Jean le Fèvre: Respit de la Mort

Manuscript Français 19137: Respit de la Mort

The oldest known allusion to the word "danse macabre" is in the poem "Respit de la Mort" (respite from Death) also known as "L'Orologe de la mort" (Death's clock).

Mon crediteur est souverain maistre,
Souverain roy, souverain prestre;
Et se li dois de mort treuage
Bien say que c'est commun usage
Toutes gens, toutes nacions
Par toutes obligacions
Y sont lies de leur naissance
Je fis de macabre la dance
Qui toutes gens maine a sa tresche
Et a la fosse les adresche,
Qui est leur derraine maison.
Il fait bon en toute saison.

The poem is known from six manuscripts, three of which are available online (see links below). The oldest one of these (Français 994) is from the 14th century.

Français 994Français 1543Français 19137
Je fis de macabre la dance
Qui toutes gens maine a la tresche
Et a la fosse les adresce.
Je fis de macabre la dance
Qui toutes gens maine a sa tresche
Et a la fosse les adresche.
Je fis de macrabe la dance
Qui toutes gens maine a treche
Et a la fosse les adresce.
Fr. 19137: "macrabe la dance"
Français 19137

In many modern books the text from the manuscripts is rendered as »Macabré la dance«. As the above table shows, none of the manuscripts use accents, and none of them use capital letters except at the beginning of each line. Français 19137 spells the word "macrabe" (picture to the right), and all three disagree as to what to put between "a" and "tresche": "la", "sa" or nothing.

In the introduction the author tells, on which day he went out to ask Death for respite:

Français 994Français 1543Français 19137
Affin que ie nalasse mie
Le chemin de lespidemie.
Lan mil.ccc.soixante seize
Le roy charles regnant lan treize
en disant helas hemi
Huit iours apres la saint remi
Me doubtai de la mort premiere
A fin que ie nalasse mie
Le chemin de lepydimie.
Lan mil.ccc.soixante seze
Le roy charles regnant lan treze
en disant helas et emy
viiij . iours aprez le saint remy
Me doubtai de la mort prumiere
Le chemin depidimie.
Affin que ny alasse mie
charles le quint regnant lan.teze
en disant helas emy
Me doubtay de la mort premiere
Le Respit de la Mort

The year is, »mil.ccc.soixante seize«, 1.000 + 300 + 60 + 16 = 1376, which — as the author says — was the 13th year of the French king Charles' rule. Français 19137 is specially helpful and tells us that the abovementioned Charles is Charles the fifth, »charles le quint«.

The date was 8 days after Saint Rémi's day although we are left in the dark concerning which one of the 4 Saint Rémis is meant. Français 19137 lacks this line, which is an error, since "remy" should have rhymed with "emy" in the line above.

After Le Févre has "done the dance macabre" he tells that he doesn't want to end up with all the other bones at the cemetery of St. Innocents: »avec ceulx de saint innocent«. This means that we have the words "dance macabre" and "Saint Innocents" written on the same page half a century before the mural was created.

Towards the end, all three manuscripts tell us that the author was born in Ressons:

Français 994Français 1543Français 19137
Fors tant que fui de rasion nes
Quant ie serai mort le sonnes
Fors tant que ie suy de resson nes
Quant ie serai mors sy sonnes
Fors tant que sui desraisonnez
Quant je seray mort si sonnez
Et suis nomme Jehan le Feure
Maint boirre a touche a ma leure.
Manuscript Français 19137: Respit de la Mort

In the third manuscript the author even shares his name, "I'm called Jehan le Fèvre, many a drink has touched my lip".

One may wonder why this information was only included in one of the manuscripts,(1) and why it's not in the oldest of the three. One could get the thought that it's a spillover from another book by le Fèvre, namely "Le livre de Leesce". Here too he tells where he was born and about the many drinks that have touched his lip: »Mais je, qui suy de Resson nés / Petitement araisonnés / Et appelés Jehan le Fevre / No pourroye dire de levre«.

Ce sont li iij mors + li iij vis que baudouins de conde fist.
Three living

The big question is what Le Fèvre meant by "doing the dance macabre".

One explanation could be that Le Fèvre had performed a danse macabre. Maybe the dances of death were originally live(!) performances at the cemeteries — long before somebody got the idea of painting them on the wall?

There is a poem, Ballade d'un Prisonnier, which ends, »Je danseray la macabrée danse«, but this poem is more recent.

Chi commenche li iij mors + li iij vis ke maistres nicholes de marginal fist.
Three living

Another explanation is that "to do the dance macabre" means to die. Against this one might argue that evidently Le Fèvre didn't die on this occasion, but maybe he just means that he almost died, but was lucky enough to get respite?

A third explanation could be that Le Févre boasts of having composed the poem la danse macabre. Kurtz points out that in contemporary books, "faire" could mean compose. As examples Kurtz mention: »Chi commenche li iij mors + li iij vis ke maistres nicholes de marginal fist« (picture to the right) and »Ce sont li iij mors & li iij vis que baudouins de conde fist« (picture to the left).(2)

The fourth possibility comes from the somewhat misplaced "de". Maybe the sentence should be translated to "I took the dance from Macabre"? This would support the thought that Macabre was the name of the original author. Maybe Le Fèvre has translated the text from Latin to French?(3)

External links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

This information also appears in one of the manuscripts that aren't online, viz. Français 24309.

Here the lines go: »Je suis nommé Jehan Lefevre / Maint voirre a touché à ma levre«.

Léonard Paul Kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature, 1934, page 71.

Kurtz alludes to manuscript Français 25566. The first text (Kurtz has them in wrong order) is on page 217r, the other is on page 218r (not 268, as Kurtz writes).

In fact there is yet another version of the story about the three living and three dead in this book, but this third and final story (page 223r) is anonymous and not "fist" by anybody.

I took the dance from Macabre . . .: This suggestion comes from Marian A Massie, "The Dance of Death and The Canterbury Tales: a Comparative Study".

»Although the line can be translated, "I made of death the dance," the French does not make it clear how the verb "fis" should be translated, and the line could also have the meaning, "I took from Macabre the dance," This interpretation lends support to the theory that Macabre is the name of the author, and the capitalization of the word is further evidence for this point of view«.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, there is no capital "M" in the manuscripts, so there goes a part of Massie's evidence.