Chorea ab Eximio, 1490

The authority introduces the dance by the excellent Macaber.
Guy Marchant, Chorea ab Eximio

In 1490 Guyot Marchant published his woodcuts along with a Latin translation. This edition is in a way a step backwards, because on the one hand the book contains the male figures that Marchant himself had added in 1485/86 (such as duke and pilgrim) along with the four musicians, but on the other hand it did not contain the women's dance, neither the woodcut of queen and duchess nor the dialogues of the 34 women in the 1486-edition.

The sequence deviates at one point: The four pages with schoolmaster - soldier / Carthusian - sergeant / monk - usurer / physician - suitor comes in the wrong order compared to all other publications.

The title, which has caused much discussion, goes: »Chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita, et a Petro Desrey Trecacio, quodam oratore, nuper emendata, Parisiusque per magistrum Guidonem Mercatorem, pro Godeffrido de Marnef ad intersignium Pellicani in vico Divi Jacobi commoranti, anno Domini quadringentesimo nonagesimo supra millesimum, idibus octobris impressa«.

Most of the title is clear enough as such. The text has been "amended" by Petro Desrey from Troyes (Latin: Trecassis) and printed in Paris, through master Guidonem Mercatorem (= Guyot Marchant) for Godeffrido de Marnef, who resided in St. James' Street at the sign of the pelican, 15th October 1490. Incidentally, Rue St. Jacques was the same street where Thielman Kerver also resided.

What has caused endless discussions in several countries through several centuries is the beginning. Can it really be that this "dance by the excellent Macaber" (»Chorea ab eximio Macabro«) has been "translated from German verses" (»versibus alemanicis edita«)? Does this mean that the famous La Danse Macabre has in fact been translated from an (unknown) German source?

Doctor Macaber and his German verses

When John Lydgate wrote London's dance of death he stated in the translator's preface that he had translated the text »owte of the frensshe Macabrees daunce«. Towards the end of the dance he attributed two verses to "Machabre the Doctoure".

Lydgate evidently thought that the author of the French text was a doctor named Macaber, and if we combine this with the title of »Chorea ab eximio Macabro« it might hint that this "excellent Macaber" was German.

This was the way Warton interpreted the title in his work on English poetry:

Our author's stanzas, called the DANCE OF DEATH, which he translated from the French, at the request of the chapter of saint Paul's, to be inscribed under the representation of DEATH leading all ranks of men about the cloister of their church in a curious series of paintings, are well known. But their history has not, I believe, yet appeared. These verses, founded on a sort of spiritual masquerade, anciently celebrated in churches(a), were originally written by one Macaber in German rhymes, and were translated into Latin about the year 1460, by one who calls himself Petrus Desrey Orator.

This Latin translation was published by Goldastus, at the end of the SPECULUM OMNIUM STATUUM TOTIUS ORBIS TERRARUM compiled by Rodericus Zamorensis, and printed at Hanau in the year 1613(b).

But a French translation was made much earlier than the Latin, and written about the walls of saint Innocents cloister at Paris; from which Lydgate formed his English version(c).
(Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century, 1778, vol. 2, page 53-54)

Warton meant that the text, which "our author" — i.e. John Lydgate — had written in English, originally had been created in German by an author named Macaber. Warton writes that the Latin translation was from ca. 1460, not 1490, but we will return to that, and then he mentions a reprint from 1613, which we will return to as well.

Douce's article appears in a book with Hollar's copies of Holbein's dance of death.
Hollar, The Pope

Francis Douce thought something similar when he wrote the preface for the 1794-edition of Wenceslaus Hollar:

This dance was performed in the churches, and can be traced back as far as the year 1424*; it was called the Dance of Macaber, from a German poet of that name, who first composed some verses under the same title. Of this person very little is known, but Fabricius thinks the poem more antient than the paintings. His work has been translated into Latin and French, in the last of which languages there are some very antient and very modern editions.
(Francis Douce, The Dance of Death Painted by H. Holbein, 1794, page 9)

Douce claimed that the German poet, Macaber, had lent his name to the poem, and that the poem had then been translated into French and Latin. Douce admits that we don't know much about this German poet, »Of this person very little is known«. Of course there might be a good reason for this.

When Douce later published his famous book about dances of death in 1833 he seems to have changed his mind, but on the other hand it's not entirely clear how he now wanted to interpret the title.

Wildridge's article appears in a book with copies of Hollar's copies of Holbein's dance of death.
Wildridge, Bishop

Wildridge wrote the same:

It is, perhaps, to be questioned whether the German verses,* known as the Machabre or Dance of Macaber, be not older than the allusion in the Vision of Piers Plowman. These verses, by whomever composed, were translated into various languages, our English version being by none less than John Lydgate, who, however, had them secondhand from some French verses accompanying, as was commonly the case, a Dance of Death, at St. Innocent's, Paris.


