By Brandy Barrancotto
Quaestio: The UCLA Undergraduate History Journal, Vol.3 (2005)
Introduction: “Sir Cordelier, to you my hand is extended To convey and lead you to this dance Which in your preaching, you have often taught That I am most fearfully to be dreaded.” -Anonymous, 15 th century
“One by one, we become the mistress of Death. Extending his bony grip, he pulls us into his fleshless, decayed frame and begins whirling us around in a morbid dance of fatal seduction. We are Death’s partner in the danse macabre.” Often unwilling, and always incapable of refusal, all will be led in a series of steps, choreographed specifically for each individual partner, that will become our own personal dance of death. The music of life fades gently into the background as the dance progresses, and as it comes to an end, we are escorted off the ghostly dance floor and out of the world we once knew. It is irresistible and inescapable; all must dance when death so desires.
The danse macabre and the overarching theme of mortality became an important cultural concept during the later Middle Ages, pervading all aspects of late medieval life. The imminent and indiscriminant nature of death became a popular motif in art and literature, and was the subject of countless sermons. Solace was found in decay as the ultimate equalizer of men. All will perish, and all will become equal when stripped from their flesh and reduced to mere bones; social titles, lineage, occupation, wealth, power and prestige, similarly corrode and disappear as the body becomes ashes. The great king, the rich lord, the honored knight, the respected scholar, the revered monk, the toiling laborer, the lowly peasant and the innocent child will all dance in the same danse macabre.
For many, the expectation of death was the only relief from a life filled with hardships and tragedy. Although shuddering at the expectation of their own end, frequent reminders of the certainty of death for every man served to provide comfort and solidarity among individuals. By confronting death on a regular basis, whether through art, literature, the spoken word or witness, medieval man was able to deal with its harsh reality and the prospect of his own demise. The subject of death, acquiring such prominence beginning in the later fourteenth century and reaching its epoch in the fifteenth century, was the product of repeated devastation and peaking mortality rates during these centuries, due to a series of calamitous events, including war, famine, disease and natural disaster. Within this tumultuous period, perhaps the single most influential force that proved to have the greatest impact on challenging traditional medieval life was the epidemic known as the ‘Black Death.’