La Danse Macabre

The authority / author introduces the dance.
Cimetière des Innocents

The first dance of death in the world was probably the mural in the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris. It was this dance that Lydgate translated into English, and it may be called the mother of all dances of death.(1) When the preacher in Lübeck / Tallinn starts with, »Och redelike creatuer«, and the preacher in Heidelberg's block book starts with, »O deser werlde weysheit kint«, they point back to the Danse Macabre in Paris, where the authority (to the left) starts his admonition with »O creature roysonnable«.

In this section:

The dance on the wall of Cimetière des Innocents was painted between August 1424 and the Lent of 1425. This was a relatively quiet period in the 100 Years War - and both text and pictures are full of satire and slapstick. The portly abbot is told that the fattest person is the first to rot: »Le plus gras est premier pourry«. Death makes eyes(!) at the chevalier and tugs the urineglass-carrying physician by his crotch. We are not told, however, whether the dance started at the beginning of the 40 days, along with the carnival antics, or whether the skinny cadavers were introduced during the fasting.

Franciscan monk and child
Guy Marchant, Franciscan monk and child

Not only is la Danse Macabre the world's first dance of death, but for all we know it made its appearance fully developed and complete with an authority to introduce the dance, and 30 couples, who start with pope and emperor, and follow a strict hierarchical sequence with alternating clergy and secular participants. The dance is finished by a dead king and another authority, who deliver the moral of the poem. Except for the dead king, which the French have kept for themselves, this is the model followed by all other dances of death.

The 67 verses all have 8 lines and the rhymes follow the pattern A, B, A, B, B, C, B, C. The last line is always some sort of motto.

The bigot woman and the fool
Guy Marchant, The bigot woman and the fool

In contrast to the other dances of death there are no women in la Danse Macabre, but there is another — slightly younger — text, where all the dancers are women. This poem is very aptly named La Danse Macabre des Femmes, and we know it from a handful of manuscripts, where 30-32 women are participating.

Guy Marchant also published this text in 1486, and he streamlined it to follow the same model as the men's dance with four musicians at the beginning and a dead queen at the end. Five years later, in 1491, he had commissioned woodcuts for all the women, who by now numbered 36.

Guy Marchant must have hit a trend with this 60 years old text, for copies were soon to appear. Not just in Paris: Petit Laurens, Nicole de la Barre and Antoine Vérard, but also in other cities like Troyes, Rouen, Geneva and Lyon. Even books with pious prayers were decorated with the 30 men and 36 women, viz. the books of hours published by Simon Vostre, Guillaume Godard, Thielman Kerver, Jacobinus Suigus and Marcus Reinhart.

This section is dedicated to Michael J. Hurst, author of
pre-Gébelin Tarot History,
who gave me the impetus and encouragement to begin this task.

Dance well, my friend.

the dance


On these pages I present those texts and images that are available on the Internet. Unfortunately there are not nearly as many as one would think. One thing that is not offered here, is a translation of the text. The text has been translated many times, and several of these can be found on the Net.


La Danse Macabre of Paris

Guy Marchant 1486: Authority
Guy Marchant 1486: Musicians
Pope and emperor
Guy Marchant 1486: Pope and emperor
Cardinal and king
Guy Marchant 1486: Cardinal and king
Legate and duke
Guy Marchant 1486: Legate and duke
Patriarch and constable
Guy Marchant 1486: Patriarch and constable
Archbishop and knight
Guy Marchant 1486: Archbishop and knight
Bishop and esquire
Guy Marchant 1486: Bishop and esquire
Abbot and bailiff
Guy Marchant 1486: Abbot and bailiff
Astrologer and citizen
Guy Marchant 1486: Astrologer and citizen
Canon and merchant
Guy Marchant 1486: Canon and merchant
Schoolmaster and soldier
Guy Marchant 1486: Schoolmaster and soldier
Carthusian and sergeant
Guy Marchant 1486: Carthusian and sergeant
Monk and usurer
Guy Marchant 1486: Monk and usurer
Physician and suitor
Guy Marchant 1486: Physician and suitor
Lawyer and minstrel
Guy Marchant 1486: Lawyer and minstrel
Parish priest and peasant
Guy Marchant 1486: Parish priest and peasant
Promoter and jailor
Guy Marchant 1486: Promoter and jailor
Pilgrim and shepherd
Guy Marchant 1486: Pilgrim and shepherd
Franciscan monk and child
Guy Marchant 1486: Franciscan monk and child
Clerk and hermit
Guy Marchant 1486: Clerk and hermit
Halberdier and fool
Guy Marchant 1486: Halberdier and fool
Authority and dead king
Guy Marchant 1486: Authority and dead king
Three living
Guy Marchant 1486: Three living
Three dead
Guy Marchant 1486: Three dead
Guy Marchant 1486: Women
Chorea ab Eximio
Guy Marchant 1490: Chorea ab Eximio
Chorea ab Eximio
Guy Marchant 1490: Chorea ab Eximio
Authority 1491
Guy Marchant 1491: Authority 1491

La danse macabre des femmes

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
Citizeness and widow
Guy Marchand 1491: Citizeness 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 theologianess
Guy Marchand 1491: Virgin and theologianess
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

Footnotes: (1)

»It is this French mural that appears to have been the origin of all later artistic examples of a medieval motif that has proved to be as inspirational as no other from this period«.

(Hartmut Freytag in the preface to Mixed Metaphors: The Danse Macabre in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, 2011)

For details about "date" and "dating", see the top of this page: Dating the Danse Macabre.