The Dance of Death and #WhanThatAprilleDay17

As avid lovers of all things dark and spooky, Elizaveta Strakhov and I are thrilled to be editing a volume of Middle English poems on death. The centerpiece of our collection is John Lydgate’s Dance of Death, a fifteenth-century translation of a French poem about the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre.

The Dance of Death

As famously illustrated by Hans Holbein and others, the Dance of Death was a popular visual and poetic motif throughout late medieval Europe. A personified Death, often represented as a skeleton, addresses individuals from every level of society, from the Pope down to the hermit and the lowly laborer, and compels them to “dance” with him.

The End of Mankind, Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/1543, National Gallery of Art

In the Verba Auctoris (Words of the Translator) Lydgate explains how he saw the Danse macabre, a French literary version of the motif, written on the walls of the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, and how the clerics there encouraged him to make an English version, which was then installed on the walls of St. Paul’s Churchyard in London:

Like the exawmple which that a Parise                                 Paris
I fownde depicte ones on a walle,                                         once
Ful notabely as I reherce shal.                                              as I will tell
Ther of Frensshe clerkes taking acqueyntaunce,                 French clerics; making
I toke on me to translaten al
Owte of the Frensshe Macabrees daunce.
Bi whos avyse and cownseille atte leste,                              advice and counsel, at last
Thurh her sterynge and her mocioune,                                 their;guidance; counsel
I obeyed unto her request,
Therof to make a pleyne translacioun                                   complete translation
In Inglisshe tunge, of entencioun                                          Into the English language
That prowde folkes, whiche that ben stoute and bolde,        valiant and brave
As in a myrrowre toforn yn her reason
Her owgly fyne may clierli ther beholde.* <fn>Text from The Dance of Death, Edited From MSS. Ellesmere 26/A.13 and B.M. Lansdowne 699, Collated with the Other Extant MSS., ed. Florence Warren, intro. Beatrice White, EETS o.s. 181 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 2-4. Glosses and punctuation are our own.</fn>                             ugly end
*As in a mirror, in advance, in their mind, / their ugly end may clearly there behold.

The sixteenth-century antiquarian and chronicler John Stow had this to say about the St. Paul’s Dance:

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. In this Cloyster were buryed many persons, some of worship, and others of honour: The Monuments of whome, in number and curious workemanship, passed all other that were in that Church. <fn>John Stow, A Survey of London (London: 1603), 329.</fn>

In its original setting in the St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Danse Macabre would have been situated in a rich multisensory context: the center part of the churchyard would have featured tombstones, including the increasingly elaborate transi tombs favored by fifteenth-century nobles. (Transi tombs, also known as cadaver tombs, were an elaborate vogue in funerary sculpture, whereby a desiccated or decaying image of the tomb’s bearer was carved into its lid.)

Tomb of a Gentlewoman, British Library MS Additional 37049, fol. 32v

Merchants and food-sellers who set up shop in the areas outside the churchyard would have passed through with carts of merchandise. The nearby charnel house must have smelled — if not of decaying flesh, then of lime and other methods used to mask the scent. A viewer/reader of the Dance would have heard chants and prayers from within the cathedral and associated chantry chapels as he or she walked among the arcades where the Dance was displayed.

Such visitors might have sought out the panels that spoke most to their situation — or they might have avoided them, since the poem casts a critical eye on most levels of society. For example, the poem offers this exchange between Death and the “Gentlewoman Amerous”:

Dethe to the Gentilwoman amerous
Come forthe, maistresse of yeres yonge and grene,                     mistress; fresh
Whiche holde yowre self of beaute sovereyne.                              sovereign, e.g. the highest
As feire as ye was sumtyme Pollicene                                           fair, once; Polyxena
Penelope and the quene Eleyne.                                                   Helen
Yitte on this daunce thei wented bothe tweyne,                             Yet; both; two
And so shul ye for al yowre straungenesse.                                   despite; haughtiness
Though daunger longe yn love hathe led yow reyne,                     power; reign
Arested is yowre chaunge of dowblenesse.                                   halted; faithlessness

The Gentilwoman answereth
O cruel dethe that sparest noon astate,                                         no estate
To olde and yonge thow arte indefferente!                                     indifferent
To my beaute thou haste i-seide check-mate.
So hasti is thi mortal jugemente,                                                    swift
For yn my yowthe this was myn entente:
To my servyce many a man to a lured.                                           to have lured
But she is a fole, shortli in sentemente,                                          fool; concisely;
That in her beaute is to moche assured. <fn>Text from The Dance of Death, Edited From MSS. Ellesmere 26/A.13 and B.M. Lansdowne 699, Collated with the Other Extant MSS., ed. Florence Warren, intro. Beatrice White, EETS o.s. 181 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 56. Glosses and punctuation are our own.</fn>                                        too much

As it is often portrayed in medieval literature, Death functions in the Lydgate Danse Macabre not as just an end to life. It is also functions as an active reminder that the living must prepare themselves for this act of leave-taking by settling their accounts, reconciling with their loved ones and generally amending their ways to ensure a good death and salvation in the life thereafter. The stanza, in particular, reminds the young and flighty of the transient and ephemeral nature of physical beauty and worldly possessions.

