In this section:
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 painting in Paris. This was during the 100 Years War when France was under English rule. Lydgate added 5 new dancers: Princess, abbess, noblewoman, juror and conjuror.(1)
No trace of the painting survives, but by all accounts the pictures had followed the original in Paris. Stow writes:
The wording is a bit unfortunate in the 1603-edition and might give the impression that Ienken Carpenter had paid Death to lead people away: »the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter«. The 1598-edition made it more clear that Carpenter had only commissioned the painting, »with ye picture of Death, leading all estates painted about the Cloyster: at the speciall request and dispence of Iankin Carpenter«.
The 1603-edition contains one more tidbit in a new section:
The dance was painted »vpon boord«, on wooden plates. It also says that Iohn Carpenter was the town clerk at the time of Henry V ("in the raigne of Henrie the fift"), while the first quote said it happened during the reign of Henry VI ("in the raigne of Henry the sixt"). Henry V died in 1422, but maybe the way to interpret this is that Stow refers to the roots of Carpenter's dignity, not necessarily to his wish that the Dance should be painted.(2)
This is all we now about the state of affairs concerning the painting. All we know go back to Stow, and Stow has probably only used one single source. He was the owner of the manuscript Cambridge Trinity R.3.21, in which two different scribes in two different centuries have written precisely those informations that we have just read from Stow.
On the following page (or the same page, if you're reading the 1618-edition) Stow goes on to tell, that the building with the wall with the painting was demolished in 1549:
Fortunately the Middle English text still survives in ca. 15 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 painting 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, but check Elizaveta Strakhov's full translation (see external link further down).
Footnotes: (1) (2)
Many of the manuscripts add an empress in the margin, but this is not true for the Ellesmere-manuscript.
This explanation was suggested by Mischa von Perger.
John Carpenter was elected in 1417.