* It is odd to find these verses attributed to a German poet of the name of Macaber ! though with the remark" of this person very little is known " Suggestions for the derivation of the word are " Macarius," an Egyptian Saint ; " Magabir," Arabic for a churchyard ; and the German " Macht-haber," a lord, (possessor of might). The French call the Dance Chorea Machabaeorum, Chorea Macrorum, or, " Danse de Maigres"; the word may be read as a synonym for Death.
(Tindall Wildridge, The dance of death in painting and in print, 1887, page 14)

Wildridge repeats the story about the German poet. We are led to understand that John Lydgate only had the text (i.e. the German original) secondhand, since his text has been translated from French. However we can deduct from the footnote that Wildridge has his information from Douce, since he repeats the phrase, »of this person very little is known«.

From Germany or for Germans?

Fortoul's article appears in a book with Joseph Schlotthauer's copies of Holbein's dance of death.
Schlotthauer, The Pope

The French author, Hippolyte Fortoul, thought instead that the title should be understood as a jest. In his book with Joseph Schlotthauer's copies of Holbein's dance of death he wrote:

  Guyot Marchand donna encore, jusqu'en l'année 1499, plusieurs autres éditions de la Danse Macabre, qu'il rajeunit par des titres nouveaux et par de nouvelles combinaisons. L'une de ces publications porte un titre facétieux qui, pris au sérieux, a fait faire une conjecture singulière sur le mot macabre : « Chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita, et a Petro Desrey emendata. Parisiis, per magistrum Guidonem Mercatorem pro Godeffrido de Marnef, 1490. » La dernière partie de cette plaisanterie explique suffisamment la première. Qu'est-ce, en effet, que ce nom emprunté de « Godeffrido de Marnef » avec sa maladroite particule française, et ses deux lettres initiales qui correspondent aux initiales de Guyot Marchand? Ne dit-il pas lui-même assez hautement qu'il a été forgé par le libraire parisien, dans l'intention de donner au livre une apparence germanique, et de le faire sûrement agréer des Allemands? Si cette édition n'avait pas été adressée particulièrement à nos voisins d'outre-Rhin, pourquoi aurait-elle été traduite en latin? Tout le monde en France n'entendait-il pas bien le français des éditions précédentes? L'Allemagne a presque toujours écrit en latin au Moyen-Age ;
(Hippolyte Fortoul, La Danse des morts dessinée par Hans Holbein, 1842, pp. 114-115)

Fortoul's explanation is that the title was "facétieux": "a facetious title, which taken in earnest has made a strange conjecture about the word 'macabre' possible".

The printer's mark says "E I G de Marnef".
Guy Marchant, Chorea ab Eximio

The alleged drollery is also seen in the name Godeffrido de Marnef, which according to Fortoul should not have the particle "de" in French, and which even has the same initials as Guyot Marchant himself.

Fortoul doesn't think the book had been translated from German, but instead for Germans. If this edition wasn't specifically targeted at our neighbours across the Rhine, why then had it been translated into Latin? Had everybody in France not been able to understand the earlier French editions? Didn't almost everybody in Germany always write in Latin in the Middle Ages?

Five pages later Fortoul plays his trump card in a footnote: He notices how the title of the 1499-edition doesn't contain the suspicious and un-French particle, "de", in Godeffrido de Marnef: »Observez que cette fois, […] Guyot Marchand a supprimé la particule de devant le nom de Marnef«.

With regard to this 1499-edition, we will return to it. With regard to the man with the suspicious name, Godeffrido de Marnef, suffice it to say that he did in fact exist. and that he published lots of books together with his two brothers with the equally suspicious names, Enguillebert de Marnef and Jehan de Marnef. The three brothers have placed their common printer's mark on the front page (picture to the left) with their three initials: E I G de Marnef.

From Germany or in a German Manner?

