La Danse Macabre: Historians

The old charnels. 1786
Innocents, 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 death, 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 only 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. Langlois listed a catalogue of historians, who all had failed to mention the mural:

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. Photo by Diego Loukota Sanclemente
Innocents, 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.

The first volume of the 1724-edition does have a section about St. Innocents' cemetery on pages 358-359, but this is mostly a repetition of what Corrozet wrote. Sauval also repeats the epitaph of the prolific lady, Yoland Bailly, but adds that some persons interested in cupper had stolen the plague and melted it to make money.

However there's a mention of the dance in the second volume (see external link below):

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)

The evil, rich man who ends in Hell (while Lazarus goes to Heaven) was a popular subject in The Office of the Dead.

The text means something like: "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.

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

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?

And what is this "list of lead"? Valentin 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).

The text in general seems rather unfinished. Dufour informs us that Le Roux de Lincy (half of the couple Lincy & Tisserand) had worked on a new and improved edition, but unfortunately a fire during the time of la Commune de Paris (1871) had consumed Sauval's manuscripts along with Lincy's notes.

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 Dufour's 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).

But another manuscript by Sauval survives, and under the heading "Ridiculous paintings and tapestries" there's another mention of the dance:

Sauval's manuscript

Des peintures et des tapisseries ridicules.

[…] Mais, si vous voulez voir des vers ridicules, lisez ceux qu'on avoit faits pour la Danse Macabre ou Macaber de S. Innocent ou la Mort dansoit auec des gens, de toutes conditions, et ceux qui sont encore grauez 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.

(Sauval, Mémoires divers, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Baluze 213)

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 text says something like: "But if you want to see ridiculous verses, then read those that they had made for the Danse Macabre or Macaber 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".

On the image to the right, the text is written in the top line and the top, left corner. The manuscript is a working document with corrections and additions, and if all of Sauval's manuscripts looked like this, it might explain the many oddities in the printed text from 1724.

It is all a bit confusing, like why does Sauval write "Death danced" in the past sense, and why does he call the mural "Danse Macabre or Macaber" in one book and "danse Machabée" in the other? 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.

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