Badly Behaving Women of the Danse 
The Danse  Macabre des Femmes encompasses a wide range of women. This page is dedicated to the badly behaved women of the Danse -- those who have chosen an immoral life and are condemned to Hell.  The primary examples are the Prostitute and the Witch.

The Prostitute
Prostitution as a profession existed in the Bible and continued to exist in towns during the Middle Ages.  During the medieval era,  women who became prostitutes may have been female servants sold into the profession.  Others were displaced individuals who could not find employment (Leyser 159).   Perhaps this is why the author chose to call the Prostitute by a friendlier French term,  femme amoureuse, a woman of love, rather than as a putain (whore). Scholars theorize that there was some compassion for prostitutes during the time that the text was composed.  The word choice is an attempt to create a more sympathetic portrait of the woman .  Though she seduces the flesh, she is also to be pitied (Harrison Fifteenth Century 441).

La Mort, however, has no sympathy for her.  She addresses the prostitute as a "worthless woman living in carnal sin" and condemns her actions as damnable.  Death predicts that the woman will be "tormented for doing bad things....sin is harmful" (37: 7 - 8).  The prose attributed to the Prostitute, however, voices a tragic admission: she agrees that she "gave in to this sin for unbridled pleasure" but also blames the "ones who led me there and left me to the trade" (37: 9 - 13).   She defends her actions by claiming that she had no guidance nor was she raised well.  She was a prostitute  because of social failure.  

In this, the protofeministic message is mixed.  The woman is a prostitute who, based on the image depicting her in an expensive gown and in a well furnished room, appears to be well off.  She displays a degree of independent living through her trade.  However, she takes little responsibility for becoming a prostitute and blames the choice on others.  She ties her own fate of damnation to this, as well, making herself unaccountable for the lifestyle:  "The end follows the begining" --she is led unwillingly into an existence of punishment and condemnation both by men and now by Death  (37: 16). 

 The Witch
The Danse des femmes certainly deals with subconscious human fears; the fear of impending death, the horror of facing the supernaturally unknown, and the wait for God's judgment.  Yet, there are predators within the community of the living, and none are feared more than "the greatest monsters of them all” -- the Witch (Hoffman 259).  Those who practiced witchcraft were believed to have disavowed God, served the Devil, and lived a life uncontrolled by social norms. The Witch was a strong form of example for protofeminism -- she was a woman of such independence from society that she was dangerous.  She could do nothing but harm the social order, and thus she became a form of living devil.  In this, the very concept of the witch left even socially marginal women in danger, especially since witches could be targeted for sexual transgressions and poverty. To protect the community, a woman accused of witchcraft underwent a painful and humiliating trial and could be legally killed  (Wiesner 265).

 With their limited political powers and weaker moral constitutions, women were considered more likely to engage in "magical assistance to gain what they wanted” (270).  The Witch decided to make an allegiance with the Devil and in doing so, not only did she contradict social expectations, she entirely reversed the social norms.  Witches were not passive beings; they could control men through aggressive sexual relationships by using specialized love magic to control the male libido (307).   Additionally, as male power passed from father to son, the power of the witch also passed mother to daughter.  Yet, despite the negative connotations, and before the heavy use of witch trials, women who were called witches had unofficial levels of societal protection. Neighbors were less likely to refuse them assistance; if she needed anything, she often got it. Even as a social pariah, she would go where others dared not tread.  This meant that others might pay her for her magical services, such as finding lost objects, finding suitors, or destroying an enemy (270). 

Witchcraft was so feared that it became necessary to find ways to detect witches and stop them.  The primary guide for this was the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, which was published in the same year as the Danse  Macabre des Femmes.   Both books agree that witchcraft was a source of evil.  Witches were considered hostile to the community, state, Church, and to God (267). The mysterious death of animals, spoiled food, unexpected death of the ill, or the death of children were all blamed on witches (270).  In this entry of the Danse, La Mort continues this theme as she accuses "this old witch" of causing the "death and deception of several people in many ways.  She is condemned as a murderess to die" (39:  1 - 7).  This is also a time when La Mort considers death a form of justice and calls her visit to the witch "a good thing" (7).

The Witch is a controversial character in this text.  She is a good example of the protofeministic ideal.  Through her life choices, she was able to overcome issues of lesser physical, economic, and political status.  However, to maintain her unique social role, she had to betray society by making a pact with the Devil.  As the Prostitute (above) was misled by the moral choices in society, the Witch was still worse.  She chose existence entirely outside of patriarchical control.  While the community called for women to be chaste, pious, silent, obedient and married, values that are echoed in the poems of the Danse des Femmes, the figure of the witch was  argumentative, willful, independent, aggressive and sexual (276).  The Witch, oddly, acknowledges her role of doing "wrong...for which I now pay the price" (30: 13 - 14).  Yet, she asks for the people to give her mercy, to offer "the gift of an Our Father or a Mass" in order to help "redeem my soul" (30: 11 - 12, 15).  She considers her lot in life part of her destiny, and one that cannot be broken.  Yet, in doing this she also acknowledges the importance of her role to the community.​​


 Works Cited 

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.

Hoffman, Andrew J. Monsters:  A Bedford Spotlight Reader. New York: Bedford/St.        Martins, 2016. Print.
Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women:  A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. London:  Phoenix, 2003. Print.
 Wisner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition. New York:    Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
                                                                                                                    Images Cited

Unknown artist. "Prostitute." Medieval  Women and Gender Index, Feminae.  January 15, 2008, ​

Unknown artist. "Witch." Danse Macabre des Femmes, Project Guteberg.  2014,