Beyond the Dance of Death

On #WhanThatAprilleDay17, which celebrates the beauty and glory of weird old languages, we are thrilled to present some of our favorite Middle English poems about death. Our collection includes a number of poems that, like Lydgate’s Dance of Death, feature a dialogue between Death and those about to be compelled to “trace the footyng” of his dance. But fifteenth-century writers were preoccupied with death on a broad scale, and we came across many fascinating poems that we ultimately had to leave out of our collection.

One of the most interesting categories of writing about death concerns the physical signs of the approach of death. The Proprietates Mortis (Properties of Death) poems are short pieces that derive from Latin originals. They are found in medical collections, where their practical purpose is evident, but they also appear in anthologies dedicated to more spiritual concerns, where they could have been used as a meditative aid for Christians contemplating their own mortality. Here, they serve as a reverse sort of blazon, where instead of physical beauty, the body is anatomically detailed in its decay and corruption. Two Middle English versions are included in Carleton Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. The version found in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 416 follows (the glosses and punctuation are our own):

Whanne thyn hewe bloketh,                                                          complexion; becomes pale
And thi strengthe woketh,                                                              diminishes
And thy nose coldeth,                                                                    grows cold
And thy tonge foldeth ,                                                                   speech fails
And thi soule the atgeeth,                                                              goes out from
Sore thee shal rewe Severely;                                                       regret
Olde synnes and new,
That thou noldest wepen                                                                did not weep
And thi synnes leten,                                                                      relinquish
Whanne thou shalt underfon                                                          suffer
After thou hast here don.
On the flore me thee strecceth,                                                      on the floor I lay you out
Of thee me litel recceth,                                                                 rate, value
Tho that hast be so proud.
Ne shaltow have but a clout,                                                          Nor shall you; shred of clothing
Gif thou wouldest that here wyten                                                  If you would have purified yourself while you were alive
Thanne were thou not biswyken. <fn>English Lyrics of the XIIth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1932), 221.</fn>                                                    deceived

These poems about the process of death take a keen interest in the human body, but they are outdone by poems that describe the process of decomposition and putrefaction that occurs. The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms is probably the best-known example of this genre, evocatively illustrated in London, British Library MS Additional 37049, a Carthusian miscellany from the fifteenth century.

The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms, British Library MS Additional 37049, fol. 34v

Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.14.39 contains another evocative example, written in thirteenth-century Middle English. We quote the text and translation provided by Margaret Laing:

Ex cerebro bufo. De spina scorpio. Venter
Asscaridum vermem. Lubrica lingua parit
Ex pulmone trahit quoddam genus asspidis ortum
Wose warit wid prute abeit amadde;
Of heore brein wl waccen a cade.
A worim of herre tunke. That maden her lesunge
On neddre of herre liste; that liveden vid onriste
Fli scuite niid & onde; ther comit of scome and sconde
Of herre vombe wacchet onglitauaches
That glutit and livit bilacches
The woriste neddre in the rug bon
Of the letchore wacces on
Asse this bitit in dede liche; bitit the soule in helle piche
Iesus that is us alle boven; leit us alle to mercie comen.

From the brain a toad. From the spine a scorpion. The stomach
(produces) a thread-worm. From the tongue appears a maw-worm
From the lungs a certain kind of viper derives its origin.
Whoso fares with pride they are driven mad,
From their brain will wax a caddis;
A worm from their tongue who here told lies;
An added from their lights who lived in wrongdoing (with unright);
A fly shows malice and envy that come from shame and disgrace.
From their belly wax (or wake) maw-worms
(Those) that glut themselves and live by laziness.
The worst adder in the back-bone
Of the lecher waxes alone.
As this happens in the dead body it happens to the soul in the pitch of hell.
Jesus who is above us all, let us all come to mercy. <fn>“Confusion ‘wrs’ Confounded: Writing Systems,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 100.3 [1999]: 270</fn>

In honor of #WhanThatAprilleDay17, we’ve also filmed a video of Megan reading this poem out loud. Enjoy!

Death was a multifaceted concept in late medieval England, almost as varied and adaptable as Middle English itself — the poems included here represent just a tiny slice of Death’s appearances in late medieval literature.

by Megan Cook and Elizaveta Strakhov


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