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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: September 2013

Pestilence and Poetry: John Lydgate's Danse Macabre


O Ye folks hard hearted as a stone,

Whiche to this worlde geue al your aduertence,

Lyke as it should euer lasten in one, –

Where is your wit, where is your prouidence

To seen aforne the sodayn violence

Of cruel death, that be so wyse and sage,

Which slayeth, alas, by stroke or pestilence

Both yong and olde of lowe and high parage?

Death is the active subject in this fifteenth-century poem and is portrayed as a multi-faceted character, being both perceptive and learned but also tactile and aggressive. Plague is the agency, or form of attack, by which Death's desires appear to be fulfilled. His targets: everyone. John Lydgate translated this text, he tells us in the ‘Verba tanslatoris’ or prologue to the poem, from a French original ‘Danse macabre in cimetière des Innocents’, which it is presumed he saw when he was in Paris (as a member of the earl of Warwick's administrative staff) in 1426. A slightly revised version was inscribed and decorated with painted images on the cloister walls of the circular Pardon churchyard at St. Paul's cathedral in London, in about 1430, following a request by John Carpenter, the city's common clerk. It was destroyed about 120 years later during the Edwardian Reformation, in 1549. The text, nevertheless, remains extant in twelve manuscripts. In the majority of these manuscripts the figures with whom Death interacts are: a pope, emperor, cardinal, king, patriarch, constable, archbishop, baron, princess, bishop, squire, abbot, abbess, bailiff, astronomer, burgess, canon secular, merchant, Carthusian, sergeant, monk, usurer, poor man, physician, lover, youthful squire, gentlewoman, man of law, Master John Rykill, fool, parson, juror, minstrel, labourer, friar minor, child, young clerk and hermit. Lydgate makes six additions to his French source: the four women, a juror and a conjuror (Master Rykill).