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John Lydgate's Dance of Death and Related Works: Introduction

Cook and Strakhov, John Lydgate's Dance of Death and Related Works, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES

1 English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey, ed. Hammond, pp. 131–42 (portions of this edition of the text are reprinted in The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose, ed. Gray, pp. 69–70) and Lydgate, The Dance of Death, Edited from MSS. Ellesmere, ed. Warren and White. Compare also appendix to Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen, pp. 1025–44, which offers an edition largely based on the text found in Tottel’s 1554 printing of the Fall of Princes, on which see below, p. 18.

2 On medieval cultures of death, especially in England, see Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Weaver; Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England; Death and Dying in the Middle Ages, ed. DuBruck and Gusick; Kinch, Imago Mortis; and Appleford, Learning to Die in London.

3 Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages, pp. 78–82.

4 Text from Political, Religious, and Love Poems, ed. Furnivall, p. 221, glosses our own. For other examples of the Signs of Death, see DIMEV 6460, 6383, 6437, 6439, 6447, 6459, and 6462. Unless otherwise noted, all glosses and translations given in this introduction are our own.

5 Text and translation, which its editor delightfully entitles “Poem on the Creepy-Crawlies that Grow Out of the Dead Body,” from Laing, “Confusion ‘Wrs’ Confounded,” p. 270.

6 Carruthers, The Book of Memory. Compare similar points made by Kinch, Imago Mortis, pp. 6–7.

7 The term “image-text” is introduced by Mitchell in Iconology, pp. 154–55 and subsequently elaborated in his Picture Theory, especially p. 89n9.

8 On estates satire, see, in particular, Mann’s seminal Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire.

9 Le Fèvre, Le respit de la mort, ed. Hasenohr-Esnos, p. 113.

10 Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, ed. Beaune, p. 220.

11 Guillebert de Mets, Description de la ville de Paris 1434, ed. and trans. Mullally, p. 95. Of additional interest is de Mets’ detail that the church contains a relic of a young Christian boy allegedly murdered by Jews in 1179 (see p. 142n299).

12 Dujakovic, “The Dance of Death, the Dance of Life,” pp. 210–11.

13 For more on this manuscript, see the Explanatory Notes to the Danse macabre, p. 142.

14 On the rubric’s claim that the French Danse is actually translated from German, see further Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, p. 28.

15 For an overview of these theories and the arguments against them, see DuBruck, “Another Look at ‘Macabre,’” pp. 539–43.

16 Paris, “Le Danse Macabré de Jean Le Fèvre,” p. 132.

17 White, “Introduction,” in Lydgate, Dance of Death, ed. Warren and White, p. xvii.

18 Saugnieux, Les danses macabres de France et d’Espagne, pp. 15–16. Compare Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, p. 22. While an allusion to Judas Maccabeus may seem obscure to modern-day audiences, Judas Maccabeus was one of the Nine Worthies alongside Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, or nine noted great figures of the past listed in numerous late medieval literary works. See further Sperber, “Etymology of Macabre,” pp. 394–95.

19 Strakhov, “Russkie slova,” pp. 271–80. Compare Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, p. 125, on the representation of St. Macarius in a Dance of Death mural in Pisa, Italy.

20 See Gertsman’s overview of this issue in Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 42–44.

21 Taylor, “Que signifiait ‘danse,’” pp. 267–70; see further Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, p. 64. Compare Oosterwijk, “Dance, Dialogue and Duality,” pp. 17–20; and Eustace with King, “Dances of the Living and the Dead.”

22 Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual,” pp. 38–43. See also Taylor, “Que signifiait ‘danse,’” pp. 265–67, who points out that medieval popular dance featured leaping of the kind represented in Guyot Marchant’s woodcuts accompanying his edition and also notes the ecclesiastical condemnation of dancing at cemeteries.

23 Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual” pp. 28–33.

24 On this genre, see Batiouchkof, “Le débat de l’âme et du corps,” Parts 1 and 2; Vogel, “Some Aspects of the Horse and Rider Analogy”; Ackerman, “Parochial Christianity”; and, most recently, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul.

25 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 12–14. For an edition, see Les vers de la mort par Hélinant, ed. Wulff and Walberg.

26 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 16–17; Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 101–02; Oosterwijk, “Dance, Dialogue and Duality,” pp. 20–21. For an edition, see “Die Vado-Mori-Elegie,” ed. Rosenfeld.

27 See Audelay, “Three Dead Kings” and the Headnote to its Explanatory Notes, ed. S. Fein, pp. 218–22 and pp. 321–34.

28 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 17–20; Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 95–99; Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 26–29. For an edition, see Les cinq poèmes des trois morts, ed. Glixelli.

29 Two English murals remain extant at the Chapel of Saint Nicolas at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire and at Longthorpe Tower in Cambridgeshire. For more on this iconographic motif, see Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, pp. 134–38, Kralik, “Dialogue and Violence,” and, on the legend’s consumption, as both text and image, by the very courtly audiences it seeks most to critique, Kinch, Imago Mortis, pp. 109–44.

30 Kinch, Imago Mortis, pp. 136–38. The same collocation is seen at Kermaria in Brittany and Bergamo in Italy (Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 78–80 and 121–22). It is further interesting to note that, in his Vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, 2:218–21, Giorgio Vasari describes in detail a famous painting, known as Il Trionfo della Morte (The Triumph of Death), painted at Campo Santo in Pisa in the early-mid fourteenth century; Vasari attributes it to Andrea Orcagna (c. 1308–68), but it has since been attributed to Buonamico Buffalmacco (fl. c. 1315–36). This painting of sinners being driven to hell by demons as Death reigns triumphant also features a small scene derived from the motif of the Three Living and the Three Dead, in which the three noblemen are enjoined to look upon three corpses in open graves by an old man, whom Vasari identifies as Saint Macarius, one of the figures from whom the term “macabre” has been thought to derive; see Sperber, “Etymology of Macabre,” p. 399 and Strakhov, “Russkie slova,” pp. 278–79.

31 See, in general, Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol and, in relation to the danse macabre, Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, pp. 139–52 and Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 29–32.

32 Gertsman, “Pleyinge and Peyntynge,” pp. 2–5 and 11–20; this argument is expanded in her Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 79–99.

33 Gertsman, “Pleyinge and Peyntynge,” pp. 7–8.

34 Gertsman, “Pleyinge and Peyntynge,” pp. 8–10. Clark suggests that the common general source accounting for the thematic similarities yet clear independence of the three danse macabres texts of Paris, Castille, and Lübeck may be a now lost mystery play (Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 91–92).

35 While the original Danse macabre mural in Paris is no longer extant, scholars have largely accepted Guyot Marchant’s first edition of the Danse with accompanying woodcuts in 1485 as a faithful representation of the original, even though it features figures in contemporary dress (Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 76–77); Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 24–25.

36 Taylor, “Danse Macabré and Bande Dessinée.” See further Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 103–24, who offers similar readings of later danse macabre murals in other parts of Europe.

37 Chaganti, “Danse Macabre and the Virtual Churchyard,” p. 20. This argument is developed at much greater length in Strange Footing, pp. 99–185, especially 121–28.

38 Oosterwijk, “Of Dead Kings,” pp. 140–45 and, for a reading of the Morgan Library Book of Hours alongside Lydgate’s Dance, see Kinch, Imago Mortis, pp. 185–226. The Book of Hours of Charles V, or Madrid, Biblioteca nacional de España, Cod. Vitr. 24–3, is available fully digitized at

39 See Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit; Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; Oosterwijk, “Of Corpses, Constables and Kings,” pp. 67–76; Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages; and Oosterwijk, “Money, Morality, Mortality.”

