Two or three of the oldest textual witnesses to La Danse Macabre originate from the Sankt-Victor Abbey of Paris.
In connection with a reprint of an old text (picture to the right) the book-collector Paul Lacroix used the occasion to mention an old catalogue from the Sankt-Victor Abbey:
Le catalogue de la bibliothèque de Saint-Victor, rédigé
en 1506 par Claude de Grandrue (fonds Saint-Victor, n° 1122),
les annonce en ces termes, dans un recueil qu'il intitule: Tractatus principales, editi à magistro Johanne de Gersonio (pupitre
NN, n° 7): Est La Dance Macabre prout habetur apud sanctos
Innocentes. La description d'un autre manuscrit (pupitre TT,
n° 12) offre aussi une variante très-significative dans l'indication
de cette pièce, qui fut imprimée pour la première fois en
1485, à Paris, par Guy Marchant: Dictamina Choree Machabre
prout sunt apud Innocentes Parisius.
(P.-L. Jacob, bibliophile (pseudonym for Paul Lacroix), Le Bibliophile illustré, 1862, page 159)
This is all correct (except from the year being 1514, not 1506): The first book is catalogued as "tracts by Jean Gerson" and within this collection of tracts there is a text, which is summarized as: »La Dance Macabre prout habetur apud sanctos Innocentes«, i.e.: "La Danse Macabre, such as we find by St. Innocents". The other book has a text, which is described as: »Dictamina Choree Machabre prout sunt apud Innocentes Parisius«, i.e.: "The words from danse macabre such as we find by [St.] Innocents, Paris".
Based on this, Paul Lacroix thought that the text that we in particular know from the printed books from 1485 and onwards, is the same that was written on the mural of the cemetery of St. Innocents, and that the author was Jean Gerson.
We don't know what the reaction was to Lacroix' discovery, but considering that "Lexclamation des os sainct Innocent" had a print run of only 50 copies, the reaction was probably limited.
Twelve years later Valentin Dufour thought that this information had been ignored long enough:
Longtemps on a ignoré de qui étaient ces
vers. M. P. Lacroix (bibliophile Jacob)(1),
le premier, a signalé Gerson comme en étant
Deux manuscrits provenant de l'ancienne abbaye de Saint-Victor ne permettent guère d'en douter; ils sont à la Bibliothèque nationale.
Le premier, au milieu de traités et de sermons en latin de Gerson, contient la Dance macabre prout habetur apud Sanctum Innocentem(2) .
Le second, parmi des traités en français, renferme les vers sur la Dance Macabre : «Dictamina choree macabre prout sunt apud Innocentes parisius(3).»
(Valentin Dufour, La dance macabre des Saints Innocents de Paris, 1874, page 86)
Valentin Dufour also referred to a third manuscript, the Ms. Lille 139. This manuscript had been bound together with a printed version of the works of Gerson. Dufour was then convinced that Gerson was the author of La Danse Macabre, and his reprint of the text started with a handsome frontpage (picture to the left), where the text was attributed to J. Gerson.
I will not use much time on Gerson here. The one manuscript, NN 7, which contains tracts by Gerson, is today catalogued by the BNF as »Traités de Jean de Gerson, Nicolas de Clémangis et Vincent Ferrier«. That is: tracts by at least three different authors. And while the library of Lille may have chosen to bind a printed book by Gerson together with a manuscript, this manuscript also contains many other texts, like for instance a sermon by Albertus, the archbishop of Cologne, and the Visions of Philibert the Hermit, which nobody has accused Gerson of having written.
I would much rather look at the other part: In contrast to Lacroix, Dufour "forgot" to mention that the claim that the manuscripts pass on the text from the ossuary in St. Innocents, does not come from the manuscripts themselves, but from a catalogue.
One can hardly read Dufour without getting the clear impression that it is the ancient scribes, who themselves had declared that they were copying the text from the newly-painted mural, which at that time might only have been five years old.
And many people have read Dufour in that manner.
The catalogue was made by the librarian of the abbey, Claude de Grandrue, and has a table of contents for each manuscript.
Shown to the left is the catalogue entry for NN 7. The book is called "tracts by Johannes Gerson", followed by a table of contents. The chapter with »La Dance Macabre prout habetur apud sanctos Innocentes« starts on page 64.
But the odd part is that the abbey has also inserted a similar table of contents at the beginning of the manuscript itself.
Today the manuscript is called BNF Latin 14904, and we can see an extract of the table of contents to the right. The information is roughly the same: The book contains tracts by Gerson, and the table of contents says: »La dance macabre prout habetur apud sanctum innocentium.64.« (picture to the right).
The two tables of contents are both equally illegible, but they are not totally identical. For instance, the catalogue says »sanctos Innocentes« (like Lacroix quoted), while the book itself says »Sanctum Innocentium«(1) (Dufour wrote "Innocentem").
But what does all this mean? If we look at the chapter itself (picture to the right), we see that the headline is "La Dance macabre". So the two tables of contents both repeat this French headline, adds in Latin that we find the same text by the St. Innocents and that this chapter starts on page 64: »La dance macabre prout habetur apud sanctum innocentium.64.«.
The other manuscript is today called BNF Fr. 25550. The two tables of contents are shown to the left.
This description is slightly different: »Dictamina Choree Machabre prout sunt apud Innocentes Parisius.235«. The difference is caused by this chapter not having its own headline to quote (picture to the right). That's why the table of contents simply says: "The words of Danse Macabre such as we find by [St.] Innocent of Paris".
As Lacroix wrote, the catalogue had no. 1122. There is also an index for the catalogue, which had number 1123, and after having busted the eyeballs on the crabbed writing in the catalogue it's a breeze to look into this index.
To the left we can see that "Dictamina Choree Machabre" is located in TT 12.
To the right under "Dance Machabree" we find — as expected — NN 7, but also one more entry: KK 13.
There is one more manuscript then. One, which Lacroix and Dufour had missed.
According to the index there should be a third version of La Dance Macabre somewhere within manuscript KK 13. By now we have become familiar with the catalogue so we look up KK 13 and find: »Item in gallico La Dance macabre sicut habetur apud Innocentes.245.«(2)
This means that once again we're dealing with a French text: »in gallico« with the headline »La Dance macabre«, such as we find at [St.] Innocents, »sicut habetur apud Innocentes«.
The manuscript in question is today named BNF Lat. 15163, and the table of contents at the beginning of the book ends with »La Dance macabree« (picture to the right). Unfortunately the trails stops there, because today a number of pages are missing from this manuscript, including the pages that once contained La dance Macabree.
Summary: The claim that the manuscripts are copies of the dance on the ossuary wall of St. Innocents does not arrive from the original scribes, but from the librarian of the abbey. The only thing these quotes tell us then, is that Claude Grandrue almost 100 years later in 1514 thought that the text in the manuscripts was reminiscent of the one on the cemetery of St. Innocents.
On the other hand we should not forget that the text itself states that it originates from a painting: »Hec pictura decus […]«.
Footnotes: (1) (2)
See "Depicte ones on a walle" footnote 12 and 58.