The Dance of St. Paul's, Sources and Resources

The dance from St. Paul's Cathedral survives in a number of sources, both handwritten (manuscripts) and printed.


Trinity College R.3.21.

According to The Digital Index of Middle English Verse there are 15 old manuscripts with the text of the dance of death. These are separated into A- and B-texts.

The A-texts contain John Lydgate's pro- and epilogue, all 67 verses from the Danse Macabre of Paris and 5 or 6 persons that Lydgate had added. All in all about 84 verses.

Nine manuscripts belong to the A-group. Among these are:

B-texts are further removed from their French roots. Lydgate's pro- and epilogue have been dropped, several dancers are dropped, both among those from Paris and those added by Lydgate, and new participants are added. The sequence is different.

Six manuscripts belong to the B-group. Among these are:

Printed versions

The first printed version from 1554, "The Daunce of Machabree"

The text was printed for the first time in a book of hours around 1521 by Richard Fakes. This book is hidden behind pay-walls, and at any rate it only included 20 of the stanzas.

The text was printed for the first time in its entirety in 1554 by Richard Tottel, who placed the text at the end of another, larger, text by Lydgate, namely the Fall of Princes.

The text was accompanied by two woodcuts (one of which is shown to the left), and considering that it had only been five years since the mural in the cloister at St. Paul's had been demolished, it is possible that the woodcuts show a true representation of the dance.

Unfortunately this book is also hidden behind pay-walls, but there is a critical version of the Fall of Princes and of Tottel's version of the dance of death.

Copy by Hollar
Hollar, Hollar 1658

A hundred years later, in 1658, William Dugdale reproduced the text in The history of St. Pauls Cathedral. The text was illustrated with a copy of one of Tottel's woodcuts created by Wenceslaus Hollar (picture to the right).

The book was republished in 1716, "corrected and enlarged by the author's own hand", but this version only has a short mention of the dance of death. There is a reference to the image of Death leading all ranks of society away: »viz. the picture of Death leading away all Estates«, but there is neither text nor image.

Copy by Finden after Hollar
Hollar, Hollar 1818

The book was republished in 1818 by Henry Ellis, and this time there were both text and image. All of Hollar's etchings, including the dance of death procession, had been skillfully copied by William Finden (picture to the left).

Dugdale also authored a work in three volumes about English monasteries and churches: Monasticon Anglicanum. The third volume appeared in 1673 with both text and Hollar's etching.

The third volume was republished in 1683, but in reality this publication was simply some leftover sheets from 1673 that had been provided with a new frontpage. For this reason the text and image are still on the same pages.

In 1693 an "epitome" in 3 parts was published (in one volume). This was a summary in English of Dugdale's three volumes, where the dance is briefly mentioned: »The dance of death (formerly painted about the Cloyster of St. Pauls) was in French by one Machabree and translated into old English Verse by Dan John of Lydgate, Monk of Bury […]« (volume 3, pages 302-303).

In 1718 an English translation was published (in reality this was rather another "epitome"): »Monasticon Anglicanum: Or, The History of the Ancient Abbies, Monasteries […]«, probably by John Stevens. The book contains a number of Hollar's etchings, but not the dance of death. The text from the dance of death starts on page 333.

Copy after Hollar
Hollar, Hollar 1790

When Hollar's copies of Holbein's dance of death were republished between 1790-1816, a preface written by Francis Douce was added. For these books a copy of the procession that Hollar had produced for Dugdale was added (picture to the right).

The various editions often had a chapter at the end with the title »The Dance of Macaber«, which described the dance of St. Paul's. Strangely enough it was only a few of these editions that also reproduced the text itself.

Late reprint of Hollar
Hollar (colour), Hollar 1853

One of the few of these editions of Hollar that contained the text, appeared in 1853. But since the print run was only 21, the book is difficult to track down today, and since there were only 13 etchings, the number of verses printed has presumably been rather low.

In 1856 Anatole de Montaiglon published a copy of Holbein's dance of death alphabet executed by Heinrich Lödel and decorated with Léon le Maire's copies of Simon Vostre's marginals. The title of the English version was "The Celebrated Hans Holbein's Alphabet of Death illustrated with old borders engraved on wood". But since there were only 24 initials, only 24 stanzas out of the 84 were reproduced.

Further information