40 See Harrison, “La Grant Danse Macabre des Femmes,” and Becker, “La danse macabre au féminin.” For an edition, see The Danse Macabre of Women, ed. Harrison, pp. 46–133.

41 The Danse macabre des femmes is found with the Danse in: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fonds français 995, fols. 23v–43r; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fonds français 1186, fols. 98v–108r; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fonds français 25434, fols. 61r–79v, and Paris, Bibliothèque nationale nouvelles acquisitions françaises 10032, fols. 224r–38r; as well as separately in Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 3637, fols. 26r–30v and The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71 E 49, fols. 285r–93v. Marchant included it in his editions of 1486, 1491, and 1492.

42 Kurtz (Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 147–49) and Clark (Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, pp. 41–42) suggest it is contemporary to its manuscript, thus postdating the Danse macabre, while Gertsman (Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, p. 3) suggests it predates it, being c. 1400. Víctor Infantes argues that the poem, partially collocated with works from the 1360s–80s, may be equally as early (Las danzas de la muerte, pp. 226–39). See further Saugnieux, Les danses macabres de France et d’Espagne, pp. 45–49 for an overview of the complexities of the dating question.

43 For an edition, see “Danza general,” ed. Saugnieux, pp. 165–82.

44 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 149–52; Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 45–48.

45 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 126–27.

46 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 93–120; Clark, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pp. 78–83.

47 On the Alphabet, see Schwab, “Letters without Words.”

48 Kurtz, Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit, pp. 190–208; Gertsman, Dance of Death in the Middle Ages, pp. 169–80.

49 Appleford, Learning to Die in London, p. 88.

50 On Bedford’s patronage and export of Northern French art and literature to England, see Reynolds, “‘Les angloys, de leur droicte nature’” and Stratford, “The Manuscripts of John, Duke of Bedford.”

51 Oosterwijk, “Of Dead Kings” and Perry, “Lydgate’s Danse Macabre and the Trauma.”

52 Blatt coined this term as the title of a panel co-organized by her and Elizaveta Strakhov at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium on 10–11 March, 2017; see further Participatory Reading, especially pp. 142–56. On this trend see, in particular, Sponsler, “Text and Textile,” “Lydgate and London’s Public Culture,” and The Queen’s Dumbshows; Floyd, “St. George and the ‘Steyned Halle,’” and Gayk, Image, Text, and Religious Reform, pp. 84–122.

53 Shailor, Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke, 2:475.

54 Appleford, Learning to Die in London, pp. 89–97 and “The Dance of Death in London.”

55 See Chaganti, Strange Footing, pp. 160–63.

56 For other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century allusions and references to the Dance of Death, see Gray, “Two Songs of Death,” pp. 53–64.

57 Amy Appleford, , pp. 89–97 and “The Dance of Death in London.”

58 Stow, A Survey of London, ed. Thoms, p. 122.

59 St. Paul’s: The Cathedral Church, ed. Keene, Burns, and Saint, p. 122.

60 Dymond and Paine, The Spoil of Melford Church, p. 23; see also Floyd, “Writing on the Wall,” 34n9,10.

61 See Trapp, “Verses by Lydgate”; Griffith, “A Newly Identified Verse Item”; Floyd, “Writing on the Wall,” pp. 29–127; and Davis, “Lydgate at Long Melford.”

62 Floyd, “Writing on the Wall,” p. 117 and n143.

63 On the manuscript, see Lydgate, Dance of Death, Edited from MSS, Ellesmere, ed. Warren and White, pp. xxviii-ix.

64 We see this same kind of sartorial visual updating in Marchant’s 1485 edition of the Danse. Tottel’s association of the Fall of Princes with Lydgate’s poetry on death also resonates with another of Lydgate’s own poems on death, included in this edition, “Death’s Warning to the World” (DIMEV 4905), which is actually an independently circulating five-stanza extract of the Fall of Princes with additional stanzas appended to it. For more information, see the Explanatory Notes, pp. 129–31.

65 Lydgate, Dance of Death, Edited from MSS, Ellesmere, ed. Warren and White, p. 100. For a discussion of the broadsides, see pp. 100–07.

66 Compare “The Three Messengers of Death” (DIMEV 5387) in this edition, in which Sickness is one of Death’s messengers (line 13).

67 See Lydgate, Dance of Death, Edited from MSS, Ellesmere, ed. Warren and White, p. xii.



This volume offers a new edition of both versions of John Lydgate’s Dance of Death set within their broader cultural and literary contexts. The Dance was edited twice in the twentieth century: in the earlier of its two versions, known as the A version, by Eleanor Prescott Hammond in her English Verse Between Chaucer and Surrey in 1927 and in both versions by Florence Warren and Beatrice White for the Early English Text Society in 1931.1 Our edition presents the two versions of Lydgate’s Dance sequentially, rather than in a parallel-text format as in the EETS edition. We further highlight the origins and context of Lydgate’s text by presenting it alongside five other contemporary Middle English poems treating similar themes, two more poems that demonstrate its literary afterlife in England, and a new translation of Lydgate’s original French source, the anonymous Danse macabre. To introduce this collection, we begin by mapping out the larger contours of the death poetry tradition in late medieval England before moving into discussing the origins of the danse macabre tradition in France and tracing its major developments in the literary and visual culture of Europe more broadly. Thereafter we turn to Lydgate’s Dance, placing it in the wider context of Lydgate’s literary activity and tracking its later circulation among its medieval and early modern readers.


Late medieval England, marked by recurrent outbreaks of plague and the Hundred Years War, saw a surge in literature treating death as a dominant theme. Much of it, following the period’s predilection for didactic advice literature, took the form of moralizing counsel known as the ars moriendi, or “art of dying”: how to set one’s spiritual affairs in order before death’s inevitable advent. Thus, for example, a poem rubricated “Sex observanda omni cristiano in extremis” (The Six Things to be Observed by Each Christian at the End) (DIMEV 1226) walks the reader through six considerations to take when preparing to die: restore property to its rightful owner, settle one’s debts, confess, receive penance, receive Communion, and pray. Similarly, in the poem “In Four Points My Will Is Ere I Hence Depart” (DIMEV 2503) the speaker, on his or her deathbed, ruminates on rejoining the earth whence he or she came, contemplates the sins of his or her life, the transitory vanity of the world, and the state of the soul in the afterlife. The programmatic nature of this poetry is reflected in the phrase often appearing within it, “lerne to die,” which also serves as the title of Thomas Hoccleve’s Middle English verse translation of Henry Suso’s Ars moriendi (or Book 2, chapter 2 of his larger Horologium sapientiae).

