The Danse Macabre
The Danse Macabre
Last Tango in Paris
by Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994
"You remind me of life in the Middle Ages."Macabre is a French word that makes its first known appearance in the fourteenth century, in a fragmented poem by Jean Le Fevre; Je fis de Macabre la danse. The term is supposed by some sources to have developed from Maccabee, the name of the Christian martyrs who by tradition invented the prayer of intercession for the dead in Purgatory (which became such a lucrative option for the church in later centuries). Macabre was a word created to describe the interaction of the dead, or death, with the living, and with this uncanny shudder retains this use to this day.
Indeed, a surprising number of modern ideas of death do come straight from the Middle Ages. This is death as a concept, a way of discussing and utilising the phenomenon. Literature and imagery -- art and films -- are the most obvious fields in which to look for these ideas, but they are there too in everyday life, these macabre usages, in spite of modern concepts of infection and hygiene. The Middle Ages did not have these to work with. They did not have the sheer sense of distance from death modern technology has brought us. In the Middle Ages, the concept of a truly vigorous, familiar death was vital, and death was raised to the heights of a spectacle, a drama and even a character, precisely because there was so much need to deal with it.
The methodology for the Medieval death was the momento mori, 'Remember, thou too shalt die'. It was related, perhaps, to the custom reputed to be in use in Imperial Rome, of having victorious generals accompanied in their triumphal processions by a slave, who would constantly repeat the cant, 'Remember thou art mortal'. But the Middle Ages, around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, made this into a moral imperative. It was used as an antidote to sin; perhaps the most telling examples are the little ivory statuettes of the sixteenth century that show, on one side, a beautiful woman or a pair of lovers embracing, and on the other a rotting corpse. But these were produced in an affluent society, for private meditation; beforehand we must look to the great, public charnel houses and the statues and paintings in the churches. These were spectacles. Much has been written about the cemetery of the city of Paris, le Innocents, and how markets and open-air sermons, even festivals, were held before the porticoes in which the disordered bones of those whose tenure in the sacred earth was up, were piled. The earth of le Innocents, sanctified by the bodies of those child-saints, was held to fulfil the necessary 'dust to dust' clause within nine days. There was, in addition, a massive statue of Death which is now in the Louvre, a carven portal representing the tale of the three living and the three dead men, donated by the Duc de Berry as a burial fee, and under the porticos, the huge, anonymous frescoes of the danse macabre.
These frescoes, along with all other accoutrements of the great cemetery except the Death, are lost. The frescoes are known to us only by a book of woodcut prints published in 1485 in Paris, by the printer Guyot Marchant. These copied the frescoes and transcribed the verses that ran beneath them, and were a run-away success. So much so, that Marchant followed them up with a sequel, original art and new verses by the fashionable poet Martial d'Auvergne, that for the first time brought women into the representation, of death coming to lead its partners in their final dance.
The root of the idea must lie in popular folklore, like the mentioned legend of the three live men. Three wealthy, prosperous young worthies are returning one night from a feast, when on the road they encounter three animate corpses, in ascending states of decay, who repeat the momento mori. The idea of the dance is found all over Europe; in Germany, for instance, there is a strong tradition of die Totentanz. The idea of a festival of the dead, the conjunction of living activities with dead participants is fascinating, horrible; and the funeral is the one ritual at which the living do not dance and sing. The step from this basic idea to the iconography that exists in the Guyot prints is very simple. All must die, whether Emperor or Bishop, Craftsman or Labourer, and so all of these are depicted in the dance. Guyot's dance lists forty different stations and occupations of man, but to achieve a complementary forty women starts to divide life into stages, of childhood and maidenhood, the beloved, the woman with child, etcetera. Such an image! To connote both the church's dictum of the certain end of worldly glory and beauty, and thus the folly of placing the immortal soul in jeopardy for such; and the idee fixe of the dead and the living, the living and the dead. It is certain that on at least one occasion, the dance was performed as a masque, in the palace of the Duc de Burgundy in 1449. It was performed at night, by the light of standing candles.
