La grant Danse Macabre

des hommes & des femmes

In this painting, the dance of the men can be seen under the arcades.
Innocents, Jakob Grimer

The women's Danse Macabre is not an extension of the men's. One must not think that the moment "La danse macabre des femmes" was created, the two lines of dancers cleaved unto each other never to be separated again.

The men's Danse Macabre was painted in the cemetery of St. Innocens in 1424. The various manuscripts that reproduce the text are amazingly consistent and they all reproduce the same text: Two stanzas from an authority / author, the same 30 dancers in the same order and finally three stanzas from a dead king and the authority. All in all a total of 67 stanzas.

This only changed when Guy Marchant published the text in book form. His first edition from 1485 reproduced the same 67 verses, but less than a year later, a newer edition came out, where four musicians were added at the beginning, ten new dancers (i.e. five woodcuts and 20 verses) and an additional verse at the end, which begins: »Bon y fait penser […]«.

The women's dance was clearly inspired by the men's. It is a few decades younger, but follows the same model: An authority at the beginning, and 8-line stanzas with the rhyme pattern A, B, A, B, B, C, B, C, where the last line of each stanza is a proverb. This text was not bound to a concrete mural in the same way as the men's dance, so the relatively few manuscripts show wide variations in the number of dancers, roles, sequence and wording. The manuscripts cannot agree among themselves whether the last two stanzas are pronounced by the authority, Death (»La mort«) or the dead (»Les mors«).

The bigoted Woman and the fool were the last to be added.
Guy Marchand, Bigot woman and fool

In 1486 Guy Marchant also published this text. He streamlined the text so that the authority got two verses, the dance was introduced by four musicians and ended with a dead queen — all as in the men's dance, and illustrated with the same three woodcuts. The line was expanded with abbess and prioress.

However, the two dances were published in two different volumes. The first part with the men's dance and The legend of the three living and the three dead was printed June 7thle septieme iour de iuing«), while the second half with the women's dance and the Debate between Body and Soul was published a month later: »le septiesme iour de iuillet.

In 1491 Guy Marchant published the text once more and the number of women was expanded to include the bigoted woman and the fool (the picture on the right), so there were now 36 women. At the same time, he had produced woodcuts for the entire series. This padded the women's dance so much that it had to be published in a separate volume: the men's dance in volume 1, the women in volume 2, while The Three Living and the Three Dead were relegated to volume three along with The Hermit's Vision and The Debate between Body and Soul.

In this manner Guyot Marchant has had a very big hand when it comes to shaping the two dances — especially the women's. Most, if not all, other publishers seem to follow Marchant's books rather than the mural at St. Innocent's Cemetery. Even the widely circulated books of hours by Simon Vostre, Antoine Vérard and Thielman Kerver include Marchant's abbess, prioress, bigot woman and fool.

But who first thought of bringing these two — and a lot of other texts — together in one volume? And to call the combined work "La Grande Danse Macabre"?

Huss: La grant danse macabre des hommes & des femmes hystoriee
Matthias Huss, Matthias Huss

According to an expert like Douce, the credit goes to Matthias Huss of Lyon(1) (picture to the left). According to another expert, Claudin, the matter was clear: Huss was not only the first to use this title, but altogether the only one in the 15th century who united the two dances in the same volume.(2)

Huss: Typesetter, printer and bookseller
Matthias Huss, Printers

As an amusing aside, it could be added that Huss was also the only one who added extra characters to those in Marchant's books, namely the scene on the right where Death fetches printers and booksellers. As far as I know, all other book publishers have been content to repeat the cast from Marchant's books (here I except Nourry, who published his book two years later in the same city and therefore clearly copied Huss).

But it can be difficult to decide: partly because what has survived of these publications (and how much is publicly available) is very limited, and partly because many of the publications are undated.

Huss' book was printed: »Imprime a lyon le .xviii. iour de feurier lan mil .cccc.xcix.« — in other words: February 18th 1499, but this is where the little problems start, because it is quite possible that the calendar used in Lyon was one where the year started on March 1st or at Easter. In that case, February 1499 would be what we today call 1500.(3)

So let's change the subject for a moment:

A narrow study

The authority, 1491
Guy Marchant, Authority 1491

The men's and women's dances started with an authority / author in his study.

In 1491 — the year Marchant published all 36 women with woodcuts for the entire series — the old woodcut was, for unknown reasons, replaced by the woodcut we see on the right.

Marchant still had this new woodcut in Paris as late as 1499, when he published the "Shepherdess' Calendar", Compost et Kalendrier des Bergeres.