Side by side with such poetry, however, emerged a different strain of death poetry that sought to come to terms with dying by staging imaginative encounters with death as a material experience.2 The following short poem (DIMEV 6459) belongs to what is called the Signs of Death tradition. Originating in commentaries on Hippocrates and transmitted in medieval medical manuscripts, by the twelfth century it developed into its own robust literary strain and wound its way into the immensely popular fourteenthcentury preaching handbook Fasciculus morum.3 In this version of the Signs of Death, found in MS Harley 7322, dated to the end of the fourteenth century, the approach of death is rendered in the following terms:

Wonne þin eren dinet: and þi nese scharpet.                                                    When your ears fill with din; nose; sharpens
And þin hew dunnet: and þi sennewess starket.                                               hue darkens; sinews stiffen
And þin eyen synket: and þi tunge foldet.                                                          eyes; speech fails
And þin honde stinket: and þin fet coldetʒ.
And þin lippes blaket: and þin teth ratilet.                                                        blacken; teeth chatter
And þin hond quaket: and þi þrote ruteletʒ.                                                     rattles (in death)
— Al to late. al to late. þen is te wayn atte yate.                                                hearse at the gate
For may þor no man þenne penaunce make.4                                                  there; then

Organized as a kind of anti-blazon, this poem deploys anaphora (the repetition of words for rhetorical effect) and polysyndeton (the use of numerous conjunctions — in this case, “and” — for rhetorical effect) to prompt its reader to imagine the degradation of his body as a set of grisly images in rapid succession: sharpened nose, darkened skin, sunken eyes, collapsed tongue, etc. A poem found in the thirteenth-century manuscript, Trinity College MS B.14.39 (DIMEV 6595), meanwhile, is even more explicit in the function served by its serialization of images:

Wose warit wid prute abeit amadde;
Of heore brein wl waccen a cadde.
A worim of herre tunke. þat maden her lesunge . . .
Of herre vombe wacchet ongiltuaches
Þat glutit & liuit bilacches
Þe woriste neddre in þe rug bon
Of þe letchore wacces on
Asse þis bitit in dede liche; bitit þe soule in helle piche . . . .
(Lines 4–6, 9–13)

Whoso fares with pride they are driven mad,
From their brain will wax a caddis;
A worm from their tongue who here told lies . . .
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 ....5

Similar to the lists of tasks to be undertaken by the soul as it prepares itself for death in ars moriendi poetry, this serialization serves as a mnemonic device (a pattern constructed to help the reader retain something in her memory). It fixes different sins (pride, lying, gluttony, lechery) onto specific body parts (brain, tongue, belly, spine) and associates those in turn with vermin that reify aspects of decomposition (caddisfly, maggot, worm, adder). The catalogue of body parts, and the particular manner of future decomposition with which those are associated, prompt the reader to make an organized list of mental images, anchoring the image of death in the mind. Vivid — and especially violent or gruesome — serialized images, organized around a central category, are, of course, a fixture of the so-called memorial arts from antiquity through the late Middle Ages, as Mary Carruthers has amply shown.6

These death poems, in other words, although they are texts, are designed to function like a mental “image-text,” compelling the reader to imagine a set of visualizations organized around a single, central idea.7 In the case of the poems above, this category is the decomposing human body, but other poems ponder the transience of human attachment to possessions, rules and regulations, and social rank, or consider embodied encounters with death by personifying death into a real figure, capable of dialogue that describes and justifies its actions. This interest in death’s material presence produces a vivid poetry eager for new ways to express death’s physical and psychological processes on the human body. Furthermore, like their “learn to die” counterparts, these poems also engage in a serializing aesthetic, suggesting that a central impetus of late medieval death poetry is the attempted taxonomization and ordering of the ineffable experience of dying.


Danse macabre poetry participates in this serializing aesthetic by also prompting the reader to imagine death by means of a serialized catalogue that cues vivid visualizations. Here, however, instead of decomposition, the catalogue consists of successive conversations between Death, embodied as an emaciated humanoid figure, and various representatives of society. Each pair of stanzas in danse macabre poems represent a conversation between Death and a member of a different social demographic. These conversations are arranged in descending hierarchical order, beginning with the pope and emperor, moving through representatives of lesser clerical and secular authority (cardinal, king), progressing to more minor ecclesiastical orders (friar, parish priest) down to urban dwellers (lawyer, merchant, etc.), and often ending with the peasant laborer and the infant child. The inexplicable cradle-death of the latter often serves as the apogee of the tradition’s ruminations on death’s implacability.

In its cross-section of all strata of late medieval European society, the danse macabre tradition bears obvious affinities with estates satire. The characters are portrayed as flat types defined by physical characteristics (the cardinal wears his distinctive red hat, the physician has a urine flask, the abbot is corpulent, etc.), stereotypical behavior, and personality traits (the usurer is greedy, the laborer is weary, etc.), which are elaborated without deviation from narrative expectation.8 Like the catalogues of decomposition in the visually vivid death poetry mentioned above, the flat types of danse macabre estates satire similarly help readers remember and thus process the fundamental paradox of death’s universality yet specificity: while we know that we must die like everyone else, we cannot imagine our own personal death. Taxonomy, these poems suggest, helps fill that imaginative void.

In this way, the danse macabre poems partake of the “image-text” quality of the broader genre of death poetry, like the Signs of Death. Furthermore, two of its earliest instantiations, the anonymous French Danse macabre and John Lydgate’s near contemporary translation of it into Middle English, were themselves actual image-texts, painted as murals on which stanzas of text were linked to visual images of the dead communicating with the living. The danse macabre tradition went on to spawn a rich pan-European iconographic and literary tradition of murals, Books of Hours miniatures, sculptures, blockbooks, incunabula, and broadsides that continued to visually showcase a serializing aesthetic by presenting alternating figures of dead and living, interlinked in the final dance of death.


The earliest mention of a “danse macabre” comes from Jean Le Fèvre’s Le respit de la mort (1376). In this work, the protagonist (represented as the author himself) is seized by a sudden illness and argues before a tribunal for a lettre de répit (letter of continuance) in order to die at a later date. In a passage discussing the illness and death’s inevitability, Le Fèvre writes:

Je fis de Macabré la dance
qui toutes gens maine a sa tresche
et a la fosse les adresche,
qui est leur derraine maison.
(lines 3078–81)

(I did the dance of Macabré
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.)9

In this passage, “Macabré” clearly refers to a person who is in charge of and organizing a dance that eventually wends its way towards one’s final resting place.

The phrase danse macabre goes on to become the title of a well-known French poem consisting of octosyllabic eight-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc, framed by two brief Latin texts, totaling 556 lines. It was also, according to the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris (1405–49), painted as a mural at L’Église aux Saints Innocents (the Church of the Holy Innocents), started in August 1424 and completed during Lent in 1425.10 Guillebert de Mets notes more specifically in his Description de la ville de Paris (1434) that the Danse macabre mural was located in the arcades under the charnel houses of the adjacent cemetery.11 This detail is noteworthy because, some lines after invoking “de Macabré la dance,” Jean le Fèvre’s speaker goes on to express dread before the prospect of dying and ending up among the piles of bones at the charnel house of the Innocents (lines 3122–23). This suggests a possible connection between that location and the idea of “Macabré”’s dance as early as 1376, although the Innocents was also the main charnel house in Paris and thus a natural choice for a mural of this theme. The cemetery was one of the oldest in Paris, with historical records going back to 1186; in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was a bustling area located by Les Halles, the main market, and full of merchants, produce sellers, scribes, and sex workers.12

Given the presence of the Saint Innocents reference in Le Fèvre, it is all the more noteworthy that both the Danse macabre and its Middle English translation, Lydgate’s Dance of Death, feature a character named “Machabre,” who, like in Le Fèvre, seems to be in charge. In a manuscript made just a year or two after the painting of the mural, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 14989, the speaker of the work’s opening and closing stanzas is named “Machabre docteur”; we observe the same character in Lydgate’s translation.13 That “Macabre” was perceived to be a person overseeing death’s dance further resurfaces in a more literal fashion in Guyot Marchant’s 1490 printing of a Latin translation of the Danse. Here the title page names the text as “Chorea ab eximio Macabro versibus alemanicis edita et a Petro Desrey . . . nuper emendata . . .” (The Dance elevated from German verses by the excellent Macabrus and . . . in recent years corrected . . . by Pierre Desrey).14

