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

Can Ye Dance the Shaking of the Sheets: EXPLANATORY NOTES

ABBREVIATIONS: A version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Selden); B version: Lydgate, Dance of Death (Lansdowne); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 322 (SC 21896); DMF: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330–1500); DOST: Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; FP: Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen; Gray: “Two Songs of Death,” ed. Gray; Hassell: Hassell, Middle French Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; MED: Middle English Dictionary; ODNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.

The poem is found in British Library MS Additional 15225, a miscellany of mostly Catholic ballads compiled in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Although the date of the manuscript is late, the language of many of the poems, including the one printed here, is earlier. (The contents of the entire manuscript are described in Rollins, Old English Ballads, p. xxvii–xxx). The poem draws on several familiar dimensions of the medieval danse macabre tradition, including its emphasis on Death’s leveling power across all levels of society (“Bringe away the beggar and the king, / And everie man in his degree,” lines 8–9). While Lydgate’s poem contains a more or less equal representation of clerical and secular occupations, most of the figures named here are laypeople and the more explicitly “Popish” figures found in Lydgate’s version, like the Pope and the Friar, are absent.

This version of the danse macabre engages with religion in other ways, however. The fourth stanza references the “solempe syses last” in Oxfordshire. This is an allusion to the so-called “Black Assize” of the summer of 1577. As many as 300 people died in an outbreak of “gaol fever” (typhus) that coincided with the trial of a recusant (Catholic) bookseller, Roland Jenkes (see ODNB, “Barham, Nicholas”). The dead included Sir Robert Bell, chief baron of the exchequer, and Nicholas Barham, a sergeant-at-law, as well as several members of the jury — Puritans who were perceived to be biased against Jenkes. The event is described by Holinshed in the expanded and revised 1587 version of his Chronicle (p. 1270) and, in addition to the English ballad here, was the source for a Welsh carol by the recusant priest and martyr Richard White (see English Martyrs, ed. Pollen, p. 99).

The references to the “solempe syses last” suggest this version of the poem was composed shortly after the events of 1577, although this stanza — the only one in the poem to contain topical references — may be an interpolation into an older text. The text was printed numerous times as a broadsheet ballad in the seventeenth century. Like other broadsides in the danse macabre tradition, these later printings often feature woodcuts of Death armed with a spear (also a feature of the fifteenth-century illustrations to Lydgate’s “Death’s Warning to the World” [DIMEV 4905]).

1 the shakinge of the sheetes. Of this allusion, Gray writes, “According to Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time, I, 84ff., the name of a country dance” (p. 71). See also OED shaking (n.), sense 1d, which notes that the phrase “shaking of the sheets” was “in the 16–17th centuries very often used jocularly for sexual intercourse.”

5 Make readie then your winding sheete. The burial shroud, or winding sheet, is a frequent motif in poems of the danse macabre tradition. See, for example, the Emperor’s comment at lines 85–86 in the A version of Lydgate’s Dance of Death, where he acknowledges his worldly wealth will pass away and he will be left with “a simple shete — ther is no more to seyne — / To wrappe in my body and visage.”

14 the banker with his beating hookes. This allusion is untraced. The later printed editions emend it to “baiting hookes” (see Textual Note to this line), an image that suggests a desire to lure unsuspecting clients into disadvantageous financial arrangements.

23 How sodenlie in Oxfordshire. An allusion to the “Black Assize” at Oxford in 1577, an outbreak of “gaol fever” (likely typhus) that coincided with the trial of a recusant bookseller by a largely Puritan jury. See ODNB, “Barham, Nicholas.”

26 And tooke both Bell and Baram away. Sir Robert Bell, chief baron of the exchequer, and Nicholas Barham, a sergeant-at-law, were two of the dead during the “Black Assize.” While Sir Robert Bell was a judge and chief baron of the exchequer, it is not clear why Barnham is singled out here among the more than a dozen figures named in Holinshed’s Chronicle.

37 peltinge. This word is likely of Scots origin. See DOST pelt (n.2).

Explicit Thomas Hill. None of the printed versions of the poem are signed. Gray suggests this may be Edmund Hill (1564–1644), an English Benedictine monk whose name in religion was Thomas St. Gregory (ODNB, “Hill, Edmund”). Hill published several devotional works, but there is no evidence to connect him directly to this text.




