La Danse Macabre, Manuscripts

Ms latin 14904.
Ms Latin 14904

The Danse Macabre is documented in close to a score of manuscripts, mostly from the 15th century. Unfortunately there are, with the exception of BNF 995, no illustrations in these books.

The following list should be complete. For each manuscript is indicated whether it features the men's dance m, the women's dance m and whether the manuscript is available online. v The sequence is the same as followed by Kurtz.(1)

BNF Latin 14904 m v

This manuscript is one of the oldest; The date is set to "late in the 1420'ies" or "about 1440". It is one of the manuscripts from Sankt Victor, and Dufour refers to it as A.

The manuscript can be read on Gallica, and there is a critical version of the text. Read more about Latin 14904.

BNF Fr. 25550 m v

Ms Fr. 25550.
Français 25550

This manuscript is similar to Latin 14904 and almost as old. The manuscript was written by two different scribes, the latter of which is hard to read. One leaf is missing. It is one of the manuscripts from Sankt Victor, and Dufour refers to it as B.

The manuscript can be read on Gallica. Read more about Fr. 25550.

BNF Fr. 14989 m v

Ms Fr. 14989
Français 14989

Old name: "Ancien supplément francais 632.24". Hanno Wijsman argues that the manuscript has belonged to Philippe le Bon, and sets the date to "1428 or shortly after".

Can be read on Gallica. Read more about Fr. 14989.

BNF Fr. 1055 m v

Can be read on Gallica: BNF Fr. 1055. The dance starts on page 68.

BNF Nouv. Acq. Fr. 10032 m m

Tukey(2) calls this manuscript B. The men's dance, La danse Machabrée, starts on page 209; the women's dance on page 224: »Sensuit la dance des femmes composee a paris«.

British Library Add. 38858 m v

The text is similar to MS Lille 139. The manuscript has belonged to an Franciscan, for leaf 12 says, »Chest a frere Robert Delabbaye Cordelier«.

The manuscript itself is not available, but there is a critical edition of the text. Read more about Add. 38858.

Tours 907 m

The dance starts on page 99v with the well-known text: »O creature raisonable, Qui desires vie éternelle, Tu as cy doctrine notable […]« and ends on page 114 after 67 verses: »[…] Et faictes du bien; plus n'en dis : Bienfait vault moult aux trespassés«. The penultimate verse starting »Bon y fait penser soir et main« is lacking like it does in many (all?) other manuscripts.

The library of Tours has put a great deal of manuscripts (as well as printed books) on the Net, but this is unfortunately not one of them.

Lille 139 m v

Lille MS 139
Lille 139

Similar to British Library Add. 38858. The manuscript is called C by Dufour.

The text is available in a critical edition: Lille 139

BNF Fr. 25434 m m v

Right side: Cy commance la dance des Femmes […]
MS 25434

Contains the dances for both men and women along with some of the ballads that Guy Marchant included in the 1486-edition. Called C by Tukey.

The text was re-published in 1869 by Miot-Frochot and the women's dance was transcribed by Luise Götz in 1934. Read more about Fr. 25434.

BNF Fr. 1186 m m v

"Cy commence la dance aux aveugles": Here begins the dance of the blind.
Blind death

Former name: Anc. 7400. Called A by Tukey.

This manuscript features not only the dances of the men and women but also the dance of the blind, La dance aux aveugles. Four images illustrate Aveugles (picture to the right), but unfortunately not the dances of death.

Read more about BNF Fr. 1186.

BNF Fr. 1181 m v

Contains the dance of the men, but unfortunately some pages are missing.

Can be read on Gallica. The dance starts on page 140 with the cardinal. Then two leaves are missing, then one leaf is missing, and 3-4 leaves are missing at the end.

BNF Arsenal 3637 m

This manuscript, which is called G by Tukey, contains the Dance of the women. The text is attributed to a canon/vicar named Denis Catin: »compozée par Mr Denis Catin, docteur en droit canon et curé de Meudon«.

The start is lacking so the first dancer is the duchess, who says: »Je n'ay pas encores XXX ans. Hélas, à l'eure que je commance Assavoir que c'est du bon temps, La mort vient tollir ma plaisance […]«.