The actual origins of the word “macabre,” however, remain obscure. The term has been suggested to be a borrowing from Arabic (“maqābir” meaning “graveyards”) or Hebrew (“m’kaber” meaning “undertaker”), though in both cases scholars have found it difficult to offer any clear line of transmission between Arabic and Hebrew burial rites and customs and the Western European dance macabre tradition.15 Gaston Paris suggested that “Macabre” could be a surname derived from “Maccabeus” and cites two chansons de geste, Élie de Saint Giles and Anseïs de Cartage, which give “Macabre” as Saracen names.16 Florence White notes, in support of this theory, that a Dutch translation of the Danse macabre by Anthonis de Roovere is called Makkabeusdans (1482) and that “Macabré” is attested as a French surname in the late fourteenth century.17 Upholding this theory, Joël Saugnieux traces the connection between Judas Maccabeus and death to 2 Maccabees 38:45, in which Judas Maccabeus insists on burying the bodies of soldiers who have sinned through false worship.18 A final line of thought holds that “Macabre” is instead a variation on the name Macarius, owing to two influential episodes in the Vita of Macarius the Great, in which the saint raises a man from the dead and, elsewhere, makes a dead body speak to name its killer, thus demonstrating his power over death. This theory is supported by the widespread folk association of St. Macarius with funeral rites in Central and Eastern Europe.19


While it remains unclear what “Macabre” is or who originally wrote the work, the Danse macabre seems to have emerged organically from contemporary cultural traditions and beliefs surrounding death and the status of the cadaver. For plague-ravaged late medieval Europe, death was “in the air,” so to speak, though recent scholarship has questioned earlier assumptions as to direct correlations between the appearance and spread of danse macabre imagery and the epidemiology of the plague.20 Meanwhile, Jane H. M. Taylor notes the frequent representation of devils in hell as dancing in contemporary French mystery plays.21 Nancy Caciola finds mentions in Walter Map (1140–c. 1210) and Thomas of Cantimpré (1201–72) of the living witnessing dead bodies dancing in a circle in cemeteries, a detail that she connects with real-life ecclesiastical injunctions prohibiting dancing to commemorate the dead in cemeteries. These reports suggest that dancing in the cemetery was an actual medieval practice, which may have contributed to the poetic and visual danse macabre tradition.22 Caciola further suggests a connection to the widespread Northern European belief in corporeal revenants, or decaying bodies of the newly dead that did not remain in their graves, found in the folklore of Iceland, modern-day Germany and the Netherlands, England, and Northern France and widely reported by figures such as Walter Map, William of Newburgh (c. 1136–c. 1198) and Thomas of Cantimpré. These revenants were understood to be the newly deceased, who lived sinfully and were taken suddenly or inopportunely. Not yet fully decayed and with unfinished business on earth, their connection with the world of the living is not fully severed, allowing them to roam the earth.23 The belief in revenants’ partially decayed state tracks with all known visual representations of the danse macabre theme, in which the dead are represented as emaciated, decomposing bodies.

The Danse also has important literary precursors. Its dialogic structure resonates with the ubiquitous genre of medieval debate poetry and reminds us, in particular, of the extremely popular genre of the Debate of the Body and the Soul, first emerging in the twelfth-century Visio Philiberti, in which allegorizations of the body and the soul, at the point or immediately upon the act of dying, debate worldly vanity, death’s inexorability, and the importance of salvation.24 Beyond this broad literary context are several works with particular formal and thematic features that bear a strong relationship with danse macabre poetry. Hélinand of Froidmont’s Les vers de la mort, written in the 1190s, treats a speaker who addresses himself to Death, repenting of his profligate life and expressing dread before Death’s inexorability.25 Another important source is the so-called Vado mori, a late thirteenth or early fourteenth-century work, in which characters from a descending range of social strata (king, pope, bishop, knight, physician, poor man, etc.) lament the inexorability of death and the earthly possessions they must abandon, as they — notably — move towards death, beginning and ending their speeches with “Vado mori” (I go to die).26 However, Death does not appear in any of these works as its own character.

A significant related motif that, like the Danse, originates in literature and becomes extremely popular in visual iconography is the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. Found all over Europe in over 60 versions, some of its earliest instantiations originate in thirteenth-century France, including one attributed to Baudoin de Condé and the other by Nicole de Margival in manuscript. An alliterative Middle English version of it, entitled Three Dead Kings, is found in John Audelay’s compilation of his collected works, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 302 (c. 1426–31), although scholars do not agree as to his authorship of the poem.27 In this memento mori encounter, three noblemen (in some versions, kings) encounter three dead men in the forest, who warn them to flee life’s vanities, though at this point the textual similarities end.28 By c. 1300, the work became an extremely popular iconographic subject on walls (with records of over 200 murals), in sculpture, and in Books of Hours and psalters across Europe; interestingly, the earliest known murals of this text, dating from the fourteenth century, seem to be English, while the French ones all date from the fifteenth century.29 In its visual instantiations, the legend resonates strongly with the visual quality of danse macabre murals in depicting the living in communion with the dead, with the stark contrast between their states vividly underscored by the similarity in their physical stances. The Innocents cemetery featured a carving, dated 1408, of the Three Living and the Three Dead above its doorway that had been commissioned by John of Berry; the later addition of the Danse macabre mural to the same spot suggests that the two works were perceived to have a cultural connection.30 This connection was further strengthened by Marchant’s inclusion of a French version of the legend into later editions of the Danse.

Additionally, late medieval funeral sculpture, both in England and on the Continent, saw the emergence of the “cadaver effigy,” also known as the memento mori, or transi tomb (transi in the sense of “crossed over, transitioned”). This was a Northern European sculptural vogue running from the late fourteenth to the seventeenth century, particularly prominent in England and Northern France. It represented a person’s desiccated or decomposing likeness on the lid, sometimes with additional verses describing the occupant’s death. In the fifteenth century, these developed into elaborate “doubledecker” affairs with an effigy of the deceased represented as newly dead on the first level, followed by an image of a putrefying skeletal body beneath it. The tomb of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, is a noteworthy example of the phenomenon and was constructed in 1424–26, well before his death in 1443, suggesting that it may have served as a literal memento mori to its future occupant.31

Elina Gertsman further connects the danse macabre’s instantiation into mural format with late medieval drama. She notes that individual characters, and the dead bodies interacting with them, are positioned on extant murals across Europe with distinctive visual features and gestures. Facing the viewer in a manner evocative of medieval theater, they are specifically reminiscent, she argues, of dramatis personae (cast of characters) illustrations in late medieval manuscripts of mystery plays.32 Gertsman also points out the parallels between danse macabre scenes as rendered on murals and in other visual formats and records of fifteenth-century court masques and mystery plays featuring Death trying to attack other characters.33 In at least two cases, a danse macabre was itself actually performed as some kind of masque: for Philippe Le Bon at court in 1449 (described in the expense account of the duke as a “jeu” [game]), while Jean de Calais performed a “Chorea Maccabeorum” (Dance of Maccabees) at a church in Besançon in 1453.34