I have up to this point referred both to death and Death. The image of the three dead men, and Death's statue in the Louvre. The movement to personify Death was gradual; it was only by the onset of the sixteenth century, when the well-known painter Hans Holbein der Jüngere produced his own set of woodcuts, that the familiar robed skeleton was in place as an identity. Having a single, universal Death is a suitable extension of the idea of death coming to all, no matter of rank. After all, in the pre-Christian world there was always a deity of death; and the situation in Egypt specifically even more interesting. In the Guyot woodcuts, what comes to the living is the already dead, the image of the man or woman in the horrible future condition of their mortality. Le Innocents lasted into the eighteenth century, and so collected many different images. But the move towards making a character of Death can be seen in the Guyot verses. Here, the dancing dead comfort, coerce and jest at their partners. Consider the dead speaking to the Labourer;
You, Labourer who in care and painTo which the Labourer replies;
Many long for deathA dialogue with oncoming death, as futile perhaps as a chess game, but a possibility for the expression of different attitudes, commonalities of what is advisable, what is suitable and seemly, what is not. Also, of course, of all the ideologies the church may have found suitable. Consider the protests of the wife of the rich merchant;
For God's sake go and get meAnd then, the words of the peasant woman;
I take death for better or for worseVirtue has often been considered more likely among those who labour honestly for a living, and who by their sheer social position have much less chance of indulging in the sins of avarice and pride.
This was a Christian world, to an extent it is difficult these days to imagine. But these ideas, of the dancing dead and the single Death, somehow fit into cracks. There is no place in the straight Christian mythos for the Un-dead. It is true that fifteenth century preachers in Wallachia and Moldavia maintained that members of the Greek Orthodox church that converted to Catholicism became vampires after death. But, if every soul is judged at death and allotted it's place in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory, to be resurrected when the world is remade at the Last Judgment, where is the room for ghosts and revenants? None the less, belief in them never waned.
Neither is Death a demon or an angel, with the exception of Exodus. In paintings such as Bosch's Death of the Miser, fifteenth century, all three -- demon, angel and Death can be seen in the same room. The concept of the folk Death is vastly different to the bringer of divine retribution, it is Death measured on a human scale. It is a Death that will, conceivably, accept a game of chess, that can be bargained with if never in the end outwitted; a Death, in short, suitable for narrative. Consider the attitude in The Pardoner's Tale, in Chaucer, contemporary to Bosch, of the drunken young men who accost a stranger on the road for the location of;
A certain traitor Death, who singles out, And kills the fine young fellows here about.They should have known better than to ask directions of a strange, pale figure, all wrapped up except the face! The black mourning robe which becomes the garb of Death, to which the first references are found in the early fifteenth century, may also have to do with the robe of the priest or monk who officiated at the death bed. It is interesting to note that the dead body itself was never garbed in black -- the colour of the winding sheet or shroud seems always to have been white. So two images, of Death and ghosts! Death has, however, been variously armed; an arrow was a popular alternative to a scythe, but the two were used contemporaneously. This is a figure that can be recognised, and considered familiar. Death and the danse macabre are superb examples of the Church or whatever authority, adopting and formalising a strong local image for their purpose, which of course is what happened in Wallachia. The process can be seen occurring in reverse with the similar familiarity that developed about this time, with the characteristics of the Devil -- horns, furry haunches and cloven hooves, and similar folk tales. This was taking a church icon and adopting it.
The Holbein woodcuts were released in France in 1538, with a text by Jean de Vauzèlles. We are now in the sixteenth century with the ivory statuettes and, not co-incidentally, the beginnings of Protestantism. The movement in the direction of Protestantism naturally affected ideas of death, but the dance survived, as it proceeded to survive total secularisation and eroticism.
The aim of Protestantism was to dispense with the trappings and trimmings that, in the view of its adherents, had corrupted the true faith. One of these was the corrupted concept of a Purgatory from which the dead could be bought with prayers and masses. Spectacle, a method of teaching for the previous Church, was now being considered a distraction, or a seduction. Perhaps this indicates the shift in mood in the Vauzèlles verses, each of which is based on and accompanied by a direct biblical quotation. The first three engravings in the series represent the creation of man and woman in the Garden of Eden, and the sin by which Death was supposed to have been unleashed upon the world. But this was still Death, the image as everyone knew it; it is in the verses that the character and the dramatic element has been excised. The momento mori, with its moral therapy, is reduced to its bluntest and most strictly clerical form.
The images of death are the true and proper mirror by which one must correct the deformities of sin and embellish the soul.writes de Vauzèlles. It is perhaps significant that Death has now become the straight skeleton, with which we of course are familiar, instead of the original rotting corpse. The level at which the dance taught how death should be met has been superseded in favour of the warning, on how life should be lived: there is no mystery, to the good and educated Christian, in death, and horror is out of place. Perhaps with the rise in the number and influence of educated, mercantile Christians, death could now be considered a more private affair, best kept in the family. The Holbein woodcuts are an original work for private meditation and not, as it were, souvenirs.
