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. When the preacher in Lübeck starts with, »Och redelike creatuer«, and the preacher in Heidelberg 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«.
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.
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.
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
Dance well, my friend.
On these pages I present those texts and images that are available on the Internet. Unfortunately there are not nearly as many and one would think. One thing that is not to be found on these pages is a translation of the texts. The texts have been translated at least four places, one of which can be downloaded for free.
The text from Guy Marchant's 1486-version stand under each of the male dancers (like e.g. pope and emperor). The letters U and V are often interchanged to make the text more readable. The text from Guy Marchant's 1491-version stands under the female dancers.
Death in art. English and French site about dances of death in Paris and elsewhere.
The fifteenth-century Catalan translation of the French Danse macabre by Alina Zvonareva. The main subject is an old Catalan translation, but the document also contains a critical version and translation of Ms. Lat. 14904.
La danse macabré des charniers des Saints Innocents à Paris by Edward Frank Chaney, 1945. If Google Books is in a good mood, almost the entire translation of the men's dance can be read.
The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. Fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale by Ann Tukey Harrison with a translation of the women's dance. Parts of the book can be read on Google Books, but obviously one could buy it as well.
Gert Kaiser, Der tanzende Tod: mittelalterliche Totentänze, 1983. Contains lots of dances of death, including La Danse Macabre, translated into German.
The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature by Léonard P. Kurtz. The Danse Macabre is discussed from page 21 onwards. If Google Books is in a good mood, most of it can be read.
'Depicte ones on a walle': the Danse Macabre in late-medieval Paris. By Sophie Oosterwijk.