Death poetry’s stark imagery and vivid portrayals of embodied death both drew inspiration from and inspired new visual cultural forms. As Jane H. M. Taylor argues, the Danse macabre mural seems clearly to have been intended to be consumed as an “image-text,” not unlike a modern graphic novel.35 The particular arrangement of the Danse as horizontal bands of sequential images and text vertically aligned between speaker and speech, Taylor suggests, produces a tension on the part of the typical medieval reader. The reader would have perceived the sense of the images far more rapidly and immediately than she would have likely read the mural’s text but, nevertheless, the full import of the Danse could not be gained from the images alone. The Danse thus necessitated an active reader asked to process and synthesize two conceptually separate but importantly overlapping narrative systems at once.36 Seeta Chaganti has further shown the importance of the spatialized dual media format of the danse macabre. Placed in large-scale formats in churches, the murals would have invited the viewer to physically displace his body, thus adding a kinetic element to his experience of the mural. Additionally, Marchant’s woodcuts, as well as later danse macabre images, depict the dead and the living as dancing within architectural spaces, thus creating a doubling effect for a viewer observing the mural within its architectural space. The danse macabre thus becomes, she argues, a “multimedia artistic installation.”37

From 1430 on, danse macabre visual motifs appeared on a vast array of surfaces. Two nearly contemporaneous Books of Hours, the first dated c. 1430–35 (now New York, Morgan Library, MS M. 359), the second Book of Hours, dated c. 1430–40 (now Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Rothschild 2535), as well as the famous early sixteenth-century Hours of Charles V, all illustrate the danse macabre in their margins. This suggests that the idea of death as a dance was rapidly adopted as a major visual motif within this devotional genre.38 Interest in the danse was soon not limited to manuscripts: scenes teemed on church murals, wall hangings, stone and wood sculptures, even misericords and bells, in places as far-flung as St. Omer, Kermaria in Brittany (which has the oldest extant mural, dating from c. 1450), Rouen in Normandy, Auvergne, Stratford-upon-Avon, Windsor, Coventry, Roslyn in Scotland, Berlin, Lübeck, Ulm, Basel, Bergamo and Trento in Italy, Javier in Spain, Brussels, Hrastovlje in Slovenia, and Talinn. Unfortunately, many church murals have succumbed to the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and the Second World War, but for centuries the danse macabre adorned a dizzying number of surfaces all across Europe.39

Inasmuch as the Danse’s afterlife was most immediately felt in its powerful influence on iconographic traditions stretching all across Europe, it also importantly extended into the realm of the literary. Aside from Lydgate’s Dance of Death, discussed below, the mid-late fifteenth century saw, in France, the Danse macabre des femmes, attributed to Martial d’Auvergne (c. 1430–1508) and composed between 1466 and 1482, judging from internal textual and manuscript evidence. Clearly directly modeled on the original Danse in structure, it features 34 women speaking to “la morte,” a dead woman, who counsels them to resign themselves to Death. Like the Danse, the women represent all ranks of society, from the queen to the shepherdess, though this text also includes some interesting representation of women in male-dominated professions such as “la theologienne” (the female theologian), as well as a witch and a sex worker. It also presents multiple women at different points of the female life cycle (the maiden, the pregnant woman, several different kinds of wives, the old woman, etc.). Like the Danse, the work culminates with a rotting dead queen as a female parallel to the rotting dead king of the Danse.40 The Danse macabre des femmes is found in six late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts, four of which it shares with the original Danse macabre, and was added to later editions of Marchant’s Danse.41 Its appearance and collocation with the Danse is especially interesting, given that Lydgate’s Dance of Death departs from its original source precisely in its addition of several female characters.

Castille in the Iberian Peninsula offers us its own unique take on the danse macabre theme with the Dança general de la muerte that may in fact predate the French mural and text. Extant only in Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial MS B.IV.21, a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript, the text’s linguistic features suggest it may have been composed as early as the late fourteenth century.42 The Dança features 33 characters, 22 of whom it shares with the Danse (and Lydgate’s Dance), like the pope, emperor, cardinal, king, knight, squire, archbishop, bishop, merchant, usurer, etc. Speakers engage in the now familiar dialogue with Death, except that here each speaker’s words are enclosed by opening and concluding addresses from Death. Other than some of its characters, however, and its dialogic structure, the Dança is a completely independent work that demonstrates some thematic overlap, but no textual parallels with the French text or Lydgate’s translation. It further reveals its adherence to its own specific sociocultural context by including a rabbi and an alfaqui (an Islamic cleric expert in Islamic law).43 The French Danse was separately translated into Catalàn by Pedro Miguel de Carbonell (1437–1517) in 1497, with the addition of several new female characters.44 (The French Danse also seems to have served as the basis for an Italian version, titled Il ballo della morte, dated to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century: here, as in other versions, Death speaks in dialogue form to a variety of characters from different social stations.45)

In what are now Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the tradition reached perhaps its most extensive development, with numerous murals, blockbooks, and incunabula dating from the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Like France and Castille, the Free City of Lübeck, capital of the Hanseatic League from c. 1200 until the League’s demise in 1669, had its own independent danse macabre, though it bears some textual similarities to the French Danse. This dance was also painted on a mural with both text and image in 1463 before appearing in a 1489 edition with woodcuts. Unsurprisingly, given the city’s economic role in the Hansa, the Lübeck dance illustrates middle-class urban dwellers as the largest cross-section of its representation of contemporary society. Other versions, related to this one and separate from the French and Castillian traditions, also circulated in mid-fifteenth-century blockbooks.46

Most famous within the Germanic side of the tradition, however, and perhaps best known to modern audiences, are Hans Holbein the Younger’s exceptional woodcuts. Holbein began by creating the Alphabet of Death in c. 1523, a series of woodcuts of the Latin alphabet with danse macabre imagery.47 Not long after, he designed the Images of Death, forty-one complex and imaginative woodcuts, carved by Hans Lützelburger, in which gruesome cadavers relentlessly tease and torment their harried victims. First published in 1538 in Lyons by Melchior and Caspar Trechsel in a volume entitled Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, the work went through numerous editions over the next 30 years. In the same period, Holbein also designed a Swiss dagger sheath featuring danse macabre elements.48

In this way, the theme of death as a material force upon the body diffused widely both into late medieval literature and late medieval iconography, especially iconography in public settings. The danse macabre tradition thus reminds us that texts, especially popular texts in the Middle Ages, were also visual, auditory, and performed for a wide audience. In its spread across multiple kinds of media, late medieval death poetry suggests that the most private experience of human life — death — is also its most public.


Like the French Danse macabre, John Lydgate’s Dance of Death stages a series of dialogues between Death and a variety of figures from across the social stratum, from the highest ecclesiastical and secular authorities (the Pope, the Emperor) to the humblest members of society (the newborn child). In each set of paired stanzas, Death reminds his interlocutor of his or her impending fate, and the character responds with a meditation on the transience of his or her existence, repenting of any ill-advised or misguided behavior. Taking memento mori and ars moriendi as its themes, the poem enjoins its readers that none shall be spared: all must be prepared to join Death’s dance. Shifting between stern admonition, dark humor, and sudden consolation, Lydgate’s Dance of Death is a vivid and moving example of fifteenth-century didactic poetry, with a message for all.