The authority, 1528
Guy Marchant, Authority 1528

A few years later, all the woodcuts ended up in Troyes; However, this did not apply to the old authority from 1485, who for unknown reasons remained in Paris, where the woodcut was used in books that had nothing to do with dances of death, e.g.: in Le romant de la rose from 1521. One can always find a use for authorities.

Meanwhile, the dances of death were published in Troyes by Nicolas Le Rouge with "the new" woodcut from 1491, but the strange thing is that it has become narrower.

In »La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes« from 1528 the right column has been cut loose and moved to the left (pictured right).

The shrunken woodcut is used both for the opening and closing authority and for both the men's and women's dance. I.e.: a total of 4 times.

The original block, 1864
The authority, 1531
Guy Marchant, Authority 1531

Only three years later, in 1531, »La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes« was published again, and now the woodcut had shrunk a little more.

The right column is a new one and covers even more of the desk than the old one did.

The original woodblock was published in the 19th century by Socard(4) and Varlot,(5), and we can clearly see how the block has been cut to size.

As usual, it's not quite that simple. As mentioned, the woodcut is used 4 times in the book, and Gallica has put two copies of the 1531 edition online for a total of 8 authorities. But a single one of these looks like the 1528 edition and not the completely narrow 1531 edition (see external link). A closer examination shows that this particular leaf was taken from a 1528 edition.(6) This also applies to the reverse side the leaf.(7) However, this does not apply to the rest of the sheet, where the two 1531 editions are identical.(8)

Did Nicolas Le Rouge come first?

Troyes, 1528: La grant danse macabre des hommes &amo; des femmes hystoriee &amo; augmentee de beaulx ditz en latin
Troyes 1528

We have quoted two experts that Matthias Huss in Lyon was the first to use the title "La Grande Danse Macabre". Afterwards, we looked at how the Parisian woodcuts ended up in Troyes, where they were published for many years.

French Wikipedia do not agree with Douce and Claudin: Instead they claim that it was precisely these publications in Troyes that were the first to unite the two dances. Pierre le Rouge had created the woodcuts, and his nephew Nicolas Le Rouge was the first to unite the men and women in 1496, i.e. 3-4 years earlier than Matthias Huss:

En 1496, Nicolas Le Rouge (cousin de Guillaume) réunissait pour la première fois la Danse des Hommes et celle des Femmes, la série complète des planches dessinées par Pierre Le Rouge pour Guy Marchant et apportées à Troyes par Nicolas Le Rouge.

Pierre et Guillaume Le Rouge

Wikipedia's source is probably the 2-volume work on the printer family Le Rouge, where Monceaux writes almost verbatim the same thing:

Nous allons retrouver bientôt dans l'édition imprimée vers 1496, par Nicolas Le Rouge et réunissant pour la première fois la Danse des Hommes et celle des Femmes, la série complète des planches dessinées par Pierre Le Rouge pour Guy Marchant et apportées à Troyes par Nicolas Le Rouge.

(Henri Monceaux, Les Le Rouge de Chablis, vol. 2, 1896, page 9)

Hospitable woman, nurse, prioress and young woman
Guy Marchant, La grant danse

Who came first then? Matthias Huss in 1499 or Nicolas Le Rouge in 1496?

The problems are manyfold: First of all, Monceaux writes "around 1496", and when he returns to describe this book in detail (page 219) he writes that the book is without a year.

According to the library in Le Mans, which owns the copy, the book was published »post 1500«. Monceaux added that Douce had owned another copy of this edition, but Douce (in his book page 59, #13) does not speculate on its age. The Bodleian Library, which inherited Douce's collection, puts the year at c. 1510.

And there is a logical flaw in Monceaux's chronology. Because he writes that Guyot Marchant of Paris did not publish any editions of Danse Macabre after 1496.(9), This may be true — formally speaking — but as we have already touched upon, Marchant published a "shepherdess' calendar" in 1499, Compost et Kalendrier des Bergeres, which among other texts featured the women's Danse Macabre.

Henri Monceaux was well aware of this Kalendrier from 1499, for he describes it thoroughly on pages 294-296. But the fact is that Guyot Marchant in 1499 had the authority in the unshrunk version. the four musicians, all (and we will return to that) 36 women, as well as the authority and the dead queen.

Christie's: The authority
Guy Marchant, La grant danse

But not only that. Christie's had a copy for sale in 2013. They put the year as "[1510?]" and were kind enough to publish a few pictures.

