Nobility and Aristocracy 
The aristocracy was a small class that made up about five percent of the overall population. The most cohesive urban elites were those in which economic superiority, political power, and social prestige were united. By the later Middle Ages, however, the achievement and power of the noble status had changed. Once conferred upon a family hailing from a military caste who performed service for the king, now nobility was a commodity that could be bought with financial gifts, ownership of properties, or with strategic marriage. Though there were some perks to the aristorcratic status, such as immunity from certain types of judicial proceedings and tax exemptions, it was primarily a costly pursuit designed to gain social honor (Friedrichs 187 - 190).

For this section, I have selected three women to represent the aristocratic class:  The Queen represents politics, the Duchess represents  wealth, and the Regent represents social status.  

The Queen: 
The Queen is in a unique position in the Danse, as she appears both at its beginning and at its conclusion, which makes sense since the readership of the Danse  was likely upper class women.  The proof for this audience is found in the imagery accompanying the poems.  All of the women  -- including the Chambermaid, Witch, and Prostitute -- show a level of dress that is above their stations.  Their outfits are more reminiscent of courtly clothing of the time.  However, the merging of classes and outfits also de-elevates the status of the aristocrats.  When merged with the other classes in this book, they become ordinary; and Death is shown, again, as a social leveler.  However,  since the aristocratic tone was woven throughout the text, the Queen becomes a touchstone to the aristocracy in both starting and ending the book (Hindman 23 -2 4). 

There is some satire in Death's address to the Queen.  Though the Queen bears a position with political power, Death solely focuses on the regent's appearance. She is of "handsome form, comely and blithe in bearing" (25: 1 - 2). The Queen's power is nothing; La Mort has been charged by God to "lead you now" -- Death leads the leader (3).  However, Death acknowledges that it is fitting for the Queen to be the first in the Dance :  she is to do in death what she did in life. The Queen acknowledges this in an equally satirical way when she replies  that "the grandest are the first ones seized" (15).  

At the end of the book, the Queen speaks once again.  She is not shown directly.  The reader's view is on the Queen's grave, complete with skull and discarded crown.  Perhaps as a reminder to the ruling and upper classes of the time, she reiterates that when alive she was "dreaded and feared" more than any other (44: 2).  However, she was "caught" and "thrown down on the earth" (4 -5) by Death.  Her power is gone, and she is "given to the worms" (3).   She has been humbled by the experience and, like La Mort , is given the power to speak directly to the reading audience.  She is one of the few women to break the fourth wall in this manner.  Her advice to the living, regardless of when they read the passage, is a reminder that the reader, too, can die at any time: "You who look at me, take away an example for your benefit...keep yourselves from doing ill...The one who made you will destroy you when he wishes...." (9 - 15).

The Duchess:
The Duchess follows in the social order and is claimed next by Death.   She fits the stereotypical idea of the wealthy:  her response to dying is that  "Death comes to take away my pleasure" (25: 12).  Death chides the woman for focusing her life on "amassing goods or jewels" (4) and that "it is madness to covet so much" (7). Indeed, La Mort believes the world will be better off without her.  The Duchess, in turn, is oblivious to her sins.  She laments being seperated from her "important friends" as well as missing her "delights, amusements" and "fun people" (9 - 10).  Her punishment, she believes, is that as a wealthy person, she is to die "mid life" (16).   The shallow nature of the Duchess is shown through this remark, since she insinuates that Death kills the wealthy earlier than other classes out of jealousy.

The Regent:
The Regent's entry is unique because the term used to describe this woman (Regent) is a customized word.  The word in French is regente which was taken from the more familiar term, reine (ruler or governess).  Even though the effort was made to create this term, the poem reveals little about the role of a regent.  It does not appear to be a singularly leadership-oriented position within the  ranks of the nobility.  Instead, the Regent is known for her elaborate parties and her ability to bring people together for a good time.  Death notes that she is "renowned for good conversation, for dancing, playing, being pleasant" (26: 2 - 3). 

The Regent is an intelligent and talented woman; she describes herself as fluent with the tambourines, harps, trumpet, oboes, and clarions, and associates with musicians.   While she is not a leader in governmental affairs, she does maintain rank in society as a hostess (Harrison, Fifteenth Century 440).  Her role may date to an older idea in which nobility were responsible for entertainment within the home.    It was the upper class that often sponsored celebrations of feasts and entertainment,  purchased fine clothing, and offered gifts to guests.  Food was served for hours during which time  participants might joke and  flirt with one another while consuming the feast (Bouchard 100).

Because the Regent was heavily focused on the body (consuming) and non-pious activities (flirting, joking) Death is quite harsh with her ("...it is time to lead you out (26: 7)).  For all of her gaiety, the Regent will be quickly forgotten.  She has left nothing meaningful behind nor has she served as a good example for society.  The Regent agrees when she realizes that her parties were but fleeting memories, events that served to distract the general population away from the moral compass of the church: "I realise that such affairs have no place in time of death, but turn into bad bargains.  All fades away save loving God" (26 12- 16).  With so much focus on the flesh and fun, the Regent has neglected her bid for salvation.  Unlike the parties which fade over time, the afterlife is eternal.  She laments her decision to party rather than pray and knows that she will pay for this choice for eternity. 
  



















​                                                                                                      













        ​                                                                                          Works Cited 

Fredrichs, Christopher R. The Early modern City: 1450 – 1750. New York: Longman Group, Limited, 1995. Print.

Harrison, Ann Tukey. “Fifteenth-century French Women’s Roel Names”. The French Review 62.3 (1989). 436 – 444.            JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2016.

Harrison, Ann T., ed. The Danse Macabre of Women. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.

 
                                                                                                   Images Cited

Unknown artist. "Queen and Dutchess." Danse Macabre des Femmes, Project Guteberg.  January 15, 2008, ​http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24300/24300-h/24300-h.htm


Unknown artist. "Regent." Danse Macabre des Femmes, Project Guteberg.  January 15, 2008, ​http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24300/24300-h/24300-h.htm

LOCAL LINKS to the topic:

As a professor teaching at a local college, I always look for local connections to materials studied.  Here is one that I found while attending an exhibition at the
Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida .  This image is a later work inspired by the Danse Macabre des Femmes featuring the Queen attempting to flee from La Mort.  I love the knightly figure who attempts to stop Death and the rather bewildered look on the face of the lady in waiting.  The Queen, however, looks terrified.  Death is much more skeletal than what is in the original Danse and here she appears to be dressed in courtly fashion.  La Mort holds one of the iconic symbols of death:  the hourglass.  The Queen's time is, quite literally, up.


A momento mori appears under the image along with a child who plays with an hourglass. 

Used with permission of the MFA.
Information on the work: 
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–1677) after Hans Holbein (German, c. 1497–1543)
Queen from The Dance of Death, 1651
Etching
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg 
Gift of Sylvia and Vincent Sorrentino

Top