The Powerful Protofeminism of La Mort 


The aim of this project is to show the Danse Macabre des Femmes as a form of protofeminism.  This text qualifies due to the use of humanistically portrayed female characters written about during the Middle Ages.  These women range from the most pious of clergy to the worst of sinners, the leaders of courts to the court fool.  Yet, despite the variety of personas and ideologies presented, there is one consistent, very powerful female in the text:  La Mort herself.  As the manifestation of death, she is already a universal force.  She is endorsed "by the power God gives her" (38: 14) and is the completion of the divine structure ("everything comes from God; everything returns to Him" (38: 16)).  She is featured in each poem and ties them all together.  She is the consistent partner -- and lead -- in the Danse.

La Mort serves to communicate the common social theme of the “sudden, inevitable event of death” as the “great social leveler” (8). Her presence on each page was designed to remind readers to contemplate their own deaths.  La Mort often surprised her female victims with  her arrival, forcing her hosts to see the immediacy of death.  One of the most descriptive allusions to this situation comes from the bride.  Seeing La Mort , she laments that the rose cologne she wore to her wedding would be the scent used to hide the smell of decay at her funeral.  Thus, the poems were a way for the reader to utilize "hypothetical ethical dilemmas” presented by the act of dying to return to “our real value systems and actions” (Hoffman 62).    

La Mort further shows her supernatural awareness as she utilizes "the immediacy of direct address"  to criticize or praise each woman presented to her (Harrison 11).  Here, her words take on a two-fold nature as the text has two audiences:  "the hearers within the text and the hearers of the text" (12).  By communicating in this manner, La Mort's messages become personalized to the woman to whom she is speaking, as well as to the individual *reading* the text.  La Mort is so powerful that she transcends the boundaries of the pages and moves through time to bring forth her message:  be moral, be just, and be godly for death can come at any time.
 La Mort is keenly associated with her godly duties and her intense observation of morality and virtue.   In speaking with the Nun, Death emphasizes the need for morality motivated by spirituality. The woman is told that she will have to “account for your deeds.  If you haven’t shown pity for the poor, you will be ashamed.  You don’t rise to Paradise except by the steps of charity” (39: 3 – 6).   Fulfilling these duties will allow the Nun to “rise to Paradise” (39: 5).  Ideas of renunciation are echoed with the Abbess who is reminded that her life of austerity will be rewarded, and her material possessions, even the most precious cross she wears, will be given away after death. The Prioress is told that “He who rewards all good works will compensate you faithfully….a good deed demands fair payment” (28: 4 – 8).  Finally, the Franciscan is reminded “if your prayers are worthy, they will sustain you before God.  Signs and crossing yourself are worth nothing.  Good works replace them” (33:  6 – 8).    
In the same vein, Death also condemns sins.  The Chambermaid is told that she won’t “gossip at oven or window” again (41: 4).  The Bathhouse Attendant speaks her sorrow for wasting time preparing parties and festive meals, both of which encourage less than pious behaviors (38: 8). La Mort rebukes the Hypocrite as one who expresses depravity and “secret sin".  Death sees to the heart of the woman and predicts that God will do the same.  The punishment will be just and she will suffer for her falsehood.  
La Mort's power also grows as she winds her way through the danse. She not only conveys messages to the audience, but she is capable of transforming the way it interacts with the dying. The best example of the transformative power of her speeches comes with her address to the Witch.  La Mort  both bypasses and objectifies this woman by utilizing  a third person description of her ("...she is condemned as a murderess....she won't live much longer...." [39:  5-6]).  By calling out "Hear ye, Here ye!" (39: 1) La Mort mystically transforms the audience from reader to jury:  we are now the public witnesses of the accusations against the Witch, who Death asserts is responsible for the murders and deception of "several people in many ways" (4).  She puts the Witch on the defensive; the dialogue continues with the woman defending herself against our judgment.  Finally, La Mort argues that we should judge the Witch as Death has judged her:  as a threat to the general population who deserves to be removed. Death, then, is "a fine thing" and is "do[ing] good" (39: 8).  This conclusion effectively shows La Mort redefining herself:  she is not the villain but a bringer of justice and a protector of humanity. 
The final proof of La Mort's  protofeministic ideal is her freedom of physical expression. Unlike the women who are placed into social classes by their clothing, Death moves through the pages either entirely naked or partially covered by a shroud:  she is outside of any mortal social order.   Indeed, La Mort rebukes women for their attachment to clothing.  The Squire’s Lady is rebuffed for her “dressy collars…your muffs, your caps, and even your fillets cannot help you now” (27: 1 – 5).  The Debutante is told to “put away all your brooches” (28: 2) and the Townswoman is chided by Death that her “beautiful starched shirt front and broad belt make no difference” (29: 5 – 6).  Instead, La Mort is the ultimate expression of existing beyond the beauty of the body, for her form is wan, angular, and decomposing.  She bears maggots, open entrails, and a grinning skull.  
La Mort ​is a fascinating and powerful character.  She is what she preaches to the women; unbound by social stratification, a desire for possessions, or an overarching identification with feminine beauty, she exists as she is:  a powerful feminine force within the universal order. 


                                                                                                              Works Cited
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.

                                                                                                              Image Citation

Unknown artist. "21" The Project Gutenberg EBook of La danse macabre des femmes, Carlo Traverso.  The Project Gutenberg.  Date Unknown.