John Lydgate’s Dance of Death exists in two versions, which together survive in a total of fifteen manuscripts and two early printed editions, a relatively large number which testifies to the significance and popularity of the poem in a vernacular English context. Fifteenth-century scribes placed the Dance of Death alongside other works by Lydgate, as well as by Chaucer and Hoccleve, but almost always in the context of other Middle English writing, suggesting its primary audience was readers who were required or preferred to read works in English rather than Latin or French. Remarkably, given the prevalence of visual iconography of the Danse macabre in other contexts, it is never illustrated.

The earliest version of the poem is called the “A” version by Eleanor Prescott Hammond (who uses Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 53 as her base text) and the “Ellesmere version” by White and Warren (who base their edition on San Marino, Huntington Library, MS EL 26.A.13). This version of the poem, consisting of 672 decasyllabic lines in eight-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc, is Lydgate’s initial translation of his French source, begun while he was in Paris in 1426 as part of the entourage of the Earl of Warwick. Amy Appleford argues that the A version, like Lydgate’s other French to English translations made around this time, was prepared for a specific, likely courtly, audience shortly after his return from Paris.49 Lydgate testifies to the connection between his text and the French Danse macabre in a five-stanza prologue, identified as the verba translatoris (words of the translator), as well as a two-stanza envoy that names Lydgate as the translator. In this verba translatoris, Lydgate takes pains to explain that his text is “[l]ike the exawmple wiche that at Parys / I fonde depict oones in a wal” (lines 19–20), positioning himself as an eyewitness to the Parisian paintings. He also notes that his English translation was made with the encouragement of French clerics in Paris:

Ther, of Frensshe clerkis takyng aqueintaunce,                                             French clerics making
I toke on me to translatyn al,
Oute of the Frensshe, Machabres Daunce.

By whos avys and counceil atte the leste,                                                          advice and counsel at last
Thorugh her steryng and her mocioun,                                                             guidance; suggestion
I obeide unto her requeste,                                                                                   their
Therof to make a playn translacioun                                                                  complete translation
In Englissh tonge . . .                                                                                              Into the English language
(lines 22–29)

Lydgate’s journey to Paris in 1426 and decision to translate a French work into English came at a particularly fraught period for late medieval Anglo-French relations, rendering his insistence on the French clerics’ request interesting. The decade before had seen Henry V’s triumphant and disastrous invasion of Northern France culminating in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, in which the French government made him next in line for the French throne in exchange for peace. Henry’s sudden death in 1422 left England and France with the nine-month-old king Henry VI under the co-regency of his two uncles, Humphrey of Gloucester in England and John of Bedford in France. As he held Paris under military occupation, Bedford was also a patron of the arts, commissioning decorated manuscripts, on the one hand, and appropriating French manuscripts from the royal library for shipment to England, on the other.50 As Sophie Oosterwijk and R. D. Perry have suggested, many of the Danse macabre’s prominent characters representing the ruling and martial classes, like the king and constable, and especially its final figure of the rotting dead king, would have held particularly powerful political resonance for both French and English audiences in the mid-1420s.51

In its stated inspiration from the Holy Innocents mural, Lydgate’s Dance of Death highlights its engagement with the “image-text” quality of late medieval death poetry by adducing an actual painted surface as its textual source. In so doing, Lydgate also gestures to his personal broader interest in manipulating the material form of the text. Lydgate composed verses for public display in guild halls and at Westminster as well as for masques to be performed at court. In this, Lydgate joined a much larger fifteenth-century trend of placing the text beyond the codex on wall hangings, murals, rolls, tombs, wood paneling, even clothing, or what Heather Blatt has called the “extracodexical text”.52 Lydgate’s verba translatoris insist on the crucial importance of the extracodexical and “image-text” quality of both the French Danse and his English translation:

Considerith this [i.e. Death], ye folkes that ben wys,                                              are wise
And it enprentith in youre memorial,                                                                        imprint; memory
Like the exawmple wiche that at Parys                                                                      Paris
I fonde depict oones in a wal . . .                                                                                 once
[. . . .]
That proude folkes, wiche that ben stout and bold,                                                valiant
As in a mirrour toforn in her resoun                                                                          before
Her ougly fine may cleerly ther bihold . . .                                                                Their ugly end
(lines 17–20, 30–32)

Both the extracodexical text of the Parisian mural, Lydgate claims, and this textual English translation will produce a powerful mental image of death for their readers, on which the latter are meant to meditate. Immediately after this moment, Lydgate reiterates that the “Daunce at Seint Innocentis / Portreied is . . . To shewe this world is but a pilgrimage . . .” (lines 35–37), drawing our attention again to the centrality of the extracodexical Parisian mural to his project. Thus, even as he is himself producing a written text, Lydgate demonstrates an acute awareness of the relationship between text and image in the late medieval death poetry tradition.

In this way, the A version of the Dance of Death testifies to Lydgate’s evident close knowledge of the French Danse macabre in its urban setting as well as to his engagement with other cultural trends in the late medieval death poetry and extracodexical traditions. That said, Lydgate’s text is also, importantly, an independent contribution to the danse macabre tradition. The A version features some marked departures from its French source: in addition to the verba translatoris at the beginning of the poem and envoy at the end, this version includes six speakers who are not found in the French Danse. Of these — the empress, lady of great estate, abbess, juror, tregetour (court magician) and an “amorous lady” — four are women (all of the speakers in the French Danse are men). Lydgate thus notably depicts some of the earliest female figures in the danse macabre tradition, anticipating the later French Danse macabre des femmes by several decades. Apart from these insertions, the A version of the poem follows exactly the order of speakers found in most manuscripts of the French text.

The A version of the Dance of Death survives today in nine manuscripts, the earliest of which, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 53, dates from the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The remaining eight were copied in the mid- to late-fifteenth century. The poem was also printed as a supplement to Lydgate’s Fall of Princes in Richard Tottel’s 1554 edition, where it was illustrated with two woodcuts apparently specially produced for it, indicating continued interest into the sixteenth century (see Figures 1 and 2 above). Among the A manuscripts, there is a strong association between the Dance of Death and the work of Lydgate’s fellow Chaucerian Thomas Hoccleve. In particular, Hoccleve’s Series, which includes his translation of Henry Suso’s Ars moriendi, mentioned above, appears in five of the manuscripts containing the A version, while Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes appears in seven. As a translation, the Dance of Death fits nicely alongside these other works, which are also translations, but there are thematic connections as well: a taste for didactic examples, inducements to meditate on one’s own death, and attention to practical concerns grounded in the urban world of fifteenth-century London.

Of the A manuscripts, New Haven, Bodley, Coventry, Laud, and Selden are particularly closely related. The contents of New Haven, Selden, Laud, and Bodley overlap completely, containing the Dance of Death, Hoccleve’s Series, and the Regiment of Princes. Coventry — probably a slightly later manuscript — incorporates this same cluster of texts into a larger collection. Barbara Shailor argues that the Beinecke, Laud, and Bodley manuscripts were copied at about the same time, and perhaps in the same scriptorium (although by different scribes).53 The Selden manuscript is slightly older than this trio of manuscripts, suggesting that the group of texts contained in both it and its descendants were in fact brought together quite early, perhaps within a decade or two of Lydgate’s initial translation of the Dance of Death.

