codex xylogr. Monac. 39.
On the other hand another manuscript had shown up in the mean time
Based on this, Fehse made the sketch to the right, which shows the evolution from
Cpg 314, where Death doesn't appear, to the mural in
Kleinbasel, where the dance has been expanded to 39 dancers.
Since then more sources have appeared and must be added to the list:
- A: Augsburg 2° Cod. 157. The pages 18ra to 20ra
- Bu: Budapest: Cod. Muz. 11, pages 137r-141v
(formerly: Cod. Esztergom 11).
The manuscript used to reside in the Güssing monastery, and for this reason the dance is also called Güssinger Totentanz,
but this monastery wasn't founded before 1638, so the manuscript cannot have been written here.
The scribe has confounded the duke and the knight and as a consequence
the persons in between are missing, i.e. the duke's reply, bishop, count, abbot and Death's speech to the knight.
The leaf that held the end of the dance with the mother's reply and
maybe held the second sermon is also missing.
- To this come a number of murals: Ulm, Metnitz, Wil, Kleinbasel and Basel
Click each picture to read the text
- Der 'Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz': Formen seiner Rezeption und Aneignung in Handschrift und Blockdruck.
By Almut Breitenbach, 2015.
Parts of it kan by read at
- Totentanz-Studien. By Mischa von Perger, 2013. Pages 57-156 + 247-289.
- Memento mori: Bild und Text in Totentänzen des Spätmittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit.
By Susanne Warda, 2011. Pages 199-269.
- Die Deutschsprachigen Spätmittelalterlichen Totentänze Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Inkunabel, 'Des dodes dantz'. Lübeck 1489.
By Brigitte Schulte, 1990.
Pages 157-162 + 173-180.
Can be downloaded:
Des dodes dantz - LWL
- Der Tanzende Tod. By Gert Kaiser, 1982.
Introductions, images and modern German translations.
The pages 194-275 contains the dance of death in Basel
while 276-329 contains Heidelberg's block book.
- Der vierzeilige Oberdeutsche Totentanztext.
By Wilhelm Fehse. Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, vol. 40, 1908, pages 67-93.
Fehse corrects many of the mistakes made by Massmann, and he coins the expression
vierzeilige Oberdeutsche Totentanz.
- Die Baseler Todtentänze in getreuen Abbildungen : nebst geschichtlicher Untersuchung, so wie Vergleichung mit den übrigen deutschen Todtentänzen, ihrer Bilderfolge und ihren gemeinsamen Reimtexten.
By Hans Ferdinand Massmann, 1847.
At the back of the book, Massmann compares Cgm 270, Xyl. 39, Cgm 2927,
Cpg 314, Heidelberg's block book,
Kleinbasel and Basel.
You can say a lot about Massmann but he was the first to try and compare the various sources,
and for half a century he was the only one.
- Death's Dance, or Line of the Dead?
- Cpg 314
- Cpg 314 - the text with a translation
- Cgm 270
- Augsburg 2° Cod. 157
- Xyl. 39
- The first Preacher,
The second preacher
- Xyl. 39 - the text
- Mgf 19, Berlin
- Murals in Ulm, Metnitz, Wil, Kleinbasel and Basel
- Heidelberg's block book
Cpg 314. . . : Cpg is short for
Codices Palatini Germanici.
Thus Cpg 314 is the name of the 314th German-language book in Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg.
Massmann . . .:
Hans Ferdinand Massmann,
Die Baseler todtentänze in getreuen abbildungen
At the end of his book, Massmann tried to reconstruct a "Ur-text"
by combining variants from the different sources.
See the page about Cgm 270 (and footnote 2 on the same page)
for details about Massmann's Ur-text.
Cgm 270 . . .: Cgm is short for
Codices germanici monacenses — i.e. German language books
from Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in München/Munich.
xylogr . . .: Xylograph means woodcut.
For inscrutable reasons "Codex xylogr. Monac." cannot be shortened to "Cxm" analogous with Cgm.
Fehse . . .:
Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz
, pages 69-71.
See also Der Ursprung der Totentänze, page 35, footnote 1.
Ms. germ. fol. Berolin . . .: Ms. = manuscript / handwriting,
Germ. = German language, Fol. = folio-format (more than 35 cm height-wise),
Berolin = books from Bibliotheca Regia Berolinensis i.e. The Royal Library in Berlin.