Can Ye Dance the Shaking of the Sheets: TEXTUAL NOTES

London, British Library Additional MS 15225, fols. 15r–16r

The dolefull dance and song of death; intituled, dance after my pipe. [London]: F. Coles, J. Wright, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, [1655–58]. (Wing H2013A)
The dolefull dance and song of death; intituled; Dance after my pipe. London: F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, [1658–64]. (Wing H2013B)
The doleful Dance and Song of Death; Intituled, Dance after my Pipe. [London]: F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, [1663–74?]. (Rawl. 566)
The doleful Dance, and Song of Death; Intituled, Dance after my pipe. [London]: T. Vere, I. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passenger, [1678–81]. (Pepys Ballads 2.62)

Chappell, W., ed. “The Dance and Song of Death.” In Roxburghe Ballads, vol. 3. Hertford: Stephen Austin & Sons, 1880; Rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1966, pp. 183–86.
Gray, Douglas, ed. “A Dolfull Daunce & Song of Death Intituled: the Shakeing of the Sheetes.” In “Two Songs of Death.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 64 (1963), 64–67.

ABBREVIATIONS: A1: London, British Library Additional 37049 fols. 31v–32r (basis for “Dawnce of Makabre”); A2: London, British Library Additional 15225, fols. 15r–16r (basis for “Shaking of the Sheets”); BD: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Draft), pp. 43r–44r; BM: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS Main), fols. 56r–57r (basis for “Resoning betuix Death and Man”); Brown: Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Brown, p. 241; Brunner: “Mittelenglische Todesgedichte,” ed. Brunner, pp. 27–28, 30; C: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library Ff.5.45, fols. 13r–14r; Cov: Coventry, Coventry Archives Acc. 325/1, fols. 70rb–74vb; Cutler: Cutler, John L. “A Middle English Acrostic,” p. 88; D: Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce 322 (SC 21896), fols. 19vb–20ra (basis for “Death’s Warning to the World”); Doty: “An Edition of British Museum MS Additional 37049: a Religious Miscellany,” ed. Doty, pp. 206–11; Dufour: La dance macabre peinte sous les charniers des Saints Innocents de Paris, ed. Dufour; F: Bibliothèque nationale de France fonds français 14989, fols. 1r–12v (basis for French Danse macabre); Fein: The Danse Macabre Printed by Guyot Marchant, ed. Fein; Furnivall: “Of Þre Messagers of Deeth,” ed. Furnivall, 2:443–48; H1: London, British Library Harley 1706, fols. 19v–20r; H2: London, British Library, Harley 116, fols. 128r–v (basis for “A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet”); Horstmann: “Nachträge zu den Legenden 5: The Messengers of Death,” ed. Horstmann, pp. on 432–34; L: British Library MS Lansdowne 669, fols. 41v–50v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, B version), fols. 41v–50v; Lincy: “La danse macabre reproduite textuellement d’apres l’unique exemplaire connu de l’édition princeps de Guyot Marchant,” ed. Le Roux de Lincy, pp. 291–317; N: New Haven, Beinecke Library MS 493, fols. 51v–60v; P: Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library, Pepys Ballads 2.62; R: Oxford, Bodleian Library 4o Rawl. 566 (203); RV: Rome, Venerable English College (AVCAU) MS 1405, fols. 111r–21r; S: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 53, fols. 148r–58v (basis for Lydgate, Dance of Death, A version); Saugnieux: “La danse macabre française de Guyot Marchant (1486),” ed. Saugnieux, pp. 143–64; Silverstein: “Cest le Myrroure pur les Iofenes Dames,” ed. Silverstein, pp. 121–22; Sim: London, British Library Addit. 22283 [Simeon MS], fols. 88vb–89ra; V: Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. poet. a.1 (SC 3938) [Vernon MS], fols. 297vc–98rb (basis for “Three Messengers of Death”); Warren: The Dance of Death, ed. Warren and White; W1: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 401 (60) (Wing H2013A); W2: Oxford, Bodleian Library Wood 402 (48) (Wing H2013B).

2 man. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: one.

4 that. So A2. P, R, W2: as.

10 Bring away both. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Bring the.

14 And. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: omitted.
beating hookes. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: baiting hooks.

15 that make your. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: have you made your.

18 With both our heeles. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Both our heeles.

22 Thinke on. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Thinke you on.

24 agast. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: all agast.

29 Thinke you. So A2. P, R, W2: you that I.
in scooles. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: to scholes.

31 Take not I away. So A2. P, W2: Take I not always.

36 busie-headed. So A2. R: bustheaded. This stanza appears after line 56 in the printed versions.

