The High German 4-lined Dance of Death

Cpg 314, the two preachers
Cpg 314
Codex xyl. 39, Death and the child
Codex xylogr. Monac. 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?"
Heidelberg, Child
The start of Kleinbasel
Kleinbasel, Ossuary

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"
Cod xyl monac 39, Death and the pope

We know the text from a number of sources. The first person to correlate the texts were Massmann(2) in 1847, who named his sources H or M, depending on whether they resided at the library in Heidelberg or Munich:

Family tree over the dances of death 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 in Berlin:

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:

Click each picture to read the text

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


Further information

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

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 from 1847

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.

Up to the medieval Dance of Death