The High German 4-line 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 text is in 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.


Family tree over the dances of death We know the text from a number of sources. To the right is a family tree where Wilhelm Fehse traces the evolution of the texts.


In This Section

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

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.
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.
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