Words of the translator

The falles of sondry most notable Princes and Princesses
vith other Nobles (Tottel, 1554).
The fall of princes

The Daunce Of Death

Verba translatoris

O [ȝ]ee folkes / harde herted as a stone
Which to the world / haue al your aduertence
Like as hit sholde / laste euere in oone
Where ys ȝoure witte / where ys ȝoure prouidence
To see a-forne the sodeyne / vyolence
Of cruel dethe / that ben so wyse and sage
Whiche sleeth allas / by stroke of pestilence
Bothe ȝonge and olde / of low and hie parage.
Oh you people - hard-hearted as a stone
who direct all your attention to the [temporal] world
as if it would last perpetually.
Where is your wit, where is your foresight
to predict the sudden violence
of cruel Death, who is so wise and sage -
who slays, alas, with the Plague -
both young and old [people] of low and high station.

Dethe spareth not / low ne hye degre
Popes kynges / ne worthi Emperowrs
When thei schyne / moste in felicite
He can abate / the fresshnes of her flowres
Ther briȝt sune clipsen / with hys showres
Make hem plownge / from theire sees lowe
Maugre the myght / of al these conquerowres
Fortune hath hem / from her whele [y]throwe.
Death spares neither low nor high rank,
neither popes, kings nor worthy emperors.
When they shine most in their prosperity
he can abate the freshness of their flowers
- darken their bright sun with his showers
[and] make them plunge low from their seats.
In spite of the might of all these conquerors,
Fortune has thrown them from her wheel.

Considereth this / ȝe folkes that ben wyse
And hit enprenteth / in ȝowre memorialle
Like the exawmple / whiche that at Parise
I fownde depicte / ones on a walle
Ful notabely / as I reherce shal
Ther of frensshe clerkes / tak[yng] acqueyntaunce
I toke on me / to translaten al
Owte of the frensshe / Macabrees daunce.
Consider this - you people who are wise
and fix it in your mind.
Like the example - the one in Paris,(1)
which I once found depicted on a wall
- quite excellent, as I shall demonstrate.
Which - getting acquainted with French clerks -
I undertook to translate all
out of the French Macabree's(2) dance.

BI whos a-vyse / and cownseille atte leste
Thurh her sterynge / and her mocioune
I obeyed / vnto her requeste
Ther of to make / a pleyne translacioun
In Inglisshe tunge / of entencioun
That prowde folkes whiche that ben stoute & bolde
As in a myrrowre / to-forn yn her reasoun
Her owgly fyne / may clierli ther be-holde.
By whose advice and counsel at the least
through their guidance and suggestion
I obeyed their request
to make a full translation of it
in the English tongue, with the purpose
that proud people who are stout and bold,
as in a mirror, beforehand in their imagination
might clearly see their ugly finish.

By exaumple / that thei yn her ententis
A-mende her life / in eueri maner age
The whiche daunce / at seint Innocentis
Portreied is / with al the surplu[s]age
To schewe this worlde / is but a pilgrimage
Ȝeuen vn-to vs / owre lyues to correcte
And to declare / the fyne of owre passage
Ryght a-noon / my stile I wille directe.
By example, so that they in the minds
will correct their life in all ages.
The dance, which is portrayed
at saint Innocentis with all the surplusage
to show that this world is only a pilgrimage,(3)
given to us to correct our lives,
and to announce the end of our travel
I will at once direct my writing.

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

Words and letters in square brackets are those where Florence Warren does not follow the Ellesmere manuscript. On the present page there are four instances:

  1. »O [ȝ]ee folkes« (Ellesmere has: »O see folkes«);
  2. »[y]throwe« (Ellesmere has: »I trowe«);
  3. »tak[yng]« (Ellesmere has: »taken«);
  4. »surplu[s]age« (Ellesmere and many other manuscripts lack the s).
Tottel, 1554
Copy by Hollar
Hollar, Hollar 1658

The text starts with Verba translatoris (=words of the translator). Lydgate makes it quite clear that he has translated the famous Danse Macabre in Cimetière des Innocents in Paris.

The reference to "frensshe clerkes" is rather diffuse. Tottel and one of the manuscripts have "a Frenche clarke".

The picture at the top of this page has been scanned from a reprint Tottel's edition from 1554; to the left is the original. Later on, Wenceslaus Hollar made a far superior version, (picture to the right).

The oldest known tarot card, Visconti-Sforza, The wheel of Fortune.
Visconti Gold, The wheel of Fortune
Frescoe in the Church of Birkerød, Denmark, The wheel of Fortune.
Birkerød Church, The wheel of Fortune

Lydgate writes about Fortune's wheel. The image of kings and emperors falling off the Wheel of Fortune was widespread in the Middle Ages and was used in as diverse media as Italian tarot cards and Danish frescoes.

The king on the left side of the wheel - going up - says Regnabo (Latin for "I shall reign"), the man on the top says Regno (I'm reigning), the man going down says Regnavi (I have reigned) and the man who has fallen off says Sum sine regno (I am without reign). The fresco is a bit battered, so all one sees of the man on the ground are two lower legs and a crowned head.

Bonus tip: If you click the fresco, you'll see Death and a king in the middle of the wheel. Long worms / snakes are crawling out of Death.

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Paris / Innocentis...: The dance of death that Lydgate has translated was the famous Danse Macabre in Cimetière des Innocents.
Macabree...: Evidently Lydgate thinks that "Macabree" was the name of the author (this is repeated at the end of the dance).

Lydgate was probably wrong in thinking so - although old Parisian documents mention a "Jean Macabray" in 1381 and a "Jean Macabray de Tavannes" in 1446.

The world is but a pilgrimage...: In 1426 Lydgate was commissioned by the earl of Salisbury to translate Guillaume de Deguileville's "Pélerinage de la Vie Humaine" into "Pilgrimage of the Life of Man".