37 To brawle for everie. So A2. P: to bubble of a; R: to babble of a; W1: to brabble for a; W2: to brabble of a.

39 To cut away. So A2. R: To cut you from.

40 foolishly. So A2. W1: falsely; P, R, W2: safely.

45 Doe yea acount. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: do you make account.

46 To have all the world. So A2. P, R, W2: to have the world.

48 This night thy soule must sure goe hence. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Full soon thy soul must needs go hence.

51 her knee. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: their knee.

52 Doe you thinke to play. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Think you for to play.

54 Noe faith. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: Noe.
laddes. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: lords.

58 he learnes. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: she loves.

60 doth. So A2. P, W2: can.

61 swash and flash. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: flash and swash.

68 ladie. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: ladies.
beldam. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: beldams.

72 Prepare yourselves. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: with me your selves.

76 pypes his play. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: pipe doth play.

77 daunce readie way. So A2. P, R, W1, W2: dance the way.

Explicit finis Thomas Hill. So A2. No attribution is given in the printed broadsides.























A dolfull daunce and song of death
Intituled: the shakeing of the sheetes

Canne yea dance the shakinge of the sheetes,
               A daunce that everie man most dooe?
Can yea trime it up with daintie sweetes,
               And everie thinge that longs there too?
Make readie then your winding sheete,
And see how yea canne besturre youre feete,
For Death is the man that all must meete.

Bringe away the beggar and the king,
               And everie man in his degree;
Bring away both ould and yongest thinge;
               Come all to Death and follow me —
The courtier with his loftie lookes,
The lawier with his learned bookes,
And the banker with his beating hookes.

Marchantes that make your mart in France,
               In Italie, and all about,
Know you not that you and I must daunce,
               With both our heeles wrapt in a clout?
What meane you to make your houses gay
And I must take the tenant away,
And digge for your sakes the clods of clay?

Thinke on the solempe syses last,
               How sodenlie in Oxfordshire
I came and made the judges agast,
               And justices that did appear,
And tooke both Bell and Baram away,
And manie a worthie man that day,
And all their bodies brought to clay.

Thinke you I dare not come in scooles,
               Where all the cunninge clarkes be most?
Take not I away both wise and fooles?
               And am not I in everie coast?
Assure youreselves noe creature can
Make Death afraid of any man,
Or know my comminge where or when.

And you that are busie-headed fooles
               To brawle for everie peltinge straw,
Know yea not that I have readie tooles
               To cut away youre craftie law?
And you that foolishly buy and sell,
And thinke you make your market well,
Must daunce with Death wheresoever you dwell.

Where be they that make their leases stronge,
               And joyne about them land to land?
Doe yea acount to live soe longe,
               To have all the world come to your hand?
Noe, foolish nowell, for all thy pence
This night thy soule must sure goe hence —
Then whoe shall toile for thy defence?

And you that leane on your ladies lappes,
               And lay your heades upon her knee,
Doe you thinke to play with bewties pappes,
               And not to come and daunce with me?
Noe, faith, fair laddes and ladies all,
I’le make you come when I do call,
And find you a pipe to dance withall.

Pryd must have a prittie sheete, I see,
               For properly he learnes to daunce,
Come away, my wanton wench to me
               As gallantlie as your eye doth glance;
And all good fellowes that swash and flash
In reds and yellows of revell dash,
I warrant you neede not be soe rash.

For I cane quicklie coole you all,
               How hot or stout soever you be,
Both high and lowe, both great and small,
               I nought doe feare your highe degree.
The ladie faire, the beldam ould,
The champion stout, the souldier bould,
Must all with me to erthie mould.

Take time therefore while it is lent,
               Prepare youreselves with me to daunce,
Forget mee not, your lives lament —
               I come oft-times by soden chance.
Be readie therefore, watch and pray
That when my minstrell pypes his play
Yea may to heaven daunce readie way.

               Thomas Hill

(see note)

belongs; (t-note)
(see note)


(see note)(t-note)

business (market); (t-note)

a [burial] cloth; (t-note)

(i.e., a grave)

solemn assizes; (t-note)
suddenly; (see note)

(see note)

schools; (t-note)

busy-headed (distracted); (t-note)
brawl; worthless; (see note)(t-note)


expect; (t-note)
ne’er-do-well; money

beauties’ breasts; (t-note)


Pride; pretty

swagger; (t-note)

old grandmother; (t-note)





end; (see note)(t-note)


Go to La Danse macabre, Translation by Elizaveta Strakhov