The people of the Middle Ages were not the first to contemplate mortality. With the advent of epidemics, such as the Black Death, a fascination for the morbid arts already existed. Literature of the time included personal descriptions of deaths from diaries and letters, particularly from the nobility. Medical journals and treatises on combating the spread of infections also existed, though without the knowledge of microbiology they were of limited help. Additional death records existed for towns, though they were inconsistently written and could range from detailed accounts acknowledging the bubonic plague to vague notions of death by fever (Friedrichs 127-8).

However, these journals do give enough insight to show that outbreaks of plagues peaked in late summer and early fall, most likely because of greater social interaction between people at the time.  An infected person would begin to experience fever and swelling in the body and death often resulted within a week. Europeans recognized that infectious diseases were contagious, but misunderstood how they spread.  Though leadership of the time recognized that the crowded of conditions of the residents aided in spreading the disease, they were ignorant of the role animals played as plague bearers. The infected were confined to special hospitals or locked into their own houses. After death, the bodies and beddings were quickly disposed of.  Travel to and from cities with known plague outbreaks was also forbidden.  Even with these precautions, death rates remained high and often the best recourse was to flee an area at the first sign of the plague (129).

Considering the turbulence of the Middle Ages it is certainly understandable how the Danse Macabre developed as a form of cultural expression. Evolving from written words to visual imagery, it embodied the fear of death and the desire for salvation. Already, most European towns had a death rate that exceeded the birthrate. Even during years with higher birth rates, the crisis years of plague outbreaks would reverse any population gains (Friedrichs 131). Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that Death grew into a more ominous presence. Aspects of youth, beauty, and abundance were all prone to attack during this time; all were equally likely to fade for the Reaper constantly hovered over the shoulders of all.

During the Middle Ages and through early modernity, the Catholic Church remained an important regulating factor for city dwellers. It helped to regulate major life cycle events (birth, adulthood, marriage, and most importantly for this project, death) while also defining standards of communal behavior. This responsibility lay with the people who ran the institution:  the priestly class, which was male. Men remained the administrators of the sacraments. Female devotion was encouraged, but only under the guidance of men in both cloister and at home (Friedrichs 64). As producers of the pulpit sermons, men were the voice of the church, reminding congregants that “human nature is fundamentally inclined to evil. All humans deserve punishment, if not on earth then in the afterlife, for the sins they committed” (64). The divine intervention of Jesus offered salvation, but the assurances of the forgiveness of sins could be offered only through the priests. The final act of judgment would be administered by God at death.

The Danse Macabre genre echoes these priestly ideas.  La Mort appears as the final witness to the living and hears the confession of the dying.  Unlike a priest, however, forgiveness cannot be offered. Death is a force appointed by God, but not ordained by Him.  The dying person must directly face the judgment of God. Fritz Eichenbert suggests that the role of the Death character may have been imported from Indian or Arabic poetry.  The concepts settled into Church teachings via priestly sermons in the ninth and tenth centuries (45). This is logical as incessant warnings of the punishment of God abound through priestly documents, particularly warning of the guilt of vanitas (vanity). The body, a source of distraction and something that could be glorified, became the focus of this ideology:  the lovely lips of the living dissolved into the deathly grin of the skull.

However, these sermons were not the only source of information when it came to death. Scholars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were taking strides and creating literature that promoted humanistic thinking.  They could not go far astray from church teachings, however, and so these new concepts were combined with church philosophy. One of the best examples of this is the Ars morendi (“The Art of Dying”), a document that helped give order to the chaos of the plague. Although a full examination of the Ars morendi is outside the scope of this project, a brief summary of the material shows that this writing focused upon the proper, and Christian, way to die.  The death of an individual opened a battle between good and evil:  the angels and saints fought devils and demons for the fate of the soul. The prize was the newly departed person’s soul; only those who died purified of their wicked ways through the rites of the Church would join the side of the angels (86). Indeed, Death alludes to this writing when she addresses the Theologian, an educated woman.  The Theologian is praised for taking the “trouble to die well.  It is a great thing to know yourself” (31: 7 – 8).

