Lbeck's Dance of Death

The Black Death

Most of the participants in the dance of death are healthy people in the prime of their life who apparently are about to die simultaneously. What was happening in the late Middle Ages was that the new trade routes had brought on a new disease from the East that within few days would kill even the most strong and healthy in the densely populated cities. This was the Plague - The Black Death.

The Triumph of Death
The Triumph of Death

The plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis(1)) that spreads through rat fleas. If the body's immune system fails to impede the bacteria, the victim will die from septicemic plague or pneumonic plague. In the latter case the symptoms are as for a severe pneumonia with bloody vomit. The patient coughs and sneezes a lot and the disease may spread through aerosol droplets.

If the immune system repels the first attack, the plague will result in painful boils or buboes in the lymph nodes. These may grow to the size of chicken eggs. The victims often die after a few days, the cause of death being exhaustion, heart attacks and circulatory disturbance. Subcutaneous bleedings and respiratory failing gives the patient the blue-black colour that has epitomised the disease: "The Black Death".

Let us quote the emperor from Des dodes dantz:

So we is mi, efte mi dat herte wil barsten,
Drumme hebbe ik gesant na veftein arsten
Men mi dunket, al lete ik halen alle arsten t Greken
Unde mochte ik to mi nemen eine hele appoteken,
Dat were mit mi altes nicht gewrt.
I have so much pain as if my heart would burst;
Therefore I have sent for fifteen physicians
But methinks that even if I let all physicians be drawn out of Greece
and should I eat an entire pharmacy
all of it would not help me.

Berner Totentanz. Death breaks the physician's urine glass with a bone.
Bern, The physician

Between 1347 and 1352, 30% of Europe's population died. Compare this with the Second World War, which lasted just as long, where 5% of the population died from the war and the genocide(2). The physicians with their herbs and blood-letting were helpless - like the physician from Des dodes dantz who is studying his own urine glass:

Se ik mn water rechte an,
So is mine kunst altomalen gedn.
Nu kan ik mi sulven nicht lenger redden dat leven,
Worde mi k eine halve appoteken geven.
If I'm looking correctly at my water,
then my craft is totally done [for].
Now I can no longer save my own life,
Even if I were given half a pharmacy.

The church had a bit of explaining to do: The priests who gave absolution to the dying, would themselves die shortly after. Thus the church couldn't claim that the plague, like AIDS, was God's punishment over people who led sinful lives.

Plague doctor. The strange "beak" is full of fragrant herbs to protect the physician from infection and the stick is for poking the patient. With doctors like that you didn't need diseases.
Physician with mask

It didn't take the Vatican spin doctors long to arrive at a solution: It wasn't the first time God had inflicted "plagues" on sinners - think of the 10 plagues of Egypt - the 6th plague being boils.

Now they looked at The Revelation - the chapter in the Bible that describes the end of the world: chap. 6,8: "And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. " and chap. 16, 2: "[...] and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image." and chap. 16,11: " And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, [...].".

So Death was simply a messenger of God and a sign that the apocalypse draweth nigh. If you had lived without sin (i.e. followed the orders of the church) you had nothing to fear. On the other hand, if you weren't totally spotless it might be a good idea to buy one or two letters of indulgence. After all, Death might come suddenly - as a thief in the night - so maybe you wouldn't get the time to redeem yourself.

In the painting in St. Mary's church we're never explained why the dancers are dying, but in the incunabula there's sometimes an explanation and in those cases it's never war, famine, old age, crime or accidents - but always a disease:

Physician with a urine glass from Lbeck's dance of death.
Physician with a urine glass

The king in Des dodes dantz is ill:

Alle de arsten, de dr sin in unsem rike,
De schal men vorboden algelike,
De dr sin geleret in der kunst der medicinen,
Wente de dt beginnet mi sere to pinen.
All the physicians that are in our kingdom
they should be send for - all of them
those who are skilled in the art of medicine,
because Death is beginning to torment me much.

Other sick people are the abbot and the journeyman.

We don't get as many sick people in Dodendantz, but that might be because the text is much shorter with only 6 lines per verse. The physician is upset about a urine glass, but we are not told whether it's he's own specimen.

Copenhagen's Dance of Death is one long case record. The emperor needs a physician to examine his urine:

Saa we er mig som mit hierte vil bryste
der fore kand ieg ey lgedom myste
Om alle Doctor aff Greckeland
vore hoss mig, ath beskue mit vand
Oc kunde ieg de en Apoteck op
det hielper dog inthet min siuge krop
[.. ..]
Dden skynder sig alsommest
oc siugdom haffuer mit hierte befest
I have so much pain as if my heart would break.
Therefore I cannot do without medicine.
If all the doctors in Greece
were with me, to gaze at my water
and I could eat up a pharmacy
it still wouldn't help my sick body.
[.. ..]
Death is hurrying up
and disease is fastening in my heart.
The physician with a urine glass from des Dodes Dantz
Physician with urine glass

...but the physician is busy studying his own urine:

Hielp Gud ieg er saa ille till pass
det vand ieg haffuer i dette glas
Er bode grnt rt oc blacket
det betegner mit liff vil bliffue stacket
Alt det krud i Apotecken r
hielper mig icke i denne fr
Met krud hialp ieg mangen mand
nu kand det icke gre mig bistand
Help God, I feel so bad
the water I have in this glass
is both green, red and pale
it signifies that my life will be short.
All the herbs that are in the pharmacy
do not help me in this expedition.
With herbs did I help many a man;
Now it cannot lend me assistance.

Death agrees:

Kom kom, ieg siger end en gang kom
Dig hielper nu inggen legedom
Come come, I say once more: come
no healing power will avail you now.

Other sick people include the king, the duke, the abbot, the master of the Teutonic Order, the peasant and the journeyman.

After listening to all this misery, it's refreshing to meet the peasant from Dodendantz who is busy tilling the ground and have no time for disease and dying. There's not a bit wrong with him - well actually the coarse peasant doesn't exactly say "bit":

Neyntwar, wo scholde ik so alrede sterven!
Ick wyl noch bynden mannyghe gerwen,
Nicht ein schyte schadet my, mochte ik leven,
No really! How shall I already die like that!
I still want to bind many sheaves.
Not a sh!t is ailing me - might I live.

Famous last words . . . . .

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2)

The bacterium is named after its discoverer, Alexandre Yersin (1863 - 1943). Originally Yersin had named it Pasteurella pestis - honouring his old teacher, Louis Pasteur.

Just in case somebody should be considering honouring me by naming a deadly bacteria after me: please don't. (8=

This popular quote is from the book Der tanzende Tod by Gert Kaiser.