In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all. Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.
Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come; Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.
Grim traditions for a grim time. However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts. This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.
Origins of the Macabre
Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject. A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.
There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) . Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.
The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague. Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:
I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.
This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry. Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife. This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead. Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.
Dancing in the graveyard
The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons. Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.
Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller .
The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural. The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ .
Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards . Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.
The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war. The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England. However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.
The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician. There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest. With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance . As John Lydgate put it:
Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. 
The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king. It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.
Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time. Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text .
In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘). Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death. The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ . Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:
“[..] 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.”
Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.
Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions. Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.
Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500). Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.
Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck). Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.
So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?
The Unwanted Dance Partner
The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller. No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.
The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact. The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures.
The danse was also undeniably slapstick. Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.
But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things. The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about. It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards . The Danse images were challenging the norm. Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional .
But, what of the text that sat alongside the images. In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it? While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.
However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate. The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul. After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant .
The reformation and Death gets a reboot
In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot. In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form. This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson .
Dancing down the ages
The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815. In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.
The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions .
Sources and notes
Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996    
Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019        
Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. 
Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art  [15 
Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England, UCL Press.