It is interesting to compare the Holbein prints with the image of Death in this tarot, dated contemporaneously. Especially note the horde of Popes and Bishops being trampled underfoot. The meaning of Death in the tarot is transformation, only acquiring its positive or negative connotations in conjunction with the suites. In the seventeenth century the tarot deck was used in a popular and highly unesoteric card game known as tarocca, in one version of which the winner would invariably be whoever played the Death card; for it was considered nothing could stand against the image of Death. No matter what reforms were made, occupying the very interstice between experience and faith, the symbol would retain its power.
In 1785, the officials of Paris ordered the destruction of le Innocents upon public demand. A 'mephitis', or foulness was spreading in the air, it had started in the cellars of some houses directly next to the great burial pits, and steadily encroached upon neighbouring areas. The work involved a massive dis-internment and removal of the bodies in the top layers of soil to quarries on the city's outskirts. Bonfires were kept constantly alight to prevent infection, as the work proceeded for two Winters and an Autumn.
The condition was nothing new; the air of les Innocents, which tarnished gold and rotted wood, had been remarked on for centuries. But now the proximity of death was not required. Death still had to be dealt with, so there was the uneasy mix of outcry against the anatomists in the first half of the nineteenth century. I bring my discussion so far, because it was at this point that the danse macabre was given a further twist of expression by one group who did believe that the proximity of death was required; in fact, desirable.
Great advances in science will inevitably be accompanied by great reactions of mysticism. But to bring back the Christian methodology was not the aim of the Romantics, (not even the Pre-Raphaelites). The Romantics wanted to rekindle humankind's sense of awe, which they felt was both lacking in and detrimental to the modern world; the frisson of the unknown. In short, the macabre. It was possibly the German poet Werther Goethe who 'rediscovered' an idea that had never truly departed, and had certainly had a good run by proxy in the recent craze for 'gothic' novels. In his research of the old legends and customs of his country, Goethe discovered and treated the tale of a totentanz of monks and nuns, in a ruined abbey. But the first sign that the potential of the image was being realised, and unleashed in the direction that Byron and Baudrillard would take it, comes in a little poem by Goethe's countryman Matthias Claudius, largely hidden behind it's more famous derivative, Schubert's 1817 suite Der Tod und das Mädchen.
Pass by! O pass me by!Recall the words of the Peasant Woman of Martial d' Auvergne. I accept death, for better or worse -- this parody, or invocation of the Christian marriage rite suggests what the new treatments made explicit. Death was the partner in the dance. In keeping with the literature of the time with its dark heroes and fascinating villains, Death could now seduce. This is the fascination of the macabre, related to that other popular folk tale, the return of the dead to the grieving, or unfaithful, lover. These stories, most famously Burger's Lenore, end in the midnight elopement of the couple. A suitable end to such a tale, but the implied destination is the grave. It is not piety or any form of faith that is finding expression here, it is some uncontrolled desire. Perhaps because, by the Romantics, the embrace of Death or of the dead was never seen to end.
Motives are deep water, which inevitably we encounter when discussing even images of death. The application, however, of these images in contemporary horror fiction should be clear; where particular strands have been taken up and developed, even modernised. But it seems to me that in structure, nothing has really changed since the nineteenth century, when it became the self-imposed task of literature to perform the function no longer performed by religion, and certainly not by science. Perhaps the idea of the macabre lifestyle, the reactionary 'gothic' subculture, is new -- but still the images are old. We have no others, for today the desire not to acknowledge death is stronger than ever. Is it any wonder then, that those original usages survive? In any case, today's works of horror or terror are still, in their own ways, performing the essential danse macabre.
Checklist The Hour Of Our Death, Phillipé Aries, trans. Helen Weaver. Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London. 1981 (1977). A huge, black and absolutely astounding volume. The standard work in the field.
 The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga.
 Vampyrs, Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling.
* The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, trans. Nevill Coghill, Penguin Books, 1987 (1951) (early fifteenth century)
 The Dance of Death, Jean de Vauzèlles, illus. Hans Holbein the Younger.
* Old and Curious Playing Cards, H. T. Morley, Bracken Books, 1989.
 Art and Symbols of the Occult, James Wasserman.
 The Corpse and Popular Culture, The Body, details unavailable. But a wonderful little essay, especially concerning grave-robbing.
 The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. MacMillan London, 1980.
 German Poetry from 1750 to 1900. ed. Robert Browning. 'The German Library', series ed. Vokmar Sander. Continuum, New York. 1984.
* The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allen Poe. Of course!
* The Danse Macabre, symphonic poem written by Henri Cazalis, composed by Camille Saint-Saens, 1874.
* The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice, Futura Books, Macdonald & Co, London. 1992 (1990)
* Immortal Blood, Barbara Hambly, Allen & Unwin, London. 1988. Le Innocents clearly a must-see for vampires touring eighteenth century France.
©2011 Go to top