A number of authors, among these Henry Noel Humphreys, point out another explanation for the German verses:

(id est, in morem ac modos rithmorum Germanicorum compositis)
Speculum omnium statuum

In 1490 a Latin edition was issued by Godfrey de Marnef, at the sign of The Pelican, in the Rue St. Jacques, with his name and printer's mark attached, the text being translated from the German into Latin, as stated in the title, by Peter Desreys. In the subsequent editions of Desreys' version the allusion to the German original is in the following words : — "Versibus Allemanicis (id est, in morem ac modos rithmorum Germanicorum compositis)," from which it might be inferred that it was the metre of the German verses rather than their matter that had been adopted.
(Henry Noel Humphreys, Hans Holbein's celebrated Dance of death, 1868, page 24)

Humphreys refers to a book by Melchior Goldast from 1613 — »Speculum omnium statuum totius orbis terrarum«. From page 231 and following, the text from Chorea is reprinted and it was this reprint, which Warton also mentioned. The chapter is introduced: »Eximii Macabri Speculum Choreæ Mortuorum versibus alemanicis« (picture to the right) and then follows the explanation: »(id est, in morem ac modos rithmorum Germanicorum compositis)« — i.e.: "composed in German fashion and rhythmical manners".

Wackernagel mentions the same explanation as a possibility:

Rechnet man hiezu noch den auffallenden Umstand, dass der lateinische Todtentanz von Petrus Desrey141), den man gewohnt ist als eine Übersetzung der Danse Macabre zu betrachten, gleichwohl auf dem Titel von deutschen Versen als seiner Urform spricht (chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita et a Petro Desrey emendata), so könnte Deutsches Selbstgefühl daraus wohl den Schluss ziehn, es sei für die Danse Macabre aus unsrer deutschen Dichtung geschöpft, erst von Deutschland aus sei der Todtentanz nach Frankreich gebracht worden.

Indess würde so nur Übereilung folgern. Denn es wäre alsdann nöthig anzunehmen, dass Macaber der Name eines deutschen Dichters, dass diesem Deutschen dichter zunächst die lateinische Chorea nachgeahmt und erst aus der Chorea die Danse Macabre übersetzt sei. Desrey hat jedoch nicht früher als unter Karl VIII und Ludwig XII gelebt, während die Danse Macabre aux Innocens zu Paris bereits im J. 1425 vorhanden war.

Hienach kann das durchgängige Zusammentreffen der Danse Macabre und der Chorea nur so, wie man es von jeher gethan hat, aufgefasst, für die wenigen Stellen aber, wo jene auch mit dem Deutschen Todtentanze zusammen trifft, muss sie als das Vorbild betrachtet, muss auch in diesem Falle neben tausend anderen Entlehnung aus Frankreich angenommen werden. Macaber als Dichtername ist wie das ebenso auf französisch vorkommende Machabre142) lediglich ein Missverstand des genitivs Macabre, Machabaeorum , und auch in den versibus alemanicis liegt sicherlich bloss irgend welches Missverständnis.

Oder soll man den Ausdruck so, wie Goldast es versucht hat143), deuten? Er fügt hinzu id est, in morem ac modus rithmorum Germanicorum compositis: die Verse der französischen Urschrift seien von der Art gewesen, wie man auch auf deutsch zu dichten pflege, Verse mit blosser Sylbenzählung und mit Reimen.
(Wilhelm Wackernagel, Der todtentanz, 1853)

Wackernagel says that it would be easy for the German self-consciousness to interpret "versibus alemanicis" as if Macaber were the name of a German poet, and as if the Danse Macabre were a translation of an original German poem.

Wackernagel rejects this idea, because if the Latin Chorea were translated from German, then the French Danse Macabre would have been translated from Chorea. But since Danse Macabre is from 1425, and Desrey lived in a later period, then Danse Macabre cannot be a translation of Desrey's Latin translation. Wackernagel evidently overlooks the possibility that the French Danse Macabre and the Latin Chorea could be two independent translations of the same German text.

Wackernagel also points out how little these two texts have in common with German dances of death. If they were based on a German original, the various German dances would have had more in common with the Danse Macabre, than the few similarities we see.

Therefore Wackernagel believes it all to be a misunderstanding: Macaber is a misunderstanding of the genitive case of "Machabaeorum" and "versibus alemanicis" is assuredly some kind of misunderstanding too.

Finally Wackernagel refers to Goldast's book. Maybe the verses are not from Germany, but composed in a German manner, »wie man auch auf deutsch zu dichten pflege«: With a steady syllable-count and rhyme.

1460, 1490 or 1499?

The title of the "Chorea ab Eximio" clearly says when it was printed: »anno Domini quadringentesimo nonagesimo supra millesimum, idibus octobris impressa«, i.e.: "printed in the year of the Lord 1490 15th October". In spite of this, we have just quoted Warton for saying that the Latin dance had been published ca. 1460.

Where did Warton find this year? In all probability he has it from Fabricius (the same authority, whom Douce referred to). This is what Fabricius had to write about Macaber the author:

    MACABER auctor speculi morticini, sive speculi choreæ mortuorum, non tamen Latine ab eo compositi sed rhythmis Germanicis, sed quos Latinis circa A. 1460. reddidit PETRUS Desrey Trecacius Orator.

