The author / authority

The authority
Guy Marchant, Authority

O creature roysonnable
Qui desires vie eternelle.
Tu as cy doctrine notable:
Pour bien finer vie mortelle.
La dance macabre sappelle:
Que chascun a danser apprant.
A homme et femme est naturelle.
Mort nespargne petit ne grant.

En ce miroer chascun peut lire
Qui le conuient ainsi danser.
Saige est celuy qui bien si mire.
Le mort le vif fait auancer.
Tu vois les plus grans commancer
Car il nest nul que mort ne fiere:
Cest piteuse chose y panser.
Tout est forgie dune matiere.

(Miroer salutaire, 1486)

       The authority
Oh rational creature,(1)
who desire eternal life.
Here you have wisdom, worth noting:
to properly end your mortal life.
It's called the dance macabre,
which everyone will learn to dance.
For man and woman(2) it's natural,
Death spares neither small nor great [persons].

In this mirror(3) everyone can read
that he will dance likewise.
Sage is he who mirrors himself well.
Death(4) makes the living [one] advance,
You will see the greatest begin [= lead the dance]
for there is nobody whom Death does not smite.
It's a pitiable thing to consider.
All are forged out of the same material.

The dance is introduced by the author / authority, just as the dances in Tallinn and Basel are introduced by a preacher.

The authority was present from the start. Not only in the first printed version from 1485, but also in the manuscripts from the 15th century, although the various headlines cannot agree whether he should be called "L'acteur", "Un maistre", "Le docteur" or even "Macabre le docteur".

The Authority and the angel

Authority used from 1491 onwards
Guy Marchand, Authority
Le romant de la rose (1521)
Le Noir, Romant de la rose

Many books in those days were introduced and concluded by an author/authority. Lydgate lets an auctour introduce his "The pilgrimage of the life of man": »Her be-gynneth the prologue of the auctour«. Chaucer ends (very abruptly) his "House of fame" after having introduced a »Man of Gret Auctorite«. Many contempary books show an authority at his writing desk, but what makes this particular authority special is that an angel holds a scroll with a Latin text.

After a while all of Guy Marchant's woodcuts ended up in Troyes, but not the authority. Instead the publishers in Troyes used a number of other woodcuts of an authority in front of his desk, particularly the one to the left. None of these authorities had an angel, so the angel's two lines in Latin were no longer a part of the text.

The picture to the right is from another book published by another company in Paris in 1521. Evidently this particular woodcut had been left behind in Paris. The angel's scroll has been blanked out.

Variations in the Text

There are only a few variations in the first verse. The biggest difference is in the headings: whether the authority should be called "L'acteur", "Le docteur" or "L'autheur".

Apart from this there are only divergence of spelling, but this can be interesting enough when it comes to the name of the dance itself, "La dance macabre", in line 5. The various sources vacillate between "danse" and "dance", while BL Add. 38858 calls the dance "Le danse macabre". The name vacillates between "macabre", "machabre" and "Macabrey" (with La Danse Machabray on the front page).

In the second verse there is a great variation in the 11th line. All our printed sources (with the exception of La Danse Machabray) state that he who mirrors himself in the dance is wise: »Saige est celuy qui bien si mire«, while all the manuscripts (and La Danse Machabray) regard such a person as happy: »Cilz est heureux qui bien sy mire«.

In the 12th line the cadaver is called "le mort" (the dead man). It's only in later sources (Jean Belot, Oudot and Baillieu), that the cadaver has become "la mort", Death itself.

In the 14th line Baillieu writes "tiere" instead of "fiere", but this is probably a typo.


Various Artists

Guy Marchant (1486)
Guy Marchant 1486: Authority
Guy Marchant (1490)
Guy Marchant 1490: Chorea ab Eximio
Petit Laurens (1491)
Petit Laurens 1491: Lacteur
Antoine Vérard (1492)
Antoine Vérard 1492: Authority
 1497: Les Postilles
Antoine Vérard (1497)
Antoine Vérard 1497: Quentell
Jean Belot (1500)
Jean Belot 1500: Authority
Carlos V (1500)
Carlos V 1500: Authority
Carlos V (1500)
Carlos V 1500: Authority
Barre (1500)
Barre 1500: Authority
Claude Nourry (1501)
Claude Nourry 1501: Authority
Petit Laurens (1502)
Petit Laurens 1502: L'ordinaire
Jean Belot (1503)
Jean Belot 1503: Geneva 1503
Trepperel (1515)
Trepperel 1515: Trepperel
Le Noir (1521)
Le Noir 1521: Romant de la rose
Nicolas Oudot (1641)
Nicolas Oudot 1641: Author
 1700: Authority
 1729: Authority
Garnier (1766)
Garnier 1766: Troyes 1766
Garnier (1766)
Garnier 1766: Authority
Yvon (1977)
Yvon 1977: Authority

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Rational creature...: See the page about Adam, Eve and the original sin.
For man and woman... Quite possibly - but there are no women in the dance of death in Cimetière des Innocents.
This allusion to the dance of death as a mirror shows that the text has inspired the dance of death in Lübeck.
Admittedly the text says "Le Mort" and not "La mort", so maybe a more correct translation would be: "The dead one makes the living [one] advance".

The text was reproduced in many versions - and the different source variate between "Le Mort" and "La Mort". See Death's Dance, or Line of the Dead.