The Dance of Death in London

The King ligging eaten of Wormes
The King ligging eaten of Wormes.

The most famous dance of death in England was painted on the walls of the cloister at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

The author was the famous monk, John Lydgate, who had translated the text from a French original (Owte of the frensshe), which he had seen in Paris (And fro Paris / to Inglond hit sent). The danse that Lydgate had translated was the famous Danse Macabre in Cimetière des Innocents: (The whiche daunce / at seint Innocentis portreied is).

Lydgate was in Paris in 1426 - i.e. the year following the execution af the mural painting in Paris. This was during the 100 Years War when France was under English rule. Lydgate added 6 dancers: 4 women,(1) a juror and a conjuror.

The Ellesmere manuscript
The Ellesmere manuscript.

No trace of the painting survives, but by all accounts the pictures had followed the original in Paris. Stow writes:

Stow, survey of London
Funny enough, The 1618-edition of Stow's book starts with this initial, but in a chapter that has nothing to do with the dance in St. Paul's.

There was also one great Cloyster on the north side of this church inuironing a plot of ground, of old time called Pardon church yard, wherof Thomas More, deane of Pauls, was either the first builder, or a most especiall benefactor, and was buried there. About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.
(John Stow, A survey of London, 1603, reprint from 1903, page 327)

Stow goes on to tell, that the building with the mural was demolished in 1549:

In the yeare 1549. on the tenth of Aprill, the sayd Chapell, by commaundement of the Duke of Sommerset, was begun to bee pulled downe, with the whole Cloystrie, the daunce of Death, the Tombes and Monuments; so that nothing thereof was left but the bare plot of ground, which is since conuerted into a Garden, for the pettie Canons.
(John Stow, A survey of London, 1603, reprint from 1903, page 329)

Berkeley, EL 26 A 13
The beginning of Lydgate's text. Ellesmere (EL 26 A 13).

Fortunately the Middle English text still survives in 12 different manuscripts, and in 1554 it was printed at the end of Richard Tottel's edition of Lydgate's "Fall of Princes". Since Stow has assured us that the mural looked like the one in Paris, the text in this section has been illustrated with Guyot Marchant's woodcuts from Paris, 1485.

The Ellesmere manuscript uses the letter yogh, which looks like this: ȝ. Hopefully your browser is able to display it. The yogh is half G and half Y. It's used in words like ȝonge (modern English: "young"), ȝoure ("your"), briȝt ("bright") and ȝeuen ("given").

I will attempt to translate parts of the text into modern English.

Words of the translator
Words of the authority
Pope & emperor
Cardinal & king
Patriark & constable
Archbishop & baron
Princess
Bishop & squire
Abbot, abbess & bailif
Astronomer & burgess
Canon & merchant
Carthusian & sergent
Monk & usurer
Physician & squire
Man of law & minstrel
Conjuror
Parson & labourer
Friar minor & child
Clerk & hermit
The king lying dead
Translator's words

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Sources used in this section

Footnotes: (1)

Four women . . : Three women are part and parcel of the dance, namely the Lady of gret astate / princess, the Abbesse and the Gentilwoman amerous.

Many of the manuscripts add — in a finer hand — an empress, but this is not true for the Ellesmere-manuscript and I don't have access to the stanzas in question.


Up to the Medieval Dance of Death