By Johatn P. Mackenbach
American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 85, No.9 (1995)
Abstract: Late-medieval murals and books of the then-popular “dances of death” usually represented the living according to their social standing. These works of art thus provide an interesting opportunity to study the relationship between social inequality and death as it was perceived by the works’ commissioners or executers. The social hierarchy in these dances of death is mostly based on the scheme of the three orders of the feudal society; variations relate to the inclusion of female characters, new occupations, and non-Christian characters. Many dances of death contain severe judgments on highplaced persons and thus seem to be expressions of a desire for greater social equality.
However, a more thorough analysis reveals that the equality of all before death that these dances of death proclaimed held nothing for the poor but only threatened the rich. Because of a lack of reliable data, it is not yet completely clear whether during the late Middle Ages all were indeed equally at risk for premature mortality. Available evidence, however, suggests that the clergy and nobility actually had a higher life expectancy than people placed lower in the social hierarchy.
Despite modern changes in the perception of, and knowledge about, social inequality and mortality, these dances of death still capture the imagination, and they suggest that the phenomenon of socioeconomic inequalities in mortality could be used more to emphasize contemporary moral messages on social inequality.