Danse Macabre Images.
Camille Saint Saens: Danse Macabre Opus 40
Click "PLAY" if you want to listen to the music.
Danse Macabre /
Zigger-zigger-zig how they frisk and toss
The lady they say is of noble race
Zigger-zigger-zig hand in hand a-dancing
But hush! all at once their hands let go.
Danse Macabre / Henri Cazalis
Zig et zig et zag, la mort en cadence
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Danse Macabre and The Black Death
Dance of Death, also variously called Danse Macabre (French), Danza Macabra (Italian) or Totentanz
(German), is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death - no matter one's station in
life, the dance of death unites all. La Danse Macabre consists of the personified death leading a
row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king,
youngster, beautiful female, all skeletal. They were produced to remind people of how fragile their
lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life were. Its origins are postulated from
illustrated sermon texts; the earliest artistic examples are in a cemetery in Paris from 1424.
The deathly horrors of the 14th Century—such as recurring famines, the Hundred Years War in France
and, most of all, the Black Death, were culturally digested throughout Europe. The omnipresent
possibility of sudden and painful death increased the religious desire for penitence, but it also
evoked a hysterical desire for amusement while still possible, a last dance as a cold comfort. The
danse macabre combines both desires: similar to the popular mediaeval mystery plays, the dance-
with-death allegory was originally a didactic play to remind people of the inevitability of death
and to advise them strongly to be prepared all times for death.
The earliest examples of such plays, which consisted of short dialogs between Death and each of its
victims, can be found in the direct aftermath of the Black Death in Germany, where it was known as
the Totentanz, but also in Spain as la Danza de la Muerte. The French term danse macabre most
likely derives from Latin Chorea Machabæorum, literally "dance of the Maccabees". 2 Maccabees, a
deuterocanonical book of the Bible in which the grim martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons is
described, was a well-known mediaeval subject. It is possible that the Maccabean Martyrs were
commemorated in some early French plays or that people just associated the book’s vivid
descriptions of the martyrdom with the interaction between Death and its prey. Both the play and
the evolving paintings were ostensive penitential sermons which even illiterate people (who were
the overwhelming majority) could understand.
Furthermore, church frescoes dealing with death had a long tradition and were widespread, e.g. the
legend of the three men and the three dead: On a ride three young gentlemen meet the skeletal
remains of three of their ancestors who warn them: Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis (What
we were, you are; what we are, you will be). Numerous if often simple fresco versions of that
legend from the 13th century onwards have survived (for instance in the hospital church of Wismar).
Since they were showing pictorial sequences of men and skeletons covered with shrouds those
paintings can be regarded as cultural precursors of the new genre.
A danse macabre painting normally shows a round dance headed by Death. From the highest ranks of
the mediaeval hierarchy (usually pope and emperor) descending to its lowest (beggar, peasant and
child) each mortal’s hand is taken by a skeleton or an extremely decayed body. The famous Totentanz
in Lübeck’s Marienkirche (destroyed by an Allied bomb raid in WW II) presented Death very lively
and agile, making the impression that the skeletons were actually dancing, whereas their dancing
partners looked clumsy and passive. The apparent class distinction in almost all of these paintings
is completely neutralized by Death as the ultimate equalizer, so that a sociocritical element is
subtly inherent to the whole genre: The Totentanz of Metzin for instance shows how a pope crowned
with his tiara is being led into hell by the dancing Death.
The Black Death, or the Black Plague, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, widely
thought to have been caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis (Bubonic plague), but recently
attributed by some to other diseases.
The pandemic is thought to have begun in Central Asia or India and spread to Europe during the
1340s. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people; approximately 25-50
million of which occurred in Europe. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of
Europe's population. It may have reduced the world's population from an estimated 450 million to
between 350 and 375 million in 1400.
Medieval people called the 14th century catastrophe either the "Great Pestilence" or the "Great
Plague". Writers contemporary to the plague referred to the event as the "Great Mortality".
The term "Black Death" was introduced for the first time in 1833. It has been popularly thought
that the name came from a striking late-stage sign of the disease, in which the sufferer's skin
would blacken due to subepidermal hemorrhages (purpura), and the extremities would darken with
gangrene (acral necrosis). However, the term is more likely to refer to black in the sense of glum,
lugubrious or dreadful.
The Black Death was, according to chronicles, characterized by buboes (swellings in lymph nodes),
like the late 19th century Asian Bubonic plague. Scientists and historians at the beginning of the
20th century assumed that the Black Death was an outbreak of the same disease, caused by the
bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus
rattus). However, this view has recently been questioned by some scientists and historians. New
research suggests Black Death is lying dormant.
An interesting hypothesis about the epidemiology—the appearance, spread and especially
disappearance—of plague from Europe is that the flea-bearing rodent reservoir of disease was
eventually succeeded by another species. The black rat (Rattus rattus) was originally introduced
from Asia to Europe by trade, but was subsequently displaced and succeeded throughout Europe by the
bigger brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). The brown rat was not as prone to transmit the germ-bearing
fleas to humans in large die-offs due to a different rat ecology. The dynamic complexities of rat
ecology, herd immunity in that reservoir, interaction with human ecology, secondary transmission
routes between humans with or without fleas, human herd immunity and changes in each might explain
the eruption, dissemination, and re-eruptions of plague that continued for centuries until its
(even more) unexplained disappearance.
