- The Dance of Death

The Universal Dance of Death

A Spanish Poem About the Dance of Death

The Universal Dance

"La Danza general de la Muerte" (The Universal Dance of the Dead) is a poem written in Castillian Spanish around 1400. It consists of more than 600 verses depicting members of three Medieval social classes - the nobility, the clergy, and commoners - each in turn being asked to join the dance by Death.

A Spanish Poem on the Dance of Death

The Danza general de la Muerte is a fifteenth-century Castilian allegorical and anonymous poem written in dodecasyllables grouped in royal couplets that belongs to the lyrical-dramatic literary genre of the dances of death or macabre dances that was originally developed in France(Danse Macabre)and Germany(Upper Quatrain). This work by an anonymous author is preserved in a manuscript of the Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, although it is not the original text.

The origin of the text

The Author

There were many opinions regarding the author of this work, but few names finally ended up standing out. On the one hand, Martinez Gil1and Sola Solé agree in attributing the work to a Benedictine monk of San Juan de la Peña and the latter believes it was inspired by a disappeared Catalan version. On the other hand, J. A. de los Rios. He held the hypothesis of a writing of this work by Rabbi Shem Tob,of whom another work could be found within the manuscript of the Escorial, but this theory is completely rejected today by the scientific community. However, Morreale and Martial affirm that it is not a particularly Christian work of literature and even less especially Franciscan, Benedictine or Dominican. However, it should be noted that, among all the existing theories evoked, only the name of Pedro de Verague stands out, mentioned by Francisco Rico.

Despite the little information we have, Victor Infantes summarizes what we know about the author's personality:

"Three aspects stand out (covert) in the cultural and social horizon of the author. In the first place, he has a fairly significant knowledge of the previous texts of Castilian literature, not always detectable, but underlying his poetic formation. Many of the linguistic terms appear in literary authors of their string, the equivalences are similar and their (conscious) use similar; he knows, therefore, literary sources, not environmental, he has handled readings of manuscripts, today little accessible in our idea of a non-linear transmission of the literary document, and, we believe, that surpasses in many concepts a pure didacticism to the extreme. Secondly, we find it incontestable that it belongs to a religious sphere familiar with sacred doctrine and rhetoric. His preaching artifice, his moral sympathy and his pious suspicion seem to be devout debtors of a liturgical formation that unfolds comfortably in a Catholic cursus. Ultimately, the work aims to move afflicted feelings and gives prophetic wrapping to a theology of forgiveness and grace, when repentance is consistent with devotion. Finally, the author, in return, knows the vulgar resources of the popular literary backroom; the work is folded with vital recurrences, with solicitous complicities of the social context, with correct questions to the daily question. It does not disdain, of course, the approach to the popular conscience of the reader, resorts to the practical scenario of the facts and exposes (denounces?) the complacency before the spectacle of human weaknesses. I repeat, his voluntary anonymity, perhaps due to other duties further away from public leisure, but, behind his intention, hides a good poet of Castilian art and a subtle taster of the culture that surrounded him. "

The Spanish Dance of Death

The Manuscript

Although we do not have the original work, the data is preserved according to which Hernando de Briviesca, Master of the jewels, delivered the work to The Escorial, on April 30, 1575, in accordance with the monarch Felipe II's direction to provide this library with as many manuscripts as possible. However, we do not know the previous origin of this manuscript. It is a codex in quarter, with a total size of 198x140 mm. In this two types of letters stand out, the Gothic and the italics, both characteristics of the Fifteenth century Castilian, which allows us to know that the compilation was quite recent. Along with the work of marras are also included the Moral Proverbs of the Hebrew-Spanish poet of the fourteenth century Sem Tob, the Doctrina de la discrišiˇn of Pedro de Verague, the Revelation of a hermit and the Poem of Fernan Gonzalez, a song of deed that tells the numerous exploits of this key character of Castilian history, that is, works written during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The controversy regarding the origin of this work was very important and the critical examination of it by Victor Infantes allowed to see more clearly within the multitude of opinions that stood out. From the existence, on the one hand, of the manuscript of the Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial,and on the other hand, of a different work printed in Seville in 1520, known as Dance of Death, which some consider inferior to that of the fifteenth century and differs in having new characters, a very different sermonizing purpose and a structure in which the laity and the clerics do not alternate, tries to summarize the transmission of the work, rejecting the hypothesis of Sola-Solé and Marciales based on partial linguistic and morphological arguments to oppose the argument of the presence of certain perifrastic constructions that suggest the date of 1400 for the writing of the original version of the General Dance of Death.