Latinos vulgavit Goldastus ad calcem speculi omnium statuum totius Orbis terrarum, auctore RODERICO Zamorensi. Hanov. 1613. 4.

Antiquior hæc est chorea mortuorum similibus plerisque ejusdem argumenti poëtarum ac pictorum lusibus, quos B. Paulus Christianus Hilscherus, noster cum viveret amicus descripsit in peculiari libro, jucundo lectu atque erudito, edito Dresdæ A. 1705. 8.
(Johann Albert Fabricius, Bibliotheca latina mediæ et infimæ ætatis, bind 5, 1736, pp 1-2)

From whence does Fabricius have this year, "circa A. 1460"? First we must take notice of the fact that Fabricius writes nothing about "Chorea ab eximio Macabro". All he writes seems to be quoted from the title page in Goldast's reprint from 1613, and what Goldast wrote about the age was: »ante annos circiter sequicentum emendatum«, i.e.: amended circa 150 years ago.

The 150 years are in fact a rather bad estimate, but Goldast himself probably hadn't seen a copy of "Chorea ab Eximio". Warton certainly didn't have a copy, and he has therefore been forced to subtract "circa 150 years" from 1613, and has arrived at »about the year 1460«.

So much for the 1460-edition, but what about the 1499-edition? The edition that Hippolyte Fortoul used to "prove" that Godeffrido de Marnef was a phony name?

A thorough search shows that this 1499-edition is largely unknown in the literature and that it is made of such stuff as dreams and the German poet Macaber are made on. Maßmann mentions it (Literatur der Todtentänze, 1840, page 95), but oddly enough he then quotes from the title, »quadragentesimo nonagesimo supra millesimum, idibus octobris«, apparently without giving pause to the fact that the book itself says 1490.

Maßmann cites three sources for his information: Brunet, Peignot and Douce. To begin with Peignot (Recherches historiques et littéraires, 1826, page 155), he has precisely the same paradoxical informations as Massman has: »quadringentesimo nonagesimo supra millesimum, idibus octobris«, which he without hesitation translates into "15 oct. 1499". In his comment, Peignot writes that the beautiful woodcuts no doubt are the same as in the 1490-edition, but he doesn't seems to wonder why it says 1490 on the front page. He is however puzzled (pages 90-91) that Fabricius had written the year 1460: »n'est-ce pas plutôt 1490?«.

Massman's second source is Brunet (Manuel du libraire et de l'amateur de livres, 1820, vol. 1, page 492). It is true that Brunet mentions "Chorea ab Eximio", but Brunet repeats the usual title with »quadringentesimo nonagesimo supra millesimum, idibus octobris«, and there is no hint of any 1499-edition.

Finally Douce, (The dance of death exhibited, 1833, page 58), who writes "15 Octob. 1499". Incidentally Douce is the only one to write "Godeffrido Marnef" without the particle "de", like Fortoul claimed. Unfortunately Douce doesn't give any details, no date in Latin, and he doesn't reflect over the relation between this edition and the 1490-edition (pages 56-57).

All in all one must conclude that the proof for this 1499-edition is flimsy and contradictory. When to this we add the conspicuous coincidence that both editions are supposed to have been printed on the same date, 15th October, one must conclude that we are dealing with a misunderstanding and that this book does not exist.

We note in passing that Maßmann commited a very similar 1499-error just two pages earlier. In a footnote he writes that Compost et Kalendrier des Bergeres is from 1489, but in the same breath he quotes the Roman numerals that add up to 1499: »mil cccc iiiixx.xix«.(1)

German or Greek?

We found out that the "German verses" probably were verses written in "a German manner". Let us take a relatively modern scholar like Kurtz:

The latter, ascribed to a "Macaber" according to the Latin statement, was theoretically edited from German verses, corrected by Petro Desrey Trecacio, and published through G. Marchant for Geoffroy de Marnef. This clearly shows the fifteenth century interpretation of "Macabre".

[. . .]

  This Latin poem has also been edited without woodcuts, in connection with the "Speculum Omnium Statuum Totius Orbis, etc." of Sancius de Arevalo that was edited from the book shop of Melchior Goldast in 1613. The "Chorea Macabri, etc." was published with this work because it was of a similar nature according to the editor. The full statement at the beginning reads — "Speculum Omnium Statuum Totius Orbis Terrarum. Sancius de Arevalo. Roderico Zamorensi Cui ob similem materiam est adiunctum Macabri Speculum morticinum Utrumque recensitum et editum ex Bibliotheca V. N. Melchioris Goldasti Hanoviae 1613".