The classic sign of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in the groin, the neck and armpits,
which oozed pus and bled. Most victims died within four to seven days after infection. When the
plague reached Europe, it first struck port cities and then followed the trade routes, both by sea
The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of
thirty to seventy-five percent and symptoms including fever of 38 - 41 °C (101-105 °F), headaches,
painful aching joints, nausea and vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. Of those who
contracted the bubonic plague, 4 out of 5 died within eight days. Pneumonic plague was the second
most commonly seen form during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of ninety to ninety-five
percent. Symptoms included fever, cough and blood-tinged sputum. As the disease progressed, sputum
became free flowing and bright red. Septicaemic plague was the least common of the three forms,
with a mortality rate close to one hundred percent. Symptoms were high fevers and purple skin
The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or
how it spread. In 1348, the plague spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government
authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had
already perished. In crowded cities, it was not uncommon for as much as fifty percent of the
population to die. Europeans living in isolated areas suffered less, and monasteries and priests
were especially hard hit since they cared for the Black Death's victims. Because fourteenth century
healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes,
and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague's emergence. No one in the
fourteenth century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe
only God's anger could produce such horrific displays. There were many attacks against Jewish
communities. In August of 1349, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated. In
February of that same year, Christians murdered two thousand Jews in Strasbourg.Where government
authorities were concerned, most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of
foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large-
scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worst they contributed to a
continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain
abroad: from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers
because of crop failures from shortage of labour. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually
taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest
countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and
exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and
France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. Malnutrition, poverty,
disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in
the mid-fourteenth century ripe for tragedy.
The plague did more than just devastate the medieval population; it caused a substantial change in
economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have
concluded that Black Death exacerbated a recession in the European economy that had been under way
since the beginning of the century. As a consequence, social and economic change greatly
accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The church's power was weakened, and in
some cases, the social roles it had played were taken over by secular groups. Also the plague led
to peasant uprisings in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the
Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).
Europe had been overpopulated before the plague, and a reduction of 30% to 50% of the population
could have resulted in higher wages and more available land and food for peasants because of less
competition for resources. However, for reasons that are still debated, population levels declined
after the Black Death's first outbreak until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until
1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not entirely provide a satisfactory
explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity.
Differences in cultural and lifestyle practices between Jews and Christians led to persecution.
Jews were charged by some with having provoked the plague. Because Jews had a religious obligation
to be ritually clean, they did not use water from public wells. And so as previously mentioned,
Jews were suspected of causing the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Typically, comparatively
fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to rabbinical laws that promoted habits that were
generally cleaner than that of a typical medieval villager. Jews were also socially isolated, often
living in Jewish ghettos. Because isolated people were less likely to be infected, there were
differences in mortality rates between Jews and non-Jews and this led to raised suspicions in
people who had no concept of bacterial transmission.
Christian mobs attacked Jewish settlements across Europe; by 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller
Jewish communities had been destroyed, and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred. This
persecution reflected more than ethnic hatred. In many places, attacking Jews was a way to
criticize the monarchs who protected them (Jews were under the protection of the king, and often
called the "royal treasure"), and monarchic fiscal policies, which were often administered by Jews.
An important legacy of the Black Death was to cause the eastward movement of what was left of north
European Jewry to Poland and Russia, where it remained until the twentieth century.
Flagellants practiced self-flogging (whipping of oneself) to atone for sins. The movement became
popular after general disillusionment with the church's reaction to the Black Death. The Black
Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague
victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or accurately
explain the reasons for the plague outbreaks. One theory of transmission was that it spread through
air, and was referred to as miasma, or 'bad air'. This increased doubt in the clergy's abilities.
Extreme alienation with the Church culminated in either support for different religious groups such
as the flagellants, which from their late 13th century beginnings grew tremendously during the
opening years of the Black Death, and later to a pursuit of pleasure and hedonism. It was a common
belief at the time that the plague was due to God's wrath, caused by the sins of mankind; In
response, the flagellants travelled from town to town, whipping themselves in an effort to mimic
the sufferings of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Originating in Germany, several miraculous tales
emerged from their efforts, such as a child being revived from the dead, and a talking cow. These
stories further fuelled the belief that the flagellants were more effective than church leaders. It
may have been that the flagellant's later involvement in hedonism was an effort to accelerate or
absorb God's wrath, to shorten the time with which others suffered. More likely, the focus of
attention and popularity of their cause contributed to a sense that the world itself was ending,
and that their individual actions were of no consequence.
Sadly, the flagellants may have more likely contributed to the actual spreading of the disease,
rather than its cure. Presumably, there were towns that the flagellants visited or passed through
which were largely unaffected by the plague until that point, only to be infected by fleas carried
either by the flagellant's followers, or the flagellants themselves. This is a common ironic theme
in how individuals at the time dealt with the plague - that in nearly all cases, the methods
employed to defend against the plague encouraged its spread.
The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their proximity with the sick, who sought
refuge there, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted
in a mass influx of hastily-trained and inexperienced clergy members, many of whom knew little of
the discipline and rigor of the veterans they replaced. This led to abuses by the clergy in years
afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people.
Inspired by Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common
painting motif in late-medieval periods.
After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism,
and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death.
In retrospect, it seemed like everything the people thought to do at the time simply made the
problem worse. For example, since many equated the plague with God's wrath against sin, and that
cats were often considered in league with the Devil, cats were killed en masse. Had this bias
toward cats not existed, local rodent populations could have been kept down, lessening the spread
of plague-infected fleas from host to host.
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