(p. 375 ) Appendix The Plague and the Dance of Death
Although the connection has been challenged by some historians, there are good grounds for supposing that the overwhelming experience of the Black Death, that devastating pandemic which carried off up to one-third of the population of Europe,1 was crucial to the conception of the danse macabre—just as the continuing ravages of the plague helped to sustain the popularity of the motif and its derivatives until the latter part of the seventeenth century.2 The relationship between the plague and macabre art has been challenged by Clark, who points out that the Paris Danse ‘was painted in one of the brighter intervals which occur in this most depressing of periods’;3 while Ariès argues that macabre art, rather than reflecting the mood of morbid despair described by Huizinga and others in their account of the crisis of the late Middle Ages, is the expression of a passionate attachment to life. But such an attitude can be read as a perfectly comprehensible reaction to the trauma of mass death, confirming the indictments of contemporary moralists against the careless hedonism produced by the plague. In the case of some danses macabres, moreover, there are historical traditions which link the paintings to particular outbreaks of pestilence. According to Merian, for example, the Basel Tod was commissioned (p. 376 ) in the immediate wake of the plague that swept through the city in 1439; its victims included several participants in the great Council of Basel (1431–49), and Merian identified a number of its figures as portraits of leading members of that Council.4 Similarly the Lübeck Totentanz was painted in 1463 in anticipation of a major epidemic;5 while the last of the great mural Danses macabres, painted at Lucerne in 1635, was commissioned by the city fathers as a response to a decade of war and devastating plague.6 The Danse macabre des femmes, apparently written during the great Parisian plague of 1481–4,7 is introduced by Death's Musicians, who call on their female victims to remember the mass burials of Paris with their
—and the poem makes explicit reference to the plague in the Wetnurse's reply to Death:
- Of bones from people who have died …
- And who now are piled
- One on another, fat and thin
In any case the argument which sees the popularity of the danse macabre as a response to the trauma of mass death need not depend on exact chronological coincidence, since plague remained endemic in Europe—and hence a formative influence on the European consciousness—for more than 300 years after the outbreak of the Black Death in 1347.
- I feel a swelling under my clothing,
- Between my arms, when I breathe.
- The child is dying of plague.8
(1) Some estimates still run as high as 50%—a figure which may well hold good for particular localities. Although the statistics have been widely debated, especially since J. F. D. Shrewsbury's radically revisionist History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), which argued for an overall rate of only 5%, the weight of current opinion still favours a figure of about one-third. See J. M. W. Bean, ‘The Black Death: The Crisis and its Social and Economic Consequences’, in Daniel Williman (ed.), The Black Death: The Impact of the Fourteenth Century Plague (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1982), 22–38; Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death (New York: Free Press, 1984), pp. xiii–xv; Christopher Morris, ‘Plague in Britain’, in Paul Slack et al., The Plague Reconsidered (Matlock: Local Population Studies, I977), 37–47; Ziegler, Black Death, 230–1.
(2) See e.g. Joseph Polzer, ‘Aspects of Fourteenth-Century Iconogography of Death and the Plague’, in Williman (ed.), Black Death, 107–30; and Douce, Holbein's Dance of Death, 31. Among recent historians of death, Clare Gittings (Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England) accepts the relation between macabre art and the trauma of plague, observing only that ‘it is perhaps surprising that there was not even greater anxiety and despair aroused by death’ (p. 35).
(3) Ariès, Hour of our Death, 124–32; Clark, Dance of Death, 23.
(4) See Clark, Dance of Death, 64–5. According to Merian, the Pabst represented Felix V, the Kaiser Emperor Sigismund, and the Koenig Albrecht II, King of the Romans. Clark suggests the further identification of the pregnant Kaiserin with Sigismund's daughter, who bore a child to her husband, Albrecht II, after his death in 1440.
(5) Polzer, ‘Iconography of Death’, 117.
(6) Clark, Dance of Death, 76; the Lucerne Tod replaced their original project for a cheerful and decorative design. A good portion of the narrative in Samuel Rowlands's Terribel Battell betweene … Time, and Death, a late response to the plague which ravaged London at the beginning of James I's reign, is devoted to a Dance of Death sequence in which Death arrests a series of figures representing ‘Each faculty, profession, and degree’: ‘About this time much work I had to do, | As woeful London did both feel and see, | A dreadful plague began six hundred two, | Which did continue out six hundred three’; sig. D1v.
(7) See Harrison's edition, 8. Harrison is among those who see a strong connection between the danse macabre and ‘the psychological trauma resulting from the great plagues’.