Les Morts Musiciens 1486

Les Morts musiciens
Vous, qu'une destinèe commune
Fait vivre dans des conditions si diverses,
Vous danserez tous cette danse
Un jour, les bons comme les mèchants.
Vos corps seront mangès par les vers.
Hèlas! Regardez-nous:
Morts, pourris, puants, squelettiques;
Comme nous sommes, tels vous serez.

Historians believe this dance of death to be the ancestor of all others. Painted from August 1424 to 1425, the
fresco decorated the southern wall of the Innocents' cloister in Paris, which was surrounded by the biggest cemetery in
the city. In 1669, it was destroyed in order to enlarge the road. At that time, the dance of death was already seriously
damaged and had sunk into oblivion. Louis XIV contemporaries despised this artistic genre, which came from a period
of history they thought to be barbarian and without any sense of aesthetic. Fortunately, two manuscripts in the
possession of the Paris National Library have passed on to us the text of this important dance of death. We also know
its pictures from a book by Guyot Marchant, a printer who had published in 1485 a woodcut edition from the dance
of death, from which a single copy remains nowadays, in the Library of Grenoble. We know almost for sure that the
pictures in Marchant's edition are similar to those ones painted in the Innocents' cemetery, although they are not
identical in every detail. In the manuscript, the columns that separate the characters stand for the stone arches of the
cloister. Transferring the fresco into a book, a different type of medium, required an adaptation; it was not possible to
show the whole dance on a single page, so it had to be divided into several pictures. This sometimes caused confusion.
For example, it is hard to understand why the sergeant says "Je suis pris de ca et de la" (I am being attacked on all
sides) when death actually stands on the next page. The manuscript also innovated in another way: the characters'
clothes were modified to fit the 18th-century fashion.

The Paris dance of death begins with an introduction given by a "reciter". Then come four Death musicians
and then the dance itself: the pope, the emperor, the cardinal, the king, the patriarch, the constable, the archbishop,
the knight, the bishop, the squire, the abbot, the bailiff, the savant, the burgher, the canon, the merchant, the
Carthusian, the sergeant, the monk, the usurer (with the poor), the doctor, the courtier, the lawyer, the minstrel, the
priest, the peasant, the Franciscan, the child, the cleric, and the hermit. The dance ends with the King of death
accompanying the reciter. It is worth noticing that no woman takes part in the dance and that clergymen alternate with
laymen (savants, doctors and lawyers being considered members of the clergy in the fourteenth century). Death
stands at the right side of each character, except in the case of the hermit; between the latter and the cleric is a second
skeleton, who bows as if he were greeting someone.

Death is represented in various positions, sometimes naked, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding a scythe
or a spear, a shovel or a piece of wood (to make a coffin? a cross?) Death usually takes the shape of an emaciated
human body. Only the skeleton coupled with the Franciscan has features instead of a mere skull. The anonymous
artist who painted Paris dance of death was as talented as imaginative. The verses are credited to Jean Gerson - a true
pessimist. According to Gerson's philosophy, men are conceited creatures with a black and wicked heart. His verses
have a cynical tone that cannot be overheard. Death tells the patriarch: "You will never be pope in Rome". He makes
fun of the abbot ("The fattest man is the first to rot") as of the doctor, who is unable to heal himself. The author finds
fault with everyone, except maybe for the child, the Carthusian and the Franciscan.