As for the nature of the work, it is not very clear either, since we do not know if it is a simple translation or an original work that would take as a model the foreign traditions already explicit. NMany critics such as H. Bermejo and DC Cvitanovic who advocated the theory of an adaptation of a French play. However, in addition to the absence of definition of this French work, Martinez Gil1 affirms that Spanish dance has its own characteristics that distinguish it from other Europeanversions of the dance if death: it is more moderate, less terrifying and more in line with the Christian tradition that encourages a serene attitude towards death. In addition, the Spanish version has eleven more characters than the French Dance Macabre. The most likely hypothesis is, as Francisco Ricohad already suggested, the existence of an Aragonese or, even more likely, Catalan source: "A Catalan model or of linguistic and geographical areas bordering Catalonia is the most successful possibility in the literary and cultural mosaic where Dance was conceived".


Editions of the Spanish Dance of Death

Victor Infantes in his book Las danzas generales de la Muerte: genesis y desarrollo de un género medieval13he devoted himself to a thorough study of the 1520 edition and its modern publishers. In fact, he states that the first edition that was made of our work took place about a century after the invention of the printing press,that is, quite early. The painter Isidoro Lozano took out the last copy of this book in the Library of the Roman Sapienza to give it to José Amador de los Rios around 1860 and, since then, the aforementioned work can no longer be found. Today the text is saved thanks to its edition by Amador de los Rios in his Historia Critica de la literatura española.14What is paradoxical here is the opposition between the accuracy of certain data and the apparent forgetfulness of copying certain passages from the original text, as revealed by the comparison with the Escorial manuscript.

As for the editions that emerged in the following centuries, Victor Infantes notes after a careful study that:

"the most absolute printed silence extends over the Danza to the quotation of Faustino de Arévalo in Hymnodia Hispanica for the edition and that of T. Antonio Sanchez for the manuscript; perhaps guided by the latter, the American Hispanist G. Ticknor opens in 1849 the list of about thirty editors of the Escurialense text that we are going to relate and comment on in search of the critical fortune of our Danza. G. Ticknor is followed by P. de Gayangos and E. de Vedia in translating their History,adding notes and commentaries, already cited; both editions (actually only one) are based directly on the codex and have worse or better fortune in transcription according to the rules of their time. Years later it will be Florencio Janer who undertakes the company and, after a new comparison of the manuscript, edits the Danza with the title of Castilian Poem of the fourteenth century, enriched with a Preamble, Facsimile and Explanation of the most outdated voices. The edition is not a dechado of perfections, but its transcendence is enormous, because it will pass to the famous t. LVII of the Library of Spanish Authors, Castilian Poets prior to the fifteenth century. Collection made by Don Tomas Antonio Sanchez. Continued by His Excellency Mr. Pedro José Pidal. And considerably augmented and illustrated in view of the codices and ancient manuscripts by Don Florencio Janer; here (and in the numerous reprints of the collection) is where a large part of the reading public (generations of readers, little done even to the manias of criticism) has known our macabre text."

The general characteristics of the Danza General (The Universal Dance)

The Genre

Numerous commentators believe that the work is part of the theatrical genre. The most outstanding judgment is that of Fernandez de Moratin in his Historical and Critical Catalogue of Dramatic Pieces Prior to Lope de Vega:"It could perhaps be believed that, like so many other later works of the same species, it is only the description or explanation of some painting. It is enough to reply to this, that so far there is no news of having found in Spain artistic works of that species, and that the poetry,of which we speak, does not make special allusion to them. More naturally its meaning is explained by assuming that it was written for a mimic-religious procession, of which without dispute they gave the first idea for the symbolic representations of the dances of the dead. [...] The nature of this composition suggests that it was performed with [[recited singing, dancing and instrumental music,forming a whole homogeneous whole". Within its framework are inscribed the critical comments of Diaz Escovar, Cañete, Lasso de la Vega, Mila and Fontanals, Creizenach.

However, little by little this conception began to be questioned. Bonilla and San Martin, despite presenting this work in their book Las Bacantes or the origin of the theater allows you to exemplify it. Similarly, Lazarus Carreter highlights the arguments in favor of a theatricality of the work, but qualifies his opinion by stating that, despite its meticulous study, it cannot be said at once that the work was a simple dramatic text, which does not exclude the hypothesis of an adjoining genre. Hence other hypotheses are born, such as that of Romeu Figueras, who advocates that "dance, whether of death, or of the dead, was originally a sermon pampered, represented and undoubtedly danced. [...] The DGM offers details that testify to a scenography, certainly rudimentary, but that adds complexity to its character as a pampered sermon, on the other hand endowed with a lively dramatic sense and a particular movement that reveals that this text was really danced ". As for Victor Infantes,25highlights the possibility that this work is a procession made during the festivities of Corpus Christi or the Catalan Death Balls during Holy Week,for the mixture of religious, folkloric and almost grotesque elements, relying on the studies of Very and Kolve.27Certain go even further, such as Valbuena Prat, who states that "although the whole work follows the form of dialogue, it does not seem to have been destined for representation, nor the later Catalan Danza".28The work could also be a simple poem, as shown by its important dialogue part.

