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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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German: Totentanz
French: Danse Macabre

Authority: Marchant

(What is this?)

Macaber derives from the Arabic word for gravedigger

     The Black Death or epidemic of bubonic plague which swept Europe from 1347 to 1350 and killed perhaps one third of the population affected the sensibility of the survivors for generations to come. Dances of Death, Danses Macabres, possibly originated as a series of processional or theatrical comedies of which the first are noted in Spain and Germany in the 1360s soon after the great epidemic. Ironically, the inspiration for them may have come at least in part from Petrarch’s Triumphs the series of processional poems (see Festivals) the third of which, the Triumph of Death, was written in 1348.

     These processions were memorialized in paintings and frescoes all over Europe of which one of the earliest was a painting on the wall of the charnel house in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris dated from about 1424. This depicted individuals from different social orders being led away by the allegorical figure of Death. The mural was the subject of a book printed by Marchant Chorea ab eximio Macabro, Dance by the excellent Macaber, in Paris in 1486 and there is some evidence such dances did exist in the late middle ages (Eisler 187). This was perhaps the first of a vast number of such works published all over Europe with the simple if rather obvious allegorical message that death comes to everyone whatever his station in life. The most celebrated version in the 16th Century was that with woodcuts by Holbein from 1526 called the Totentanz.

     Lydgate, the English poet, had already made a translation after 1475 of a French poem the Danse Macabre but this had yet different lineage being based on a popular Latin poem, the Vado Mori, I am preparing to die, which, in turn, was possibly originally composed by one Helinand of Froidmont who lived from 1160 to 1229.

     The Danse Macabre as it developed in the 16th Century invariably devoted a verse, a picture and a poem for each of the types depicted, so that inevitably the dance of death is reckoned a forerunner of the emblem which takes the same format. Examples of the dance of death, like the emblem book, continued to be published right through to the 19th Century.

See also Devices, Emblems, Festivals