Lübeck's Dance of Death

Lübeck's dance of death, Carthusian and mayor
Carthusian and mayor.

Death answers the Carthusian

Nu tret vort, di helpet nen klagen,
Du most din Part sulven dragen,
It sal di wesen swar,
Di mach nicht volghen nar,
Wen dine Werke gut ofte quat,
Din Lon is na diner Dat,
Nemant mach di des vorbringen,
Men, kum an, ik wil di singhen.
Now step forward, no lament will help you,
you must bear your fate yourself.
It will be difficult for you.
Nothing can follow you
except your works [be they] good or bad.
Your reward is after your deed.(1)
No one can take this from you.
Man(2), come here, I will sing for you.

The nobleman

Dot, ik bidde di umme Respijt;
Late mi vorhalen, mine Tijt,
Ik hebbe ovel overbracht,
Sterven hadde ik klene geacht.
Mine Gedancken weren, to vullenbringen,
To Lust in idelen Dingen,
Minen Undersaten was ik swar,
Nu mot ik reisen, unde wet nicht, war.
Death, I beg you for respite.(3)
Let me tell: My time
I have used badly.
I paid [too] little heed to dying.
My thoughts were to satisfy -
to lust for idle things.
I was hard on my peasants.
Now I must travel and know not where.

Death answers the nobleman

Haddestu gedelt van dinem Gode
Den Armen, so were di wol to Mode,
De klegeliken klagen er Gebreken,
Nuwerle mochtestu se horen spreken.
Dines Pachtes werstu gewert,
Na mi haddestu ninen Begert,
Dat ik ens ummekame to Hants,
Kannonik, tret her an den Dans.
Had you shared your goods
with the poor then you would be at ease now.
The complainers complained their need,
never would you hear them speak.
You were paid your farm rent(4).
You did not desire me,
that I once suddenly came here.
Canon,(5) come here to the dance.

About the sequence.

This is where the text begins that Jacob von Melle wrote down in 1701. We'll probably never learn, what excuses the Carthusian had for not participating in the dance, but apparently they weren't good enough.

There's a big confusion concerning the order of the verses. The picture (which is a copy from 1701) shows the next 4 persons as Carthusian (monk), mayor, canon and nobleman - and this is the order, in which Jacob von Melle wrote them down.

Wilhelm Mantels pointed out that the nobleman is the one who has lived most against the overall moral — having exploited his hardworking subjects in order to obtain money for idle pleasures, and yet Death answers: "Great wages shall you receive. For your work that you have done, God will reward you thousandfold".

Mantels then suggested that the order should rather be Carthusian, nobleman, canon and mayor. This solution is universally accepted and is being applied on these pages. For lots of details about this puzzle, see the pages about von Melle who wrote down the verses and Mantels who made sense of it.

To sum up: The painting, the High German text and von Melle's text has Carthusian, mayor, canon and nobleman. The text on these pages has Carthusian, nobleman, canon and mayor.

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Reward after deed: popular theme in the Bible. Compare with 1st Corinthians, chapter 3,8 : "[…] and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour".
Man, come here . . .: Normally Death uses a more specific title (king, pope etc.) instead of simply saying "man". It should be noted that Jacob von Melle very rarely indicates the absence of single letters or words. Most of the the time Jacob von Melle either writes a whole line or nothing. So we might guess that some of the letters were obliterated and that the text originally was "Nobleman, come here …".

At any rate it's too bad that it had to happen here where the verses are in a wrong order.

respit de la mort Respite . . .: The word gets a special sound when one remembers that the painting is from 1463 when the burghers of Lübeck where anticipating the plague epidemic that arrived in the town in the summer of 1464.

The word "respit" also gives associations to Jehan le Fèvre's book "Le Respit de la mort" from 1376. This was the first book ever to mention the phrase "danse macabre".

You were paid your farm rent . . .: Namely by the (hardworking) peasant.
Canon . . .: a priest attached to a cathedral. The canons are so called because they lead a rule bound life, "vita canonica".

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