The second, later version of the Dance of Death, which we, following Hammond, refer to as the “B” version, uses the same stanza form, meter, and rhyme scheme as the A version. In 1430, at the commission of London city official John Carpenter, Lydgate undertook a revision of the poem, which was then painted on the interior walls of the Pardon Churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral, this time with accompanying images.54 Some reworking and reorganization of the text occurred at this stage: the verba translatoris was removed from the beginning of the poem, and the envoy was omitted at the end, although the stanza attributing the translation to Lydgate was retained. New speakers were added, several of which emphasize the poem’s urban context, notably the mayor, the canon, and the artisan. Altogether, the B version contains 584 lines, as opposed to the A version’s 672 lines. Although the material is reorganized, because the B version contains the figures added in the A version but not present in the French Danse, it is clear that this version constitutes a revision of the earlier version rather than a fresh reworking of the French source.

The B version of the poem exists today in full in six manuscripts. Chaganti suggests that the B manuscript tradition ultimately derives from transcriptions of the text that accompanied Dance of Death murals at St. Paul’s; while this cannot be conclusively proven, both versions of the poem appear to have been circulating in manuscript by the middle decades of the fifteenth century.55 The majority of the Dance of Death manuscripts date from the second half of the fifteenth century, aside from Cotton Vespasian A.xxv, a fragmentary copy of the Lansdowne manuscript dating to c. 1600. Unlike other Middle English texts that circulated in multiple versions, such as Piers Plowman, there are no hybrid copies but, notably, in the Selden manuscript, a later fifteenth-century hand has added two stanzas to its text — Death’s address to the Empress and her reply — from the B version, indicating awareness of multiple versions of the text. The contents of manuscripts containing the Lansdowne and Selden versions of the poem generally do not overlap, although both frequently include other works by Lydgate as well as pieces by Chaucer. They also include saints’ lives, secular didactic pieces, and proverbs. Taken as a group, the manuscripts of the poem testify to the Dance of Death’s ability to signify in a wide variety of literary and devotional contexts in fifteenth-century England.

Ultimately, it was the Lansdowne version of the poem that reached the widest and most expansive audience, through its installation at St. Paul’s. While there are other Middle English poems that evoke the danse macabre motif in whole or in part, the version of the Dance of Death found with the murals in the Pardon Churchyard of St. Paul’s appears to have been the iconic iteration of Lydgate’s Dance in late medieval and early modern England. Two manuscripts of the B version (Bodley and Corpus Christi) describe it specifically as the “St. Paul’s Dance,” a note by John Stow in the Trinity College Cambridge manuscript of the Selden version describes the poem’s connection to St. Paul’s, and texts ranging from the popular fifteenth-century Middle English poem “Erthe upon Erthe” to Thomas More’s Four Last Things reference or allude to it.56

In contrast to the un-illustrated manuscripts of Lydgate’s poem, the St. Paul’s Dance reasserts the Dance as an image-text, combining visual and verbal elements into a unified whole as they would have appeared in the version of the danse Lydgate encountered in Paris. Anchored, as Appleford has shown, to a number of important civic and religious institutions, the Dance of St. Paul’s achieved wide renown.57 Although the Pardon Churchyard was not a burial ground like the Holy Innocents in Paris, it was a public space, religious yet proximate to secular commercial activities — in this case, the center of the London book trade in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In his Survey of London, John Stow describes the Pardon Courtyard as it appeared in the second quarter of the sixteenth century:

About this Cloyster, was artificially & richly painted, the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonly called the dance of Pauls: the like wherof, was painted about S. Innocents closter at Paris, in France: the metres or Poesie of this dance, were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bery & with the picture of Death leading all estates, paynted about the Cloyster.58

This mural must have been one of the great attractions at the medieval St. Paul’s. The St. Paul’s Dance survived the fifteenth century and the first wave of Protestant iconoclasm, but it was destroyed with the rest of the Pardon Churchyard in 1549 by the orders of Lord Protector Somerset, whose principal target appears to have been the shrine of Thomas Becket that stood at the center of the churchyard.59 The popularity of the visual tradition surrounding Lydgate’s danse macabre is confirmed by its spread beyond the St Paul’s churchyard. Lydgate’s Dance also seems to have been separately copied onto wall hangings placed at the Clopton Chapel of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Long Melford, as per a 1529 inventory of the chapel where they are described as “[t]hree long cloths hanging before the rood loft, stained, or painted, with the Dawnce of Powlis.”60 These Dance of Death cloths, interestingly, joined wooden panels featuring stanzas from Lydgate’s Testament and other Marian verse for a multimedia Lydgatian experience.61 A “Daunce of Poulys” was also painted at the Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross in Stratford-upon-Avon, and John Stow’s description of it suggests that it also derives from Lydgate’s Dance of Death.62 Additionally, Cotton Vespasian A.XXV, containing the B version, begins with the rubric, “An history and daunce of deathe of all estatte and degres writen in the cappell of Wortley of Wortley Hall,” suggesting yet another physical location for Lydgate’s Dance.63

Unfortunately, very little archaeological evidence of the St. Paul’s Dance remains. Therefore, to understand the poem’s reception in the years following its immediate publication and subsequent installation in the Pardon Churchyard, we turn to printed books. Even here, there are some gaps: neither the Dance of Death itself nor the poems it appears with most often in manuscript — Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes and the Series — are printed during the first half-century of print. Our earliest print witness to Lydgate’s text is a partial copy of the B version that appears in a Book of Hours printed in Paris for the London bookseller Richard Fakes around 1521 (STC 15932). Although the Dance does appear alongside some devotional texts in manuscript, the liturgical function and continental origins of this book differentiate it significantly from the manuscripts. No title or attribution to Lydgate is given. The layout resembles printed versions of the danse macabre from France and Germany, with the textual exchange between Death and the living in the lower half of the page, and a woodcut depicting their encounter in the upper half. There is every reason to suspect these cuts were originally produced for use in books for the French market, and patterns of wear suggest that they had been used prior to the 1521 printing. The only surviving copy of this book, at the Bodleian Library, is incomplete. (The full B text includes 24 more speakers; this would constitute exactly one additional signature of this duodecimo book.)

This Book of Hours reflects Lydgate’s Dance of Death’s continued utility as a devotional text beyond the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth. Richard Tottel’s 1554 edition of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, which includes the Dance of Death as an epilogue, demonstrates its lasting literary import. Tottel printed the Dance just five years after the destruction of the Pardon Churchyard, and it is reasonable to assume that both he and his customers would have been able to recall the Dance of Death as it appeared there. Tottel does not include a full program of illustrations, which would have been expensive for a work included as a supplement rather than printed as a title in its own right, but he does include a woodcut depicting a procession of notables — the Pope, an emperor, a king, a cardinal, and a bishop — each escorted by a skeleton, with a large crowd (including a child visible on the far right) following behind, and another showing “the king lying eaten by wormes,” which corresponds to the final image offered in both the A and B recensions of the poem. The courtiers gathered around the deceased monarch are in recognizably Tudor dress, updating the visual context of the poem for a new audience.64

Although they do not include Lydgate’s text, sixteenth-century broadside ballads offer a different kind of glimpse of the danse macabre’s evolution in early modern England. In her EETS edition, White calls this phase the “degeneration of the Danse Macabre”; a more generous reading might consider how Lydgate’s Dance of Death’s presence for more than 120 years in a public place gave it an enduring cultural life in London, and how it may have inspired later printed materials that — though ephemeral — also frequently circulated in public spaces and combined text and image to dramatic effect.65 The Dance and Song of Death, for example, was printed by John Awdeley in 1569. Figures familiar from the medieval danse macabre tradition — the beggar and the king, the wise man and the fool — join hands with skeletons in a circular roundel around an open grave, upon which sits a grotesque figure beating a drum and playing a pipe, identified as “Sickness, Deaths minstrel.”66 In the four corners of the print, Death accosts a merchant, judge, prisoner, and pair of lovers as they go about their business, his outstretched hands indicating that they, too, must join in the dance. The text — four quatrains and a six-line stanza — is not related to Lydgate’s, but it carries forward the idea of a verbal dialogue between Death and the living that is a consistent feature of the danse macabre tradition. The print’s overall effect is of dynamic movement organized around the strongly delineated central point of the grave.

