Dance of death (Fr. danse macabre; Ger. Totentanz)
- Malcolm Boyd
(Fr. danse macabre; Ger. Totentanz)
A medieval and Renaissance symbolic representation of death as a skeleton (or a procession of skeletons) leading the living to the grave; in more recent times a dance supposedly performed by skeletons, usually in a graveyard. The 14th-century epidemics of bubonic plague in Europe are generally thought to have influenced the creation of the dance of death, but its literary origins can be traced at least as far back as the Dit des trois morts et des trois vifs (before 1280) of Baudouin de Condé. The illustrations in the Danse macabre (1485), published by Guyot Marchant, and in Heinrich Knoblochzer’s so-called Heidelberger Totentanz (1490), as well as the famous woodcuts of Holbein in Les simulachres et historiées faces de la mort (1538; later known as Totentanz) depict skeletons playing musical instruments; but musical activity is by no means always present in 15th- and 16th-century pictures of the dance of death, and in most of them dancing is not shown either. A possible derivation of the French ‘macabre’ from the Hebrew and Yiddish word for a gravedigger suggests that the dance’s origins may lie in the customs of medieval gravediggers’ guilds....