In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dance of Death

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Background
  • Reference Works
  • Visual Primary Sources

Medieval Studies Dance of Death
Sophie Oosterwijk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0020


The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) is an allegorical confrontation of the living with death. It is both a literary and a visual theme that aims to remind readers and viewers of their own mortality by presenting a range of social representatives who are summoned to die. Its origins are still a matter for debate, but the theme most likely developed in the 14th century and combines morality with estates satire. The earliest extant version appears to be the Spanish Dança general de la Muerte dialogue poem of c. 1390–1400, yet there must have been earlier prototypes, as there is already mention of “de Macabré la dance” in Jean le Fèvre’s 1376 poem Le respit de la mort. The earliest recorded visual example is a (lost) wall painting of 1424–1425 in Paris, which became the catalyst for the spread of the theme across Europe; it incorporated the French dialogue poem with a painted chain of dead and living dancers. John Lydgate adapted the French poem for his Middle English Dance of Death c. 1426, which formed the basis for a (lost) painted cycle of c. 1430 at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The German Totentanz tradition may have been a parallel development: visual examples include the (lost) painted cycles in Basel (c. 1440) and Lübeck (1463). The series of woodcuts designed by Hans Holbein the Younger in the early 1520s (published in 1538) signals a new Renaissance approach to the theme.

General Overviews

Clark 1950 is still the main monograph in English to offer a general overview of the Dance of Death across Europe; it is concise and ambitious in its scope but somewhat dated in view of the wealth of new literature and new ideas published especially in continental Europe. Gertsman 2010 is a more recent monograph in English, but not so much an overview as its particular focus is on performance, viewer experience, and semiotics; it has illustrations throughout; and transcriptions of a number of key texts, albeit without translations. Corvisier 1998 is a slim, readable overview of the history of the Dance and its precursors in French. Cosacchi 1965 focuses very much on the German tradition, origins, and dissemination of the Dance of Death. Oosterwijk 2004 provides an updated English survey of the Dance of Death across Europe with extensive references, while Oosterwijk 2009 is a continuation of this research. Rosenfeld 1968 is still widely cited, but the author’s hypothesis about the German origins of the Dance is no longer tenable (see also Theories). The essays in Tenenti 2002 are much broader in covering different aspects of macabre art over a longer period and are somewhat variable in quality, but they include a wealth of illustrations. Utzinger and Utzinger 1996 is an illustrated guide of extant Dance of Death examples and other things macabre across Europe. While the focus of Hammerstein 1980 is on music and dance, it has an extremely useful catalogue of examples with a wealth of illustrations.

  • Clark, James C. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Glasgow: Jackson, 1950.

    Still a useful introduction to the subject with a survey of the occurrence of the Dance across Europe, albeit outdated in some of its earlier assumptions about dates and examples; includes some illustrations.

  • Corvisier, André. Les Danses Macabres. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.

    A slim but useful study on the subject and its wider context with some illustrations, statistics, and two maps.

  • Cosacchi, Stephan. Makabertanz: Der Totentanz in Kunst, Poesie und Brauchtum des Mittelalters. Meisenheim am Glan, Germany: Verlag Anton Hain, 1965.

    An ambitious if somewhat uneven study of the Dance of Death, its origins, and its precursors, with a special focus on the German tradition. Some black-and-white illustrations, but the lack of an index is a serious drawback.

  • Gertsman, Elina. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance. Studies in the Visual Cultures of the Middle Ages 3. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

    A richly illustrated study that offers theoretical insights into the medieval Dance of Death tradition across Europe, especially from a performance and semiotics point of view, with a substantial appendix, including four edited key texts (without translations or notes).

  • Hammerstein, Reinhold. Tanz und Musik des Todes: Die mittelalterlichen Totentänze und ihr Nachleben. Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag, 1980.

    The catalogue in the second part of this monograph offers a valuable survey of medieval and early modern examples of the Dance of Death across Europe with copious illustrations and a useful bibliography, but no index.

  • Oosterwijk, Sophie. “Of Corpses, Constables, and Kings: The Danse Macabre in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Culture.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 157.1 (2004): 169–190.

    A concise introduction to the medieval Dance of Death, its origins, and its spread across Europe, with illustrations and extensive notes. Also available online as a chapter in Oosterwijk 2009.

  • Oosterwijk, Sophie. “‘Fro Paris to Inglond’? The Danse Macabre in Text and Image in Late-Medieval England.” PhD thesis, Leiden University, 2009.

    Doctoral thesis based in part on articles previously published; offers a wider discussion of the adaptation and dissemination of the Dance of Death motif in England. Available online

  • Rosenfeld, Hellmut. Der mittelalterliche Totentanz: Entstehung–Entwicklung–Bedeutung. Rev. ed. Cologne: Böhlau, 1968.

    Inevitably somewhat dated but still a useful study, albeit with a questionable German bias (see also Theories); some black and white illustrations. First published in 1954.

  • Tenenti, Alberto, ed. Humana Fragilitas: The Themes of Death in Europe from the 13th to the 18th Century. Clusone, Italy: Ferrari Editrice, 2002.

    Lavishly illustrated volume containing seven essays that offer an overview of death-related art across Europe. Somewhat variable in quality but very wide-ranging in its discussion of macabre culture.

  • Utzinger, Bertrand, and Hélène Utzinger. Itinéraires des Danses Macabres. Chartres, France: Garnier, 1996.

    As the title suggests, rather like a gazetteer but without a map or index. Still useful in drawing attention to lesser known examples in unexpected places.

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