Interpretation of the Work

The most remarkable feature of the work undoubtedly lies in the social hierarchy that it presents to us, since it seems to follow the succession of the characters an almost always descending order. However, as we have already mentioned, the text is part of the tradition of traditional Christian assuretic thought. In fact, the text suggests to us the universality of death and its equalizing power, emphasized by symbolic elements that refer to the Last Judgment in the Bible. The idea is this: it is not the powers and riches of beings that determine what will happen in the afterlife but rather their actions, as Catholic doctrine suggests. Beyond the traditional condemnation of the seven deadly sins,the essential theme of this work is that of the Vanitas Vanitatum,that is, the rejection of earthly vanities that hinder the entry into paradise. What stands out then is a Christian morality closely linked to the theology developed by the mendicant orders,which make a vow of poverty, or of the benedicts, which for example incited Martinez Gil30and Sola Solé31to attribute the work to a monk of San Juan de la Peña.

In any case, there are numerous elements of hermeneutics of the work in which critics were interested, as summarized by Alan Deyermond in the first volume of the History and criticism of Spanish literature directed by Francisco Rico: "I myself showed the relationship of the structure and certain images of the work with the vision of the medieval world, stressing that the origin of the genre is not in the literary tradition, but in sociological causes; Walker examines images relating to food and food, and Hook and Williamson, in a major reframe of the question, claim that the main images of the Danza reflect the concept of the "upside-down world". The notorious social criticism in the Danza has moved Rodriguez-Puértolas to include it in a questionable anthology of the "protest poetry" of medieval Castile, which, however, has the virtue of making accessible, with a certain context, the three great anonymous satires of the time of John II and Henry IV.

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The originality of the Work

The Castilian Dance presents some features that differentiate it from its European peers. First, the text stands out for its very precise structure. In the first four stanzas, Death takes the floor. In the next three, the Preacheranswers him. Then, from the eighth stanza to the thirteenth, Death is expressed again. Below are expressed representative figures of the three medieval social strata (nobility, clergy and plebs)successively alternating laity and clerics and invited by the allegorical character of Death to join their dance. Before the two closing stanzas, criticism is made in descending order, from the Pope and the Emperor to the humblest of mortals. The only characters who accept the end of their days quietly, without fear or rebellion, are the friar and the hermit,to whom the purity of their asceticism redeems.

The second characteristic of this poem is its metricalconstruction. In fact, La Danza general de la Muerte is an allegorical and anonymous Castilian poem of the fifteenth century written in dodecasyllables grouped in royal couplets, that is, with stanzas formed by 8 verses of twelve syllables, whose rhyme is consonant and its scheme ABABBCCB. As shown by M. Martial33and E. J. Webber,34the main characteristics of the work are the use of accentuation, fluctuating verses, the preference for paroxythion rhymes despite the use of sharp rhymes and a certain lexical proportionality between the different types of words. Here are the first verses of the work:

"I am Death certain to all creatures/who are and will be in the world during. / I demand and say: O man, why do you cure / of such a short life to the passing point? / Well, there is not so strong or strong giant / that from this my bow can be protected, / it is convenient that you die when I throw it / with this my cruel arrow pierced. / What madness is this so manifest / that you think, man, that another will die / and you will remain, for being well composed / the your complexion, and that it will last? / Do not be sure if to the point will come / on you at the wrong time some corruption / of nit or carbuncle, or such implision / because your vile body will be unleashed. / Or do you think about being a brave mancebo / or child of days, how long I will be / and until you get to old powerless / my coming I will be late? / Be well actired: that I will arrive / to you at the wrong time, and I am not careful / that you are mancebo or tired old man, / and which I will find you, such I will take you". (DGM, 1-24, modernized text)

The third characteristic of the work is the precise description of the social reality that it outlines, resorting to numerous metaphors and metonymic elements. On this subject, it is worth keeping in mind the outstanding analysis of Victor Infantes:

"We highlight the variety and richness of attributes with which both Death and the other characters are designated. In the case of the states of society, perhaps one can think of an (obvious) need to characterize the different estates by their most pronounced and peculiar features, but this entails a familiarity in their treatment and a direct observation? Of reality, nothing easy to achieve without falling into repetition and manