Disposal and Dancing with the Dead  
 The combination of folklore, theological belief, and church teachings led to unique burial practices in the Middle Ages. Predominant among beliefs was that the soul was the source of all life.  However, with new interests emerging in Roman writings, the explanation of the soul-body interaction became more complex.  The soul was joined by the Galenic proposal that the body also hosted the spiritus, the energy responsible for vision, laughter, penile erection, and for falling in love.  The spiritus, in turn, was sub-divided into three other energies within the body.  The vitalis was found in the left ventricle of the heart and was made from energy inhaled during respiration. The animalis was located in the brain and controlled the nervous system and mental activities.  Naturalis was housed in the liver and maintained the involuntary systems.  Together, they helped to regulate heartbeat, the pulse, temperature and respiration.  This energy was also sometimes expelled from the body in the form of tears and exchanged with celestial bodies and divine images (Caciola 7).
The complexity of this system merged with scholastic and theological ideas of dying a good death, a bad death, and a partial death.  If an individual was dying of natural causes, then the soul was ejected and the spiritus was naturally expended with the death process.  However, if the death was unexpected, such as complications from childbirth, accident, or murder, then the soul would be ejected but the spiritus would not have time to dissipate.  The body would continue to exist without decomposition, but also without a soul (27).  Since the supernatural and natural worlds were so closely aligned, in this state the empty body could be possessed by a spirit and utilized to interact directly with this world.
The men or women who had recently passed also had claim to their bodies, particularly if they died in an unsanctified state (without confessing their sins or died during an act of immorality).  As souls trapped in Purgatory these winsome spirits could still interact in this world.  If their old body was still good, they could reclaim it for a time.  This made the dead into revenants, reanimated corpses, possessing bodies, minds, and corrupted souls (Finucane 57). Revenants did not fit in with natural or divine laws; thus the living often regarded them as threatening.  A sample study of a revenant is found in Cantimpre's writing about a dead knight.  The man had gone to a tournament and died during one of the jousts.  This unexpected death kept the spiritus in his body and his ejected soul, presumably still about due to a lack confessed sins, was able to reclaim it.  He returned as a revenant to one of his former servants, complaining of the brevity of life and the evils of the tournaments.  As proof of his return, he asked the servant to remove a piece of the lance still trapped in the fatal wound (25).  The pattern in this story matches that of the Danse Macabre genre:  death comes unexpectedly and the dead lament their inability to correct any outstanding issues.   
The fear of revenants was so strong that burial rituals changed. Starting in the twelfth century, bodies were bound tightly in burial shrouds that were often sewn shut (Caciola 34).  These shrouds make a continual appearance in the Danse imagery with multiple images of Death covered by the cloth.  Once covered, burial of the dead was often done quickly with the hopes of encouraging decomposition.  One well known French final resting place, the Cemetery of the Innocents, was particularly famous for its acidic soil.  It was rumored to remove the flesh from a corpse within 9 days of burial.  Perhaps this is why it was chosen as the location for the famous Danse Macabre murals that later inspired Marchant to publish his death-oriented literature. 
After the burial, family and friends would often host vigils, wakes, or commemorations of the dead.  Since most medieval towns located the cemetery centrally and left the land unadorned, the graveyard became the preferred place to meet.  Ceremonies could include dressing as the dead, feasting, revelry and dance.  The Catholic Church was not pleased with the cemetery gatherings[LS1]  and considered the events, especially the dances, to serve as "a ritual means of interacting with the dead” (42).  At least one documented engagement proving the Church's point was the “bridge-” or “arch-” dance.  This was closely associated with funeral practices.  In the cemetery, dancers formed a circle and moved beneath the clasped hands of one couple.  Through this action, the dancers were “symbolically [crossing] the border between life and death, guaranteeing fecundity for the living and harmony for the dead” (42).  Scholars do believe that this dance was one that formed a direct connection to other theatrical and artistic movements concerning dances of the dead.
Documentation of cemetery dancing extends nearly eight hundred years with the following accounts:
  • The earliest record of the dances dates back to the ninth with a documented account from Hincmar of Reims.
  • In the early eleventh century, Burchard of Worms not only censured dances that happened on feast days, he instructed his clergy to make inquiries into penitents as to their activities in the dance.
  • The twelfth century manuscript, Itinerarium Kambriae, by Gerald of Wales, describes ecstatic dances he witnessed in the local cemetery.
  • Thomas of Cantimpre cites similar practices in the thirteenth century and again attempted to censure the customary vigil games played over the biers of the dead. A contemporary monk, Dominican Etienne de Bourbon, also describes his “repugnance at dances in cemeteries, which utterly scandalized him” (Caciola 41).
  • Finally, the church councils forbade the dances in churches, processions and cemeteries to varying degrees in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, with greater prohibition against the circle dances of women in churchyards.
A modern reproduction of the dance can be found here: 

In these ideas, then, we find several of the contributing factors that created the Danse Macabre.  The folklore of the time allowed for the belief in the reanimation of the dead.   Popular religious ideas, derived from theological concepts, promoted the ideas of bodily possession by demons and the souls trapped in purgatory.  Dark tales of the dead, perhaps the equivalent of today's urban legends or modern ghost stories, combined with other cultural practices concerning the dead.  These were transformed and canonized in Marchant’s texts featuring the dancing dead.


  Works Cited
Caciola, Nancy. “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture.” Past and Present   Aug. 1996:  3 – 45. JSTOR. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Finucane, R.C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation. New York: Prometheus Books, 1996. Print.