Memento mori.

Do we really need reminding that we are all going to die? Apparently we once thought we did. The dance of death/dance macabre category of book enjoyed strong sales back in the fifteenth century. I guess if you’ve got to go you may as well exit having a good time dancing your way off stage. Or is it more that by dancing you’ll take your mind off the real issue: dance your way to the head of the set and just vanish? The Princeton University Library’s exhibition Gutenberg & After includes one of the two known surviving copies of La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes. As a note in the front of Princeton’s copy of this 1499 book tells us the only other known copy is in the British Museum. (You can leaf through a digitized version here.)

In this Lyons edition a few new woodcuts were added. One is this depiction of death coming to get book trade workers. This illustration is frequently reproduced — it’s the only contemporary illustration of a fifteenth century print works that we have.

On the left we see the compositor at work sitting at his typecase, following the copy which is propped up in front of him, adding sort after sort to his composing stick. Behind him the pressman is being relieved of the task of pulling on that lever every time a new sheet of paper was put into the press. (A relief since this was quite hard work.) The apprentice in the background, brandishing his ink ball, seems not yet to be getting a dance ticket.

After a line of Latin which I can’t make out, the text below the illustration reads

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.

Death addresses the printers: “Come you printers and whirl in a dance with us, come all, come quietly, because in the end it’s beyond doubt that you’re all going to die”. The printers react: “Alas, where will we find refuge now that death has got its eye on us? We have printed the entire corpus of holy theology, laws, decrees, and poetry”. On the right hand side of the woodcut a bookseller also gets his comeuppance. He seems rather resigned: “If, despite whatever I might wish, I’ve got to join the dance, I say OK”.

Danse macabre books had been being printed in Paris in the years before 1499. Matthias Huss, a Lyons printer copied these Paris editions, presumably recutting the woodcut illustrations, the originals of which were apparently made by Pierre le Rouge. It is noticeable how superior in quality the woodcuts based on le Rouge’s originals are.

Here the Pope and the Emperor get the bad news

Still we see few reproductions of these other illustrations: that all walks of life end in death is understandably a less excitiing bit of news to us than what an early print works looked like.