“Death’s Warning to the World” (DIMEV 4905)
John Lydgate, Death's Warning to the World: FOOTNOTES
1 With his patent powerfully threatening them (i.e., people whom old age visits)
2 Lines 46–49: And asked for no kind / Of compensation, whether great or small, / Other than that we fully place our intention / Into fulfilling His commandments
John Lydgate, Death's Warning to the World: EXPLANATORY NOTES
This work boasts an especially intriguing textual history and visual presentation. Of its eight stanzas, five come from Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, itself a translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium. Thus, lines 15–21 correspond to FP I.764–70; lines 29–35 to FP I.806–12; lines 36–42 to FP I.918–24; lines 43–49 to FP I.925–31; and lines 50–56 to FP I.960–66 (see Textual Notes for variants). This is one of several extracts from FP to circulate independently (see DIMEV 1904). In all three extant manuscripts, this poem precedes an extract on the ars moriendi from The Seven Points of True Love and Everlasting Wisdom, an early-mid-fifteenth century Middle English prose translation of a section of Henry Suso’s Horologium sapientiae (not to be confused with Hoccleve’s Lerne to Die, which is a verse translation of the same section of Suso’s Horologium).
The resulting text itself has an element of hybridity to it: stanzas 1–4 (lines 1–28), out of which only stanza 3 comes from FP, treat familiar themes from the death poetry tradition. The speaker, Death, emphasizes his own unrelenting and violent nature, noting that he is armed with a fearsome weapon (lines 8–9). In what seems like a twist on the Signs of Death theme, this poem’s Death points out that he scores his victims with a particular mark (line 11), as in “A Mirror for Ladies at Their Toilet” (DIMEV 3454, line 6). Like that poem, this work also addresses itself to a female who is emphatically young, fragile, and ephemeral in her beauty (lines 15–18) and whom Death menaces with a sharp weapon (lines 8–11). However, she is also presented in a relation with Death we have not seen before: she is his “hostesse” (line 1), welcoming Death into her own abode. By presenting the female addressee as Death’s hostess, Lydgate adduces an aura of both intimacy but also mutual obligation and social convention into the interaction between Death and the female addressee.
In addition to being characterized as a hostess, the female addressee is also presented as a book owner and perhaps even compiler, when Death mentions that she has “in [her] book . . . set [his] image” (line 2). This detail firstly speaks to the rise in female book ownership, especially of devotional material, in the fifteenth century (see, in particular, Erler, Women, Reading). It also bears on this work’s particular material context. Its earliest manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Douce 322, fol. 19v (dated 1450–75), features an ink drawing of a skeleton holding a spear and a bell, which matches Death’s description in lines 7–8. The image immediately prefaces the work, taking up thirteen lines of the 33-line text block. Enclosed in a double blue frame, the black-inked skeleton with brown ink shading looks away to the right as it stands on a grassy green surface, with a long spear with a red handle in its right hand and a large bell in the left, against a background decorated with red vegetal flourishes. The word death (variously spelled “dethe,” “deþe,” and “deþ”) is written 19 times in a thick black formata hand all around the skeleton, with a cluster of eight renditions of the word around the bell, as if the illustrator imagines the line “I my belle rynge” (line 7) as the word “death” coming out of the bell itself. Meanwhile, the spear emerges from the blue frame into the blank space between the folio’s dual-column layout, pointing to the word “declyneth” across the page (line 18). A similar presentation is found in London, British Library, MS Harley 1706, fol. 19v (dated 1475–1500). Here the image — comprising sixteen lines of the 40-line text block — is rendered more simply with no outline, or decorative background, and just a black line indicating the ground. The skeleton (also in black outline with brown shading) has been redrawn to match the stance of the figure in Douce; faint lines below the image show that originally the skeleton faced forward and held the spear at a sharper downward angle. There is no color besides red outlining for the handle of the spear and for the bell, and “deth” is written just five times in red in a circle around the skeletal figure. “Deth” is also added in black across the skeleton’s chest, identifying it as Death itself. As in Douce, the spear extends into the space between the text columns, here pointing to “dye of nature” in line 28. Thus, like the Dance of Death itself, the manuscript context of this work is also designed to function as an image-text.
Stanzas 5–8 of the poem, which are all taken from FP, demonstrate a marked shift in the work’s tone, moving away from the vivid personification of Death into a more standard devotional register of the ars moriendi tradition. Here the poem stresses the expulsion from Eden and Christ’s redemptive sacrifice in the context of preparing one’s soul for the afterlife through contrition and repentance. Thus, the hybrid work fuses two dominant strands of the late medieval death poetry tradition. This hybridity is underscored by the presence of a rubric in the Douce and Harley manuscripts, reading: “Thyese balades that thus ben wrytenne here be tak owte of the book of Johnne Lucas and sayde to the peple that shall see thys lytell tretyse in tyme to come.” Although it occurs in the middle of the work, the rubric seems to refer, by the phrase “[t]hyese balades,” both to the four stanzas preceding and the four stanzas following it. In the later Cambridge manuscript, however, produced 1475–1500, this rubric is omitted so that the works appear as a coherent whole.
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.
2 And in youre book to set myn ymage. For MS illustrations, see the corresponding Textual Note.
4 mortall usage. Word-play here on two senses of mortal, meaning “as pertaining to death” and “as pertaining to mortals,” thus: “it is my custom and deadly tendency” and “it is my custom and tendency when it comes to mortals . . .”
7 my belle. See note to line 2 above.
21 patent. This is a plate which holds the sacramental bread during the celebration of the Mass.