  The title of the Dance serves to throw some new light on the problem of the "German verses". It suggests — verses in the manner of the German rhythm — "Eximii macabri Speculum Choreae mortuorum Versibus Alemanicis (id est, in morem ac modos rithmorum Germanicorum compositis) ab eo editum: et a Petro Desrey Trecacio Oratore ante annos circiter sequicentum emendatum" It contains the Dance in Latin just as it appears in the printed version previously treated, with the exception that the "Vado Mori" poem which appeared over the pictures in the first Dance, is here inserted between the other strophes of the "Chorea Macabri" and contains replies by "morts".
(Léonard Paul Kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature, 1934, pp. 46-48)

Kurtz shows his reservations with the allegations in the title: The text has been "ascribed to" a Macaber, and "theoretically" edited from German verses, and he ends by referering to Goldast's reprint from 1613, which "serves to throw some new light on the problem of the 'German verses'".

But the explanations don't stop here, for who says Goldast was right? After all Goldast wasn't right when he claimed that "Chorea ab Eximio" had been printed circa 1460. If Goldast hadn't ever seen a copy of "Chorea ab Eximio", how then was he supposed to know the thoughts of the translator?

Versibus Alemanicis
Guy Marchant, Chorea ab Eximio

Here is another explanation that I find far more interesting (my emphasis):

Der Titel des lateinischen Todtentanzes (bei Maßmann, Litt. d. Todtentänze, S. 93) lautet in der Pariser Ausgabe v. J. 1490: Chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita et a Petro Desrey emendata. Goldast, der das Werk in Roderici Zamorensis Speculum omnium statuum orbis terrarum (Hannover 1613) wieder herausgab, fügte zu versibus alemanicis die Erklärung hinzu: id est, in morem ac modos rithmorum Gernunicorum compositis. Aber darin irrt er sich, das Vorbild deutscher Verse liegt diesen lateinischen ferner als irgend ein anderes. Es sind vielmehr Zehnsilbler, und als solche weisen sie schon auf das Vorbild der französischen vers communs hin; wegen der Gleichheit in der Zahl der Silben werden sie versus alemanici (d. i. alcmanici) genannt, ganz ohne Rücksicht auf den Rhythmus, denn dieser hat mit dem noch von Hermann von Reichenau ganz correct gehandhabten "alcmanici" Verse Nichts gemein, wie ein paar herausgegriffene Beispiele beweisen mögen, die zeigen, dass wir es durchweg mit ganz arrhythmisch oder mit jambisch gebauten Versen zu thun haben:

(Friedrich Zarncke, 1863, Disticha Catonis: Beiträge zur mittellateinischen spruchpoesie, page 198)

Zarncke doesn't agree that the verses follow a "German rhythm". In fact the verses aren't particularly rhythmical, and with their 10-syllable lines they are far more French than German. Therefore he thought it to be a confusion of "alemanici" and "alcmanici". Yes, one has to read the text very carefully in Google Books' crabbed scans, before one discovers that the last word has a "c" in the third position.

"versibus alcmanicis" alludes to the Greek poet Alcman of Sardis, who lived in Sparta in the 7th century B.C. He gave name to the "Alcmanian verse", a dactylic tetrameter, which Wikipedia exemplifies with the famous line, "Picture yourself in a boat on a river with […]".

It is an intriguing explanation but it does indubitably say "alemanicis" on the frontpage (picture to the right). So either the publisher has himself confused those two words, or the typographer has confused the two letters. At this point it would have been interesting to check if such an error had been corrected in the 1499-edition, but as we saw, this book in all probability doesn't exist.(2)

External links

No less than five different copies of this edition, not to mention reproductions, are available on the Net. Here are two of them:

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2)


2) Dieselben Holzschnitte schon 1489 in "Icy est le compost et kalendrier des Bergeres … Imprimé à Paris en lostel de beauregart en la rue Cloppin a lenseigne du roy Prestre Ihan. ou quel lieu sont à vendre, ou au lyon dargent en la rue sainct Jacques — Schluss: Imprimè à Paris par Guy Marchant maistre es ars on lieu susdit. Le XVII iour daoust mil cccc iiiixx.xix. Im brittischen Museum nach Dibdin: Douce S. 57-58, 9).
(Hans F. Maßmann, Litteratur der Todtentänze, footnote page 93)

The manuscript Mazarine 3896 from ca. 1535 contains a transcript of Chorea ab Eximio, and also says "alemanicis". The manuscript is a detailed transcription, except for precisely the colophon, which is lacking, and which could have told us, whether the scribe has copied a 1490- or 1499-edition.

The 1613-edition by Melchior Goldast also writes "alemanicis".