The manuscript is relatively young: from 1519, but in its structure it's closely related to the BNF Fr. 1186, for instance in regards to the position of the woman with crutches.

BNF Fr. 995 m m v

The cardinal
BNF 995, Cardinal

Former names are Colbert nr. 1849 and Anc. 7310. Tukey calls it F.

The manuscript is lavishly illustrated and contains not just the dances of the men and women but also other texts that were included by Guy Marchant in his 1486- and 1491-version.

Miot-Frochot copied the images in 1869. Gallica has scanned the whole manuscript in a good resolution but unfortunately in monochrome. Read more about BNF 995.

Chantilly, Ms. du Musée Condé 502 m

Contains the dance of the men and other texts that Guy Marchant had included in his printed books (e.g. The three living and the three dead). The manuscript is considered a codex descriptus, because it derives from Marchant's 1486 edition.

According to the catalogue there are 162 lines in Latin and 90 8-lined verses in French.

Mazarine 3896 m

The manuscript is rather young, from ca. 1535, and is apparently a copy of Guy Marchant's Latin edition from 1490.

Cherbourg-Octeville, Bibliothèque municipale, 7v

Cherbourg 7

Kurtz and ARLIMA(3) both include this document, but that seems to be a misunderstanding. Even though the library's catalogue mention a "danse macabre", it is in fact only the single picture that can be seen to the right, and which introduces The Office of the Dead.

Kurtz writes, "a series of miniatures designed for a prayer-book", but if there are any miniatures hidden in this book they must be very small.

Madrid, Vitr. 24-03 m m v

(223/227) Pope and emperor.
Pope and emperor

This dance is based on the printed books by Antoine Vérard. This is particularly evident in the beginning of the Office of The Dead, which is a scrupulous copy after Vérard's the three dead and three living.

In the beginning the men follow the same sequence as in the other manuscripts, although some of the titles have been changed. Towards the end there is a pilgrim instead of the usual clerk and hermit. There are also 14 women, but here there are greater variations compared to other manuscripts.

The texts are short — only 1 or 2 lines — and not always easy to understand (or read). However, the first and last line (i.e. the pope and the child) are the same as in the other manuscripts.

I have written the whole text on the bottom half of this page: Dancing on the edge.

Saint-Omer, Bibliothèque municipale, 127 m v

St Omer 127
St Omer

ARLIMA also mentions this one, which Kurtz didn't know about.

The book is organized in three parts and the two last parts (i.e. including La Danse Macabre) were written in 1476 at the l'hôtel Descornay by a chaplain in Madame de Sottenghien.

The manuscript is available online. Read more about Sankt Omer 127.

The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 71 E 49 m

Jubinal(4) reports on two manuscripts in the Hague.

One of them, no. 781 was later named "Gérard A. 53" and "T 327". Today it's called "KB 71 G 78". According to Koninklijke Bibliotheek it is a copy of the BNF Fr. 14989 made by the book-collector Georges-Joseph Gérard (1734-1814) back in 1772, when the manuscript still resided in Brussels.

The other manuscript, 782, is a considerably older. Georges-Joseph Gérard had purchased it in 1761, and it was later named "Gérard A. 54" and "T 328". Today it is called "KB 71 E 49", and the Royal Library in Hague believes it to be from 1470-1480. The manuscript cannot be younger than 1481, because that year Claude de Toulongeon was named a Knight of the Golden Fleece (at Bois-le-Duc), but the coat of arms on page 8v does not feature a collar with a golden sheepskin.

Bundled together with 25 other texts, pages 285-293v contain a dance of women. The manuscript, which is probably the oldest version of the women's dance, features 31 women, including the witch.

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Léonard Paul Kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature, 1934, pages 25-41.
Ann Tukey Harrison, The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. Fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale, 1994.
ARLIMA: Archives de Littérature du Moyen Âge.
Achille Jubinal, Lettres à m. le comte de Salvandy sur quelques-uns des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale de La Haye, 1846, page 49.

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