23 For of my commyng there is no tyme sette. Compare Matthew 24:36.
28 Adams synne. This refers to the consumption of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for which Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.
Before 29 the book of Johnne Lucas. The attribution of these works to “John Lucas” remains unclear. Henry MacCracken reads it as a scribal slip for “John Bochas,” the Middle English rendering of Giovanni Boccaccio, Lydgate’s source for the Fall of Princes, from which this poem is extracted: see Minor Poems, ed. MacCracken, 2:656n28.
39 do almes. The practice of distributing alms, in the form of material recompense to the poor and needy, is a core Christian virtue and stands at the heart of Christian penitential practice. Sharing goods within a community for the benefit of the common people is discussed in Acts 4:32 and 11:29 and prescribed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1–2 and Galatians 2:10.
John Lydgate, Death's Warning to the World: TEXTUAL NOTES
Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 322 (SC 21896), fols. 19vb–20ra (basis for this edition)
London, British Library MS Harley 1706, fols. 19v–20r
Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.5.45, fols. 13r–14r
MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. “Death’s Warning.” In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, Edited from all Available MSS., with an Attempt to Establish the Lydgate Canon. Part II: Secular Poems. EETS o.s. 192. London, Oxford University Press, 1934. Rpt. 1961: 2.655–57.
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).
Rubric None in D, H1. C: Dictamen. Vel lugubre carmen terribilissimi mortis. (Letter. A very grievous song of most frightful death.)
1 hostesse. So C. D, H1: costes. We have chosen hostesse since it is an existing manuscript reading that fits in with the trope of female addressees found elsewhere in contemporary death poetry.
2 And in youre book to set myn ymage. In Douce 322 and Harley 1706 (fol. 19v in both), the poem is immediately preceded by an ink-drawn image of a skeleton holding a bell and spear (see Explanatory Note to line 7 and Headnote to the Explanatory Notes) with the words “deth” written in profusion around the skeleton’s form, evoking the pealing of the bell as well as naming the figure.
3 with gret avyses. So D, H1. C: by gret avisenesse.
4 mortall. So D, H1. C: my mortal.
5 to spare. So D. H1: spare.
nether. So D, H1. C: neither.
ne. So D. C: ner.
7 Afore. So D, H1. C: Aforn.
8 y grounde. So D. H1: sharpe I grounde. C: whet and grounde.
9 thys. So D, H1. C: thus.
10 withstande. So D, H1. C: withstonde.
11 Ne whomme I merke. So D, H1. C: Nor whan I marke.
other. So D, H1. C: othir.
12 of day oure ne space. So D, H1. C: a day houre or space.
14 Yef. So D, H1. C: Though.
15 past. So D, H1. C: passed.
16 lasteth but. So D, H1. C: lastyng.
17 ey. So D. H1: eye. C: yhe.
18 blossom falleth. So D, H1. C: blosmes falle.
20 elde unwarly crepyng. So D, H1. C: age unwardly in crepyng.
21 purely thanne. So D, H1. C: pouerly you.
22 The gospell byddeth than wake and prey. So D. H1: The gospel than wake and pray. C: The gospel bit you for to wake and prey.
24 Ne no manne knoweth whenne. So D, H1. C: Nor no man wote the houre whan.
dye. So D, H1. C: dey.
26 kynde. So D, H1. C: kynge.
knot unknyt. So D, H1. C: knot upknet. These readings point to opposite understandings of the relationship between death and creation. C emphasizes how tightly bound death is with the very idea of life, while D and H1 instead speak to the theme, seen in other death-related works of this period, of death loosening all bonds. Compare the acrostic in A Mirror for Young Ladies at their Toilet (DIMEV 3454), spelling out MORS SOLVIT OMNIA (“death loosens all”).
27 every. So D, H1. C: eche.
28 For. So D, H1. C: Fro.
Adams. So D, H1. C: Adames.
Rubric Thyese balades that . . . tyme to come. So D, H1. Not in C. This omission is especially interesting since all three manuscripts then continue with an extract from Henry Suso’s Seven Points of True Love and Everlasting Wisdom, entitled “Orologium Sapientie,” suggesting some textual relationship between their contents, despite the differences in their presentation.
29 worldely. So D, H1. C: wordly.
31 be. So D, H1. C: bene.
33 breke. So D, C. H1: breken.
preceptys. So H1. D: preceprt; C: preceptes.
ayenst. So D, H1. C: ageyn.
35 he dyed. So D, H1. C: he shedde it.
36 hate. So D, H1. C: hateth.
37 offens. So D, H1. C: offences.
38 mokry. So D. H1: mokey; C: mockery.
39 Ayenst. So D, H1. C: ageyn.
do. So D, H1. C: doth.
40 for to have. So D, H1. C: to have.
souveranly. So D, H1. C: soffevenly.
42 exampelere. So D, H1. C: exemplary.
43 redempcioun. So D, H1. C: redempcion.
44 nayled to. So D, H1. C: nayled on.
45 Suffred. So H1, C. D: suffird.
passioun. So D, H1. C: cruel passyon.
46 asketh. So D, H1. C: axed.
47 ayenward. So D, H1. C: ageyn.
48 that we sette. So D, C. H1: we sette.
all holy. So D, C. H1: alonly.
52 entre. So D, H1. C: entre ageyn.
53 From. So D, H1. C: For.
55 so brynge. So D. H1: brynge. C: do bryng.
56 by thy dethe had. So D, H1. C: by dethe haddest.
Amen. So D, H1. Absent in C.