La Danse Macabre: Historians

The old charnels. 1786
Innocents-3, Bernier 1786

The dance on the cemetery wall of Cimetière des Innocents in Paris was at the same time both famous and neglected.

On the one hand it was so famous that it has probably inspired all other dances of death all over Europe, and copies of the dance was printed not only in Paris, but in Troyes, Geneva, Rouen and Lyon as well.

On the other hand it was almost unknown among historians.

The historian Guillebert de Metz described St. Innocents' cemetery in 1434, and we are told that there were "notable paintings of la danse macabre and others" (see the page about dating the dance). That was all, and ever since then it has been all downhill when it comes to historians' interest in the Danse Macabre.

The historian Gilles Corrozet was also the author of the quatrains below each woodcut in Holbein's dance of death.
Holbein, Bones of All Men

When Gilles Corrozet described the cemetery a little more than hundred years later, in 1550, in his book about Paris, "Les antiqvitez croniqves et singvlaritez de Paris", he wrote that the soil could consume a human body within nine days and that there were 80 arcades, and he quoted two epitaphs. One epitaph was that of an old lady whom Corrozet thus has made famous:

Cy gist Yoland, Bailly, qui trespassa l'an mil cinq cens quatorze de quatre vingthuietiesme an de son aage, le quarante deuxiesme an de son veuuage, laquelle a veu, ou peu voir deuant son trespas deux cens quatre vingts & quinze enfans issus d'elle. Here lies Yolande Bailly, who passed away in the year 1514 at the age of 88 in the 42nd year of her widowhood. Who saw, or might have seen, before her departure, 295 of her own offspring.

All this is interesting enough, but Gilles Corrozet was himself famous as the author of the short verses to Holbein's great dance of death, and he was the owner of Manuscript 1186. So why does he mention the 80 arcades without adding that 10 of them housed the famous la Danse Macabre? Why does he quote an old lady's tombstone, while "forgetting" the famous dance of death?

Illuminated initial from Langlois' book.
Langlois: L

The silence among historians persisted. In the 19th century painter, draftsman, engraver and writer Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois, was puzzled. He could see two explanations for this strange silence: Either La Danse Macabre had not been a painting but a theatrical performance, or else, and this was what Langlois was inclined to believe, the painting had quickly perished.

Ce qui paraît à nos yeux le plus probable, c'est que ce fut une peinture qui ne dura que peu de temps, car les anciens historiens de Paris, Gilles Corrozet (1532), Dubreul (1612), Germain Brice (1685), Lemaire (1685), Sauval (1724), Piganiol (1736), ne la mentionnent point; ce qu'ils n'eussent pas manqué de faire si elle eût existé à leur époque.
(Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois, Essai [...] sur les danses des morts, 1852, volume 1, page 197)

But actually there is one of the names in this string of pearls, who has described the dance in St. Innocents. In fact, twice.

Henri Sauval

To the right of this image can be seen a glimpse of the dance of death.
Innocents-2, Jakob Grimer

Sauval lived 1623 - 1676, which was in the last years before the cemetery wall was demolished in 1669.

In Langlois' list Sauval's name is followed by the year 1724 and this is because Sauval spent his whole life writing his manuscripts, which were never published during his lifetime.

We can get one of the quotes through Valentin Dufour:

>> Peintures et tapisseries ridicules. -
>> Mais si vous voulez voir des vers ridicules, lisez ceux qu'on avoit faicts pour la Dance macabre de S. Innocent, où la mort dansoit avec des gens de toute condition, et ceux qui sont encore gravez au portail de l'aisle de S. Innocent, sous les trois vifs et les trois morts, qu'y a fait mettre Jean, duc de Berry, oncle de Charles VI.
(Quoted from Valentin Dufour, La dance macabre des SS. Innocents de Paris, 1874, pages 108-109)

There was a statue of the three living and the three dead at the entrance to the church, donated by John, duc of Berry, who had planned to be buried there himself.
Guy Marchant, Three dead

The headline of the chapter has apparently been "Ridiculous paintings and tapestries", and the text says something like: "But if you want to see ridiculous verses, then read those that they had made for the macabre Dance of St. Innocent, where Death danced with people of every condition, and those which are still engraved at the portal of the aisle of St. Innocent, under the three living and the three dead, which was made by master John, duke of Berry, uncle of Charles VI".

Dufour indicates his source as: "Bibl. nat. cab. des manuscrits, extraits de Baluze t. CCXIII, p65". I don't know what this is supposed to mean, and whether this source is online, so we will have to rely on Dufour here.

Unfortunately, Dufour is always good at creating confusion.(1) The second quote of Sauval comes in two halves, the first half of which is sandwiched into a long quote from La satire en France au Moyen âge by Charles Lenient. Dufour has placed the second half of the quote (which Lenient doesn't have) 10 pages later, just after the quote that we just read, and this has caused at least three other writers to mess the two quotes together.(2)

Let us therefore in this case forget Dufour and quote Sauval himself (see external link below):

In 1669, the wall was torn down (right side of the picture), and the road was widened and straightened.
Innocents-4, Innocents 1780

Pour voir la mort en bien des postures , & les civilitez qu'elle fait aux uns & aux autres, soit Papes, Princes, ou Villageois ; lorsqu'elle vient leur annoncer qu'il faut partir , on n'a qu'à considérer une liste de Plomb qui regne le long d'une partie du Cimetière de Saint Innocent.

