There is death, there is fascination with death, and then there is dancing with death. Guyot Marchant of Paris utilized this knowledge when he published the Danse Macabre des Hommes in 1485 and the Danse Macabre des Femmes in 1486. The books introduced imagery of the living confronted by their own dead counterparts. The images are accompanied by short didactic poems written in the French vernacular.  Death leads the conversation by offering a brief summation of the person's life, which is often laced with heavily moralizing terminology.  The living person responds to the description with either praise or fear:  Death's pronunciation is a prediction of the judgment of God and points to the direction of the soul's destination in the afterlife.  
The books served as more than a fascination with the morbid.  They were the culmination of radical changes that swept Western Europe during the two hundred years prior to the printing of the Danse.   There was a rise of the institution of the university that led scholarship in Paris.  New thoughts influenced the political, social, and intellectual leadership in the West.  There was a new understanding of human anatomy thanks to a rise in academic autopsy practices. Scholars, students, and doctors were able to study the body through the use of printed materials published and circulated in the intellectual circles of the time.  This information led to the radical transformation of medicine and natural philosophy (Park 13). Mysteries of life and death were explored, and there was a rising fascination with female anatomy.  
Scholars began to focus on the secrets of women’s reproductive abilities with a particular emphasis on the "hidden interior" of the uterus (27).  Images of autopsies were drawn and studied; the women within were often shown with their abdomens cut open and the entrails exposed.  It is not hard to see how Marchant could take these images and shift them into the pages of the Danse Macabre des Femmes.  Indeed, La Mort’s body shows just such an opening in half of the images produced in the text.
With the focus on the female form there was a new study of women.  Feminine behaviors of chastity, piety and submissiveness were endorsed by the church, but the social hierarchy had begun to shift.  Women were more engrained in society as consumers of literature and sponsors of the arts.  Women were classified not only for their ability to give birth, but also for their leadership roles in the medieval hierarchy.  Like men, they were to hold a certain standard but, also like men, they could fail at this endeavor. This website proposes that the Danse Macabre des Femmes reflects some of these changing societal ideals.  The text is not only a fascinating read, but it is an example of protofeminism dating to the Middle Ages.  
For clarification, protofeminism is a term that describes the use of feminist ideals prior to the time in which feminism was defined.   Examples of protofeminism hailing from more recent chapters of western history include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  Each of these women authors composed works about female characters who were self-motivated and capable of competent decision making.  Each also wrote in the period prior to the well defined feminist movement that earned women the right to vote in national elections (Welsh et al).  The purpose of this website, then, is to present the Danse Macabre des Femmes as another protofeminist writing, though one that dates back to the Middle Ages. 
The most obvious connection to protofeminism is the text's overarching use of female characters.  These are not women who are perfect.  Some are obsessed with their looks, others with wealth, and still others with work.  Some view life through the eyes of the innocent and pure while others express a dark cynicism about existence.  As a text depicting women as possessing intellect, emotional depth, and spiritual strengths or failings, the Danse des Femmes encompasses the female gender as extending beyond vessels for reproduction.  It is the morality, decisions, and behaviors that lead these women to salvation or damnation -- their fate is the result of the choices that they made. 
The humanistic nature of the book further extends with the art accompanying the poetry.  As with the autopsy drawings described above, La Mort (Death) is composed of the opened female form.  In many images, her abdomen is reminiscent of a gaping wound that leads to the inner chambers of the body.   Thus, the dying woman is figuratively opened to the reader through the poetic descriptions, while her body is opened to the viewer's gaze through the use of the drawings. This is neatly layered by the order of placement in the book.  Marchant does reveal the women's classes and societal positions via clothing and emblems found on the living body.  He uses these descriptions in order to give a completed view of the individual (Harrison 443).  Again, one can conclude that the text is describing women as more than mere bodies.  They are inducted into a level of personhood worthy of any human being -- male or female. The Danse Macabre des Femmes allows women to identify with components of human fallibility and, through it, to examine their own lives. It serves to strengthen the ethical choices that the women will make, and to leave the reader as a better person for the experience (Asma 63).
To prove the point, Death is a necessary character for the Danse des Femmes.  Death naturally strips away the body which will become “meat which one day will be given to worms” (23.11).   In this sense, then, women must be assessed by a different standard than by the physical alone. Once the body is removed, what is left is the mind and soul. The mind provides a sense of understanding and reason, while hosting the decision making processes.  A prime example of this is found in the poem of Madam Regent, who is forced by La Mort to re-evaluate who she is and what she has done in life. At death, Madam Regent recants that she now realizes “such affairs [grand feasts I have made]… [fade] away” (26.9 – 16). The one ideal that does not fade is “loving God” (26:16); she has failed to do this consistently since she was distracted by her parties. Her individual choices lead to moral consequences that will play out at her death. In this moment, Madam Regent expresses her own self-awareness and accountability, a mark highly representative of protofeminism.

 The intention of this project is to create an academic resource on the Danse Macabre des Femmes to further explore the connections between the book and elements of protofeminism.  It will include the history of the genre, the social roles of women, and  elements of protofeminism.  Additionally, the author has made a general classification system and utilized some of the women presented to illustrate this system.  For purposes of comparison, readers of this site may refer to the free online edition of the Danse Macabre des Femmes hosted by Gutenberg Press here:   The Project Gutenberg EBook of La danse macabre des femmes.

The website is broken up into the following pages, all of which can be accessed from the navigation bar at the top of this page:

  • Introduction:  This lists the statement of the intent of the website.

  • History of the Genre:  A description of the cultural evolution and influencs that led to the birth of the Danse Macabre genre.

The following pages are located under the "More" tab in the site navigation bar at the top of the page:

  • Religious Life:  A classification of women from Danse des Femmes as based upon roles of religious leadership

  • Concluding Thoughts:  A page designed to host concluding thoughts from the author and connections to artists who perpetuate images of death in art 

Works Cited
Asma, Stephen T. “Monsters and the Moral Imagination.” Monsters: A Bedford Spotlight  Reader. Andrew J. Hoffman, ed. New York:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016. 156 – 163. Print.

Harrison, Ann Tukey. “Fifteenth-century French Women’s Role 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.

Park, Katherine. Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. University of         Michigan, 2006. Print.

Welsh, James, et al. Proto-feminist Literature. Lit2go.  University of South Florida, 2017. Web.

Unknown artist. "Darling Wife."  Danse Macabre des Femmes. Project Gutenberg. January 15, 2008,

Guy of Chauliac.  "Autopsy of a Noble Mother." Medieval Medical Experiments. August 4, 2013,


Autopsy of a Noble Mother
Artist Guy of Chauliac depicts an autopsy of a woman.  Late 1400s, France.   Note the similar opening in the depictions of La Mort ​ in the "Darling wIfe" from the ​Danse Macabre des Femmes (right).