The picture on the left shows a section from the women's dance, and here we see how prioress and young woman come very late in the dance — after the hospitable woman and wet nurse. This is done consistently in Troyes, and is probably due to the fact that at some point the woodcut with abbess and noblewoman has disappeared and therefore they have illustrated these women with the woodcut of the prioress and the young woman. In order not to use the same woodcut twice in a row, the latter have therefore been moved far back in the dance. This must have happened later than 1499, when Marchant published his Kalendrier and when this woodcut was not yet missing.

The second picture is even more revealing; namely the introduction to the ladies' Danse Macabre (pictured right). This woodcut is the narrowest of the three versions, showing that the book is neither from 1496, 1500, nor 1510, but from 1531 at the earliest.

Conclusion: Countless editions were published of "La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes" in Troyes all through the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, but the honor of being the first goes to Matthias Huss of Lyon.

External links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

Douce (1757 - 1834):

8. "La grant Danse Macabre des hommes et des femmes hystorice et augmentée de beaulx dits en Latin, &c. &c. Le tout composé en ryme Francoise et accompagné de figures. Lyon, le xviii jour de Fevrier, l'an 1499," folio. This is supposed to be the first edition that contains both the men and the women.

Francis Douce, The Dance of Death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood, 1833, page 57.

Claudin (1833-1906):

Cette édition de La Grant Danse macabre est la plus complète de toutes celles qui ont été imprimées au XVe siècle.

C'est la seule qui réunisse en un même volume la Danse des Hommes et celle des Femmes.

Anatole Claudin, Histoire de l'imprimerie en France au XVe et au XVIe siècle, vol. III, 1904, page 322.

1500 . . .: This doesn't affect Claudin's argument, since the year 1500 was also part of the 15th century.

It should be added that the only copy which has a colophon is owned by the British Museum, and in their catalogue there is no suggestion that 1499 does not mean 1499.

Alexis Socard, Livres populaires imprimés à Troyes de 1600 à 1800, 1864, page 131.

Louis Varlot, Illustration de l'ancienne imprimerie troyenne. 210 gravures sur bois, 1850, No. 76.

The 1528-edition and the suspect page from one of the 1531-editions have a punctuation after "venit"; spell "de sirent" in two words; has a punctuation after "iours" in line 1,8; two u's in "pouurete" in line 2,2; and an upside-down u in "Saus" in line 2,7.

The other copy from 1531 has margins from an unidentified book of hours on both sides of the authority. There is a punctuation after "Lacteur" and generally very faints z's: In "voz" in line 1,3 the "z" is only half, and in "devez" in line 1,6 the "z" is all but invisible.

On the verso side are the four musicians. The 1528-edition and the suspect 1531-leaf have an upside-down n in "pucelles" in line 1,3; writes "vo9" instead of "voz" in line 2,1 (Note: the word "voz" appears twice in this line); a punctuation after "Le tiers mort"; and an upside-down "u" in "qni" in line 3,6.

The other copy from 1531 lacks an "s" in "damoyselles" in line 1,1; has "sens" instead of "sans" in line 1,4; "densera" instead of "dansera" in line 1,6; "voz" instead of "vo9" in line 2,1; an "s" in "parees" in line 2,2; and "eu" (upside-down u) in line 4,3.

On leaf E ii we have queen and duchess.

The 1528-edition has "corsaige" instead of "cousaige" in line 1,1; "grant" instead of "grande" in line 2,6; "viens" lacks an "e" in line 3,2.

In both copies from the 1531-edition the V in "Vous" in line 3,2 is very different from the one in 1528; and there's a large space in "ceste danse" in line 4,7.

With regards to regent and knight's wife on the verso side of this leaf, the 1528-edition has an upside-down "u" in "trausitoire" in line 3,8; "verde" instead of "verte" in line 4,3; and "faitz" instead of "faict" in line 4,6.

Both copies from the 1531-edition write "denser" with "e" in line 1,3.

According to Henri Monceaux, Guy Marchand did not publish a Danse Macabre after 1496:

En 1491, Guillaume Le Rouge va s'installer à Troyes et son premier labeur est une Danse des Morts. Mais Guy Marchant imprimant en ce moment, lui aussi, une nouvelle édition de la Danse des Morts avec les gravures fournies par Pierre Le Rouge, Guillaume ne put se servir de ces planches et fut forcé de graver à nouveau la série des bois de la Danse des Hommes. C'est seulement à la mort de Pierre Le Rouge que ses héritiers rentrèrent en possession de ses planches. Nous les trouvons en effet à Troyes dès 1496 et on ne voit plus apparaître d'édition de la Danse Macabre chez Guy Marchant à partir de la mort de Pierre Le Rouge.
(Henri Monceaux, Les Le Rouge de Chablis, calligraphes et miniaturistes, graveurs et imprimeurs, vol. 2, 1896, page 6)