Dans le même Cimetière, se voit encore depuis le mois d'Août . . . . jusqu'au Carême suivant, la danse Machabée peinte sous les charniers, où la mort fait bien d'autres tours & d'autres mommeries; il en reste encore des tableaux qui ne seroient ni déchirez, ni effacez, si on n'en avoit pas autant de soin que de celui du mauvais riche.

(Henri Sauval, Histoire et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris, 1724, vol. 2 page 36)

This one is a bit more difficult: "To see Death in many postures, and the civilities she [Death] does to one & the others; be they ecclesiastics, princes, or villagers; when she comes to announce they they must depart [from this world], one only has to consider a lead list that reigns along a part of the Saint Innocent Cemetery. In the same cemetery, is still seen since August [. . . .] until the next Lent, the Machabée dance painted in the charnels, where death makes many other turns & other mummeries; the tableaux are still here, which will be neither torn nor erased, if one had not as much care as that of the evil rich man".

It is not perfectly clear, all of it. The rich man mentioned at the end points to the following paragraph, which describes a painting of the story from the Gospel of Luke about Dives and Lazarus. This painting was sealed up and only displayed twice a year, so it's no wonder that it was neither torn nor erased.

Maybe Sauval's point is that if you were to protect la Danse Macabre as carefully as the painting of Lazarus and Dives, the mural would last forever? Or maybe the sentence about the tableaux, "which will be neither torn nor erased" refers to this painting and properly belongs to the following paragraph? This was the part that Lenient didn't quote.

And what is this "list of lead"? Dufour starts his usual confusion by saying that the author has underlined the word "litre", even though it says "liste", and even though none of the authors, neither himself, Lenient nor Sauval has underlined anything (on the other hand Sauval capitalizes "Plomb"). Dufour argues at length that "litre" means a broad stripe, and that "liste de plomb" probably should have been "litre de long" (pages 98-99).

But whatever the little quirks about lead-lists and allusions to the Gospel of Luke, there is one thing that is crystal clear: Sauval has seen and studied this mural, and in his time it was still possible to see the "ridiculous painting" and read the "ridiculous verses". Sauval was born in 1623, so we can reject all the sources that claim the dance disappeared in 1529 or in 1634. The mural was still on the wall in Sauval's lifetime until the wall was demolished in 1669.

Dufour finally addresses the issue of why Langlois and other authors accuse Sauval for failing to mention the painting. Dufour's explanation is that the relevant quote is located in a very odd place, namely in a supplement entitled: "Amours des rois de France". This addendum was not included in all editions (says Dufour) and one must agree that this is not the first place one would look for a description of La Danse Macabre.

Dufour has a strong point here, but the odd part is that in his book the following year, 1875, there is no mention of Sauval, and in this book the reader is told twice that the wall and the mural disappeared in the year 1634, (when Sauval would have been only 11 years old): »ces monuments qui, de fait, ne disparurent qu'en 1634, lors de la démolition du vieux charnier de la rue de la Féronnerie, lorsqu'on résolut d'élargir cette voie« (page 9) and »jusqu'à la démolition de la galerie méridionale du charnier des Innocents en 1634« (page 12).

External links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2)

I may sound negative, but Dufour is an expert when it comes to messing quotes up with his own comments. As we are about to see shortly, he has managed to fool three other authors.

If we take the quote that we are about to discuss, and which we can check against other sources, we find that in this short quote he has changed »& les civilitez« to »et en civilités«; he has changed »de Saint Innocent« to plural: »des Saints Innocents«, probably to reflect the title of his own book: "La dance macabre des SS. innocents de Paris"; he leaves out three words in »le long d'une partie du cimetière« and two words in »d'autres tours et d'autres mommeries«, and he calls Lenient's book »Histoire de la Satire au Moyen âge«, even though the title is »La satire en France au Moyen âge«.

In the ultrashort second part he manages to leave out two words in »pas autant de soin que«.

However the most confusing part, to which we will return, is that the following year he ignores everything he has written about Sauval and now claims that the wall and the mural disappeared as early as in 1634.

All three authors end the first quote after the words »de toute condition«, take a little of the second quote from »Il en reste encore«, and stop with »ni effacez«.

One of these authors is W.L. Schreiber, who writes: »Sauval hatte für dasselbe nur Spott übrig: "Mais si vous voulez voir des vers ridicules, lisez ceux qu'on avoit faicts pour la Danse macabre de S. Innocent, oú la mort dansoit avec des gens de toute condition. Il en reste encore des tableaux qui ne seroient ni dechirez ni effacez."«.

The second author wrote the book, The Dance of Death in Folk-songs from 1939: »Sauval, the Parisian historian, scornfully wrote of the Danse:« followed by the same hybrid quote.

The third is Edélgard Dubruck, who in the books The Theme of Death in French Poetry of the Middle Ages and Studies in French Literature, both from 1964, writes: »Here is the opinion of a chronicler writing in 1669« followed by the quote.


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