We know the text from a number of manuscripts from the 15th century and the text is surprisingly stable. Naturally there are deviations in single words between the various sources, but the participants are the same, arrive in the same order and speak the same lines.(1)
The participants have the same titles in all the various sources, e.g. Le patriarche and Le connestable.(2) However there are few exceptions: The usurer's customer is called "Le povre", "Le poure homme", "Lomme qui emprunte" and even "Lacteur". In the same way the dead king is usually called "Le roy mort" or "Vng roy mort", but sometimes he is described instead: "Vng roy mort tout nu couchie en uers" ("A dead king totally nude lying on his back") or "Le roy mort que vers mignent" ("The dead king, whom the worms burrow"). The authority at the end is usually called "Lacteur", but also "Machabre docteur" and "ung maistre qui est au bout de la dance" ("a master, who is at the end of the dance"). The astrologer also alternates between named "Lastrologien" and "Le maistre".
This could indicate that a few of the figures had no titles on the mural, so that each writer had to resort to a description instead. If this is correct, it means that the scribes must have checked the other dancers by consulting the painting in St. Innocents.(3)
In 1485 Guy Marchant published the text for the first time illustrated with large, elegant woodcuts, and somewhat paradoxically it was only from now on that the text was fundamentally changed.
Only a few months later Marchant expanded the text extensively. He added the four cadaver musicians at beginning, ten extra men (legate, duke, school master, soldier, promotor, jailor, pilgrim, shepherd, halberdier and fool (picture to the left)), and the final authority was allotted one more verse. At the same time the book was padded with mote poems about the transitoriness of life.
With less than a year the text had been expanded into two volumes that also included the women's dance. The text had by now grown from simply reproducing the 30 men from St. Innocent's cemetery to become a "Mirror of Salvation": Miroer Salutaire.
On the present website, the 1486-edition has been written below all the male dancers.
Jump into the dance by clicking the titles under the images below.
The text on each page is from Marchant's 1486-version.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)
As a comparison one can take the dance of death in Lübeck. In the 18th and 19th century in a city where the level of education was high and the painting was fully accessible, there were still great deviations between the various publications, and the author himself seems to have deviated most.
Again one might compare with the dance of death in Lübeck, where each book has its own spelling: "Kaiserin" (Schmidt), "Der Kaiserin"(!) (Thomas King), "Kayserin" (Suhl), "Keyserin" (Milde), "Kaiserinn" (Schlott 1701), "Käyserin" (Schlott 1702) og "Käyserinn" (von Melle 1713).
See this handy table.
I have expounded on the subject here: Headlines and titles.