La grant Danse Macabre, Lyon, 1499

La grant danse macabre des hommes & des femmes hystoriee
Matthias Huss, Matthias Huss
La grant danse macabre.
Detail. The arrows indicate where the wildman was erased
Huss title, detail

In the section about books of hours we saw how the printers of Lyon were quick to copy the Parisian books as early as 1499.

"La grant danse macabre" is just as old. It was printed by Matthias Huss and the colophon states it was printed: »Imprime a lyon le .xviii. iour de feurier lan mil .cccc.xcix.« — i.e. February 18th 1499(1).

The woodcut on the front page (to the left) is one that had already been used in 1491 for the two volumes of La Mer des Histoires.

There is a slight difference between the two front pages because the little bagpipe-playing wildman in the left margin of La Mer des Histoires has been erased (in one of the two existing exemplars).

As a rule of thumb, books with a large, decorated initial L on the front page have been published by Antoine Vérard of Paris,(2) and it turns out that a similar front page was used for the Parisian version of La mer des hystoires that Vérard published in 1488-1489.

The women's dance: Nun and witch
Matthias Huss, Nun and witch

Huss's book is named »La grant danse macabre des hommes & des femmes«, because the men's and the women's dance (to the left) are joined in one grand dance. It was probably the first time that both texts were published in the same volume, but this is a bit hard to tell for certain, since many editions of danse macabre no longer exist, are not available online, or are published without a year.(3)

Exortation de bien viure & bien mourir
Matthias Huss, Exhortation

In this »grant danse macabre«, Huss has not just combined the men's and women's dance. The book also contains many of those short edifying texts there were included in the various Parisian editions of la Danse Macabre and in the different shepherd's calendars. As advertised on the front page (top, left of the present page): »La grant danse macabre des hommes & des femmes hystoriee & augmentee de beaulx dis en latin. Le debat du corps et de lame. La complainte de lame dampnee. Exortation de bien viure & bien mourir. La vie du mauuais antecrist. Les quinze signes. Le iugement«.

To the right we see "Exortation de bien viure & bien mourir" (exhortation to live well and die well). This text is normally illustrated with an image of a cadaver rising from his coffin in a cemetery, but in Huss' book the scene is different: A young, rich woman inspects her jewelry but is surprised by Death carrying a coffin and scythe. Death is dressed in women's clothing and wears a "hennin" — a conical hat with a veil. On the scene with the spinster this unfashionable hat is probably meant to indicate that the women belongs to a bygone era, and maybe the intention is the same here?

Pope and emperor
Matthias Huss, Pope and emperor
Carthusian and sergeant
Matthias Huss, Carthusian and sergeant

The woodcuts can be divided into three groups:

1) The men's dance is primarily a copy of the woodcuts that Pierre la Rouge produced for Antoine Vérard. The 30 men, besides the authority at the beginning, the dead king at the end, and the three living and the three dead were copied from this book.

These copies are scrupulously and detailed executed (see pictures to the left and right). When they are enlarged it becomes clear, however, that they are slightly more rough than the originals.

Four musicians
Matthias Huss, Musicians
Legate and duke
Matthias Huss, Legate and duke

2) Guy Marchant had added some figures for his 1485/86-edition, which Vérard didn't include. These are the four musicians and the 10 extra men. In 1491 he expanded the women's dance with the bigot woman and the fool and he produced woodcuts for all the women.

These were also copied for the Lyonese version, but with less skill. The four musicians (to the left) are very good, the nun and witch (to the left, further up) are so-and-so, but many are lousy.

The distinct difference between these two groups might indicate that the Vérard-copies were derived from an earlier (unknown) edition.

3) A third artist produced the legate and duke to the right. It is not very good and bears little resemblance to the original image.

Compositor, printer and booktrader
Matthias Huss, Printers

The artist seems to be the same as he who produced "Exortation de bien viure", and he has also created a scene that is wholly original. On the image to the right Death fetches the printers and the booktrader — presumably busy in the act of producing copies of La grant Danse Macabre. One would think that this scene came at the end of the dance, like the painter in Basel, Bern and Füssen, but in fact the scene comes already between astrologer and canon.

The picture is quite famous because it's possibly the oldest depiction of a printing press, and at any rate the oldest depiction of a booktrader.

Here is the text:

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.


Matthias Huss' book was copied two years later by Claude Nourry


Links and resources

Further Information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

It is very possible that Lyon was following a calendar with the new year starting in March or Easter. In this case February 1499 would be 1500 by our reckoning.

However, this is not certain and to further the confusion, the leaf with the colophon is lacking in one of the two surviving copies.

»The initials used by Verard, especially on the title-pages of his book, have always been much remarked, so much so that the appearance of a remarkable L on a title-page of a Paris book has often been enough to secure its ascription to Verard, if no other printer's or publisher's name were there«.

"Antoine Vérard" by John Macfarlane, 1900, page xxiii.

According to Henri Monceaux, a »La Grant Danse Macabre Des Hommes Et Des Femmes« was published in Troyes in ca. 1496: "Troyes {Nicolas Le Rouge). S. d. (Circa 1496.)"(*)

But the book is without a year, and according to the library in Le Mans, who owns this copy, it was published »post 1500«.

Monceaux added that Douce owned another copy of this edition, but Douce (in his book page 59, #13) does not speculate about its age. The Bodleian Library, who inherited Douce's collection estimates the year to be ca. 1510. Christie's, who had a copy for sale in 2013, sets the year to be "[1510?]".

(*) Henri Monceaux, Les Le Rouge de Chablis, calligraphes et miniaturistes, graveurs et imprimeurs, 1896, vol. 2, page 219.