While the Book of Hours and Fall of Princes edition of Lydgate’s Dance of Death can be understood as extending the functions of the fifteenth-century manuscripts of the poem into the era of print culture, the Awdeley broadside and others like it might be thought of as a synthesis of the two earlier vectors for the circulation of Lydgate’s text, the bibliographic and the spatial or architectural. The ballads, of course, are printed material and contain text, but they are also inherently visual and, thanks to the low price point and frequent public dissemination of broadsides, retained some of the accessibility of the St. Paul’s Dance.


To contextualize Lydgate’s poem, we have additionally selected five late medieval poems that similarly dramatize encounters between the dead and the living and ask their readers in some way to confront their own eventual demise. Each of these poems evokes one or more of the features that Florence Warren identifies as defining the danse macabre tradition: social satire, the idea that before death all are equal, and a confrontation between the living and the dead.67 These are as follows:

• John Lydgate, “Death’s Warning to the World” (DIMEV 4905)

Composed by John Lydgate and drawn partly from the Fall of Princes, this poem consists of eight stanzas of seven decasyllabic lines rhyming ababbcc (otherwise known as rhyme royal). It asks readers to imagine a personified Death (in two of its manuscripts it is accompanied by large-scale illustrations of Death) and exhorts them to “lerne for to dye.” It thus connects the emphasis on death as a material force with the didacticism common in late medieval death poetry and so demonstrates Lydgate’s interest in poetry about death elsewhere in his oeuvre.

• “Three Messengers of Death” (DIMEV 5387)

This anonymous poem is included in two monumental anthologies of devotional literature: Vernon (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a.1) and Simeon (London, British Library, MS Additional 22283). Consisting of 56 octosyllabic quatrains rhyming abab, this metrical homily describes the effects of Death’s “three messengers,” namely Chance, Sickness, and Old Age, emphasizing the universality and inevitability of death as an equalizing force. Like Lydgate’s Dance and “Death’s Warning” above, it relies on vivid allegory to achieve its representation of death.

• “A Warning Spoken by the Soul of a Dead Person” (DIMEV 3624)

This anonymous early fifteenth-century poem in the Signs of Death genre consists of eight quatrains with lines of eight or nine syllables rhyming abab. It offers a poetic analogue to the gruesome detail that often marks late medieval visual representations of the dead and the dying, and it does so in the form of an address from the dead to the living. An anti-blazon of sorts, it dwells on the putrefaction of individual parts of the human body, exemplifying the late medieval fascination with death’s material presence.

• “A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet” (DIMEV 3454)

“A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet” is an anonymous late medieval poem in three stanzas of five decasyllabic lines (on its variable rhyme scheme, see Headnote to this work in Explanatory Notes, p. 136). It precedes Lydgate’s Dance of Death in London, British Library, MS Harley 116 and warns readers that death may strike down even those in the flower of their youth and beauty. Like Lydgate’s poem, it brings female figures into the death poetry tradition, and its French rubric gestures to the cross-Channel quality of the danse macabre tradition. It also constitutes an early English example of an acrostic, spelling out the Latin motto MORS SOLVIT OMNIA (“Death loosens all”).

• “The Ressoning betuix Deth and Man” (DIMEV 4000), ascribed to Robert Henryson

This poem, ascribed to the Middle Scots poet Robert Henryson, consists of six stanzas of eight decasyllabic lines rhyming ababbcbc. It clearly evokes the danse macabre in staging a debate between Death and the living and in its focus on varied social strata. The poem is found in the Bannatyne manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 1.1.6), where it appears ascribed to Robert Henryson (c. 1430–1500); see Headnote to this work in Explanatory Notes, p. 137. It represents an important continuation of the poetic tradition established by Lydgate’s Dance of Death, given the prominence of its attributed author and the manuscript in which it is found.

We also include editions of two sixteenth-century poems in the danse macabre tradition, which demonstrate its continued vitality up to and beyond the Henrician reforms and the destruction of the danse macabre mural at St Paul’s.

• “The Dawnce of Makabre” (DIMEV 4104)

In this sixteenth-century poem of twelve seven-line stanzas of irregular lines rhyming ababbcc (or rhyme royal), Death addresses the reader and, by extension, the world. While offering a narrower social scope than Lydgate’s poem, it maintains the structure of a dialogue between death and a worldly speaker. Its later date emphasizes the extent and influence of the English danse macabre tradition.

• “Can Ye Dance the Shaking of the Sheets” (DIMEV 956)

A similar work, “Can Ye Dance the Shaking of the Sheets,” consists of eleven stanzas of seven lines with lines of eight or nine syllables and an ababccc rhyme scheme. It is preserved in a seventeenth-century recusant collection, now London, British Library, MS Additional 15225, though the poem itself dates to an earlier period. Like “The Dawnce of Makabre,” the poem has Death as its speaker and exhorts an unspecified addressee toward penance. In this, it echoes other written texts and, perhaps, visual work in the danse macabre tradition through emphasizing dancing with one’s winding sheet and the inevitability of death for representatives of all social strata.


In accordance with METS editorial guidelines, we have used modern English spelling conventions for words with v/u and i/j, and have provided modern equivalents for thorns, yoghs, and eths. We have silently expanded scribal abbreviations and have also brought into conformity with modern English spelling the/thee and of/off. Where they occur at the beginning of a word and signal a capital letter, double ffs become F, and when e at the end of a word receives syllabic value it is marked with an accent (e.g., cité). Punctuation is also editorial; especially in the poems by Lydgate, we have tried to refrain from intervention except when it enhances clarity, to better reflect the poems’ loose, paratactic syntax. The names of allegorical figures (e.g. Death) and proper nouns have been capitalized. Word division has also been regularized; for example, i feer becomes ifeere (Dance of Death [Lansdowne] line 55). In our modern English translation of the Danse macabre, we have similarly striven for clarity and simplicity. We have not sought to replicate the original’s rhyme or meter but, instead, simply to remain as literal as possible while offering a smooth reading experience. In particular, given the text’s heavy use of proverbs, we have either looked for English parallels or for equivalent expressions that render the original into a fluid contemporary idiom: we note particular deviations from literal sense in our Explanatory Notes.

Our edition of Lydgate’s poem is based on fresh transcriptions of the base manuscripts of each of the two versions of the Dance of Death. Following Hammond, we take Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 53 as our base text for the A version. In our Textual Notes, we have marked instances where our readings differ from those found in Florence Warren and Beatrice White’s EETS edition, which uses Huntington Library MS EL 26.A.13 as its base. We also add variants from three more manuscripts (Coventry, New Haven, and Rome) to Warren and White’s textual apparatus. Our base text for the B version of the Dance of Death is London, British Library, MS Lansdowne 699. This is also the manuscript used by Warren and White, and our textual notes indicate moments where we depart from their edited version of the poem. We also refer readers to Warren’s notes for variant readings from the Cotton manuscript of the poem, an incomplete and very late copy, perhaps dating to the early seventeenth century, which differs in significant ways from other manuscripts of the B recension.

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