The fatal masquerade came to be called the Bal des Ardents—Dance of the Burning Ones—but it could as well have been called the Danse Macabre, after a new kind of processional play on the theme of death that had lately come into vogue. Of uncertain origin and meaning, the name Macabre first appeared in writing in a poem of 1376 by Anjou’s chancellor, Jean le Fèvre, containing the line, “Je fis de Macabré le danse (I do the Danse Macabre). It may have derived from an older Danse Machabreus, meaning “of the Maccabees,” or from similarity to the Hebrew word for grave-diggers and the fact that Jews worked as grave-diggers in medieval France.
The dance itself probably developed under the influence of recurring plague, as a street performance to illustrate sermons on the submission of all alike to Death the Leveler. In murals illustrating the dance at the Church of the Innocents in Paris, fifteen pairs of figures, clerical and lay, from pope and emperor down the scale to monk and peasant, friar and child, make up the procession.
“Advance, see yourselves in us,” they say in the accompanying verses, “dead, naked, rotten and stinking. So will you be.… To live without thinking of this risks damnation.… Power, honor, riches are naught; at the hour of death only good works count.… Everyone should think at least once a day of his loathsome end,” to remind him to do good deeds and go to mass if he wishes to be redeemed and escape “the dreadful pain of hell without end which is unspeakable.”
Each figure speaks his piece: the constable knows that Death carries off the bravest, even Charlemagne; the knight, once loved by the ladies, knows that he will make them dance no more; the plump abbot, that “the fattest rots first”; the astrologer, that his knowledge cannot save him; the peasant who has lived all his days in care and toil and often wished for death, now when the hour has come would much rather be digging in the vineyards “even in rain and wind.”
The point is made over and over, that here is you and you and you.
The cadaverous figure who leads the procession is not Death but the Dead One. “It is yourself,” says the inscription under the murals of the dance at La Chaise-Dieu in Auvergne.
The cult of death was to reach its height in the 15th century, but its source was in the 14th. When death was to be met any day around any corner, it might have been expected to become banal; instead it exerted a ghoulish fascination. Emphasis was on worms and putrefaction and gruesome physical details. Where formerly the dominant idea of death was the spiritual journey of the soul, now the rotting of the body seemed more significant.
Effigies of earlier centuries were serene, with hands joined in prayer and eyes open, anticipating eternal life.Now, following Harsigny’s example, great prelates often had themselves shown as cadavers in realistic detail. To accomplish this, death masks and molds of bodily parts were made of wax, incidentally promoting portraiture and a new recognition of individual traits. The message of the effigies was that of the Danse Macabre. Over the scrawny, undraped corpse of Cardinal Jean de La Grange, who was to die in Avignon in 1402, the inscription asks observers, “So, miserable one, what cause for pride?”
The cult of the lugubrious in coming decades made the cemetery of the Innocents at Paris, with the Danse Macabre painted on its walls, the most desirable burial place and popular meeting place in Paris. Charnel houses built into the 48 arches of the cloister were donated by rich bourgeois and nobles—among them Boucicaut and Berry—to hold their remains. Because twenty parishes had the right of burial at the Innocents, the old dead had to be continually disinterred and their tombstones sold to make room for the new. Skulls and bones piled up under the cloister arches were an attraction for the curious, and bleak proof of ultimate leveling.
Shops of all kinds found room in and around the cloister; prostitutes solicited there, alchemists found a market place, gallants made it a rendezvous, dogs wandered in and out. Parisians came to tour the charnel houses, watch burials and disinterments, gaze at the murals, and read the verses. They listened to daylong sermons and shuddered as the Dead One blowing his horn entered from the Rue St. Denis leading his procession of awful dancers.
From Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Saint-Saens’s orchestral piece apparently started out as an 1872 art song based on this poem, Danse Macabre, by Henri Cazalis:
Tap, tap, tap - Death rhythmically, Taps a tomb with his heel, Death at midnight plays a gigue, Tap, tap, tap, on his violin. The Winter wind blows, the night is dark, The lime-trees groan aloud; White skeletons flit across the gloom, Running and leaping beneath their huge shrouds. Tap, tap, tap, everyone's astir, You hear the bones of the dancers knock, A lustful couple sits down on the moss, As if to savour past delights. Tap, tap, tap, Death continues, Endlessly scraping his shrill violin. A veil has slipped! The dancer's naked! Her partner clasps her amorously. They say she's a baroness or marchioness, And the callow gallant a poor cartwright. Good God! And now she's giving herself, As though the bumpkin were a baron! Tap, tap, tap, what a saraband! Circles of corpses all holding hands! Tap, tap, tap, in the throng you can see King and peasant dancing together! But shh! Suddenly the dance is ended, They jostle and take flight - the cock has crowed; Ah! Nocturnal beauty shines on the poor! And long live death and equality
Danse Macabre Zig et zig et zig, la mort en cadence Frappant une tombe avec son talon, La mort à minuit joue un air de danse, Zig et zig et zag, sur son violon. Le vent d'hiver souffle, et la nuit est sombre, Des gémissements sortent des tilleuls; Les squelettes blancs vont à travers l'ombre Courant et sautant sous leurs grands linceuls, Zig et zig et zig, chacun se trémousse, On entend claquer les os des danseurs, Un couple lascif s'asseoit sur la mousse Comme pour goûter d'anciennes douceurs. Zig et zig et zag, la mort continue De racler sans fin son aigre instrument. Un voile est tombé! La danseuse est nue! Son danseur la serre amoureusement. La dame est, dit-on, marquise ou baronne. Et le vert galant un pauvre charron - Horreur! Et voilà qu'elle s'abandonne Comme si le rustre était un baron! Zig et zig et zig, quelle sarabande! Quels cercles de morts se donnant la main! Zig et zig et zag, on voit dans la bande Le roi gambader auprès du vilain! Mais psit! tout à coup on quitte la ronde, On se pousse, on fuit, le coq a chanté Oh! La belle nuit pour le pauvre monde! Et vive la mort et l'égalité!