La Danse Macabre, The women

Ms BNF 995.
BNF 995, Witch

La danse macabre des Femmes is a deal younger than the original Danse Macabre. The dance of the men was painted at St. Innocents' cemetery in the years 1424/1425 and we have manuscripts that are almost as old. In contrast the oldest manuscript we have with the women's dance is from 1470-80.

The women's dance was obviously inspired by the famous Danse Macabre. The verses follow the same structure with eight lines and the rhyming scheme A, B, A, B, B, C, B, C, where the eighth line is always some sort of motto. The dance is introduced by an authority like the men's dance is, but in the very oldest manuscripts the two last verses are spoken by Death respectively the dead ("les morts").

The biggest difference between the two dances is that there isn't an alternation of ecclesiastical and secular persons. It would seem that there wasn't that many ecclesiastical roles for women at that time. On the whole it has been a challenge to find enough different roles, and there is some overlap. There's a spinster, old woman and woman with crutches. There's a newlywed, a bride and a sweet wife. And there's a young woman, virgin and young girl.

The following list shows the eight sources that we have (excepting printed copied of Guy Marchant's publications). The designations A-G are those used by Ann Tukey Harrison in the book The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. Fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale. To this we must add the manuscript KB 71 E 49, which is probably the oldest of them all.

  1. B. N. Fr. 1186 (year 1482)
  2. Nouvelles Acquisitions Fr. 10032
  3. B. N. Fr. 25434
  4. First printed version (year 1486)
  5. Second printed version (year 1491)
  6. B. N. Fr. 995
  7. Arsenal 3637 (year 1519)
  8. Hague KB 71 E 49 (year 1470-80, no later than 1481)

Ann Tukey points out that there's an evolution of the text from A to F, where the number of women grows from 30 to 36. On the other hand, G is closely related to A even though it is the youngest of them all.

The bigot woman and the fool were the last to be added.
Guy Marchand, Bigot woman and fool

The text develops quickly over a few years. A has only 30 participants, and the sequence is not quite the same that it would be later; in B and C the sequence has been expanded to 32. In D (the first printed version) the authority is assigned two verses instead of a single one, and the dance is introduced by four musicians and finished by a dead queen just like the men's dance. The row of dancers is expanded with an abbess and prioress. In E, the second version from 1491, the bigot women and the fool are added (picture to the left) so there are now 36 women.

Tukey is not aware of KB 71 E 49, which has been designated H in the above table. This manuscript, which may be the oldest of them all, is very similar to C, Fr. 25434, with the same 32 women appearing in the same order and with similar titles.

But it's not only that the sequence is altered and expanded: If we compare the text in one of the manuscripts with the printed version from 1486 there are many instances where entire lines have been rewritten. In contrast, the men's dance is much more stable, and during the more than 60 years separating the oldest manuscripts from the first printed version, only single words vary here and there. This could be because the mens' dance was painted on the wall of the cemetery so the scribes were prevented from deviating too much from the original.

Resources on this website

Guy Marchand 1499: Authority
Guy Marchand 1499: Musicians
Queen and Duchess
Guy Marchand 1486: Queen and Duchess
Regent and Knight's wife
Guy Marchand 1491: Regent and Knight's wife
Abbess and noblewoman
Guy Marchand 1491: Abbess and noblewoman
Prioress and young woman
Guy Marchand 1491: Prioress and young woman
Citizen and widow
Guy Marchand 1491: Citizen and widow
Merchant's wife and bailiff's wife
Guy Marchand 1491: Merchant's wife and bailiff's wife
Bride and darling wife
Guy Marchand 1491: Bride and darling wife
Virgin and theologian
Guy Marchand 1491: Virgin and theologian
Newly-wed and pregnant woman
Guy Marchand 1491: Newly-wed and pregnant woman
Chambermaid and housekeeper
Guy Marchand 1491: Chambermaid and housekeeper
Spinster and Franciscan Nun
Guy Marchand 1491: Spinster and Franciscan Nun
Hospitable woman and wetnurse
Guy Marchand 1491: Hospitable woman and wetnurse
Shepherdess and crutches
Guy Marchand 1491: Shepherdess and crutches
Peasant woman and old woman
Guy Marchand 1491: Peasant woman and old woman
Resales woman and suitoress
Guy Marchand 1491: Resales woman and suitoress
Midwife and young girl
Guy Marchand 1491: Midwife and young girl
Nun and witch
Guy Marchand 1491: Nun and witch
Bigot woman and fool
Guy Marchand 1491: Bigot woman and fool
Authority and dead queen
Guy Marchand 1499: Authority and dead queen