The Ars morendi  circulated through Europe and the text accompanying the images was translated into German, French, English, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Catalan.  It was well known by the mid-fifteenth century.  Its secularized origin, derived from the philosophy of scholars, allowed it to extend beyond a clerical audience.  It could be read and understood by the populace at large (86-7). With the pre-existing concepts of judgment at death and the emphasis on the battle for salvation, medieval readers had an established groundwork by the time the Danse Macabre  was published. 

The Danse Macabre genre does find its origins in France. Jean le Fevre is credited with writing the first poem,  Le Respit de la Mort , in which the word “macabre” appeared; it addressed a plague outbreak in 1374.  Later, Jean Gerson, a chancellor of the Sorbonne and a known French intellectual, wrote the poems that appear in the book.  As a Parisian, Gerson refers to localized areas like the Petite Point, an old bridge in the city, and to local events like the Lendit Fair, held each June.  These poems were later transformed into imagery painted on the walls of the Parisian Cimetiere des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocents) in 1424. The mural was destroyed along with the walls of the cemetery, but not before Guyot Marchant preserved the concept in the first bound edition of the Danse. The Danse macabre des hommes was published in 1485 and introduced imagery coupled with “brief moralizing prologues” between Death and the living. Marchant followed this with a second volume, Les Trois mortis et les trois vifs  in 1485. Here, three youths encounter Death and are tricked into dying. To complete the trilogy, in 1486 he published a volume of the Danse des Femmes which was devoted exclusively to women. This series was popular enough to elicit a second edition printed in 1491 (Harrison 436). Like the Ars morendi, it also passed to other cultures.  The Spanish had  La Danca de la Muerte and the Germans touted the Totentanz

The poems arrive in the modern era through five surviving manuscripts and two printed editions dating back to 1486. Each edition holds slight differences and is thus identified individually by a letter designation (A, B, C, D, E, F and G). Though the majority of the information matches in each version, there are differences in the number of women selected which ranges from thirty to thirty-six. Manuscript A holds thirty women, B and C have thirty-two, D, thirty-four, and F has all thirty-six, though it also alters the order of introduction (Harrison 2). These changes may indicate more roles were acknowledged for women as time passed and the addition of new characters was necessary to keep the text contemporary for the reader (4).

The first modern reprinting dates to 1869 under editor P. L. Miot-Frochot.  Miot-Frochot combined and modified lines from different editions of the text and used nineteenth century adaptive illustrations. Pierre Champion later worked on a strong poetic reproduction of the D version in 1925 and Louise Gotz, an educated woman from 1934, printed a “meticulous translation” of the C edition (1). During this time, publications were often used to enhance knowledge of French and Latin languages rather than for the content of the document (4).

The edition used for this project is the F edition as compiled by Ann Tukey Harrison.  It contains English translations of the poems along with the original French version.  Harrison includes the writings of Sandra L. Hindman, who studied the visual depictions within the Danse des Femmes.  This volume was released in 1994.

Works Cited
Eichenberg, Fritz. Dance of Death:  A Graphic Commentary on the Danse Macabre Through the Centuries. New York:        Abbeville Press, 1983. Print.
Fredrichs, Christopher R. The Early modern City: 1450 – 1750. New York: Longman  Group, Limited, 1995. Print.
Harrison, Ann T., ed. The Danse Macabre of Women. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.
Hindman, Sandra. “The Illustrations.” Ed. Ann Tukey Harrison. Ohio:  Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.
Warren, Florence, editor.  The Dance of Death, Edited From MSS. Ellesmere 26/A.13 and  B.M. Lansdowne 699, Collated with the Other Extant MSS. London: Oxford   University Press, 1931.
                                                                                                           Image Citation

Unknown artist. "Ars Morendi (The Art of Dying)." Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia, December 19, 2012, ​ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artwork_by_unknown_artist_-_Ars_Moriendi_(The_Art_of_Dying)_-_WGA23795.jpg​
An image of a dying man.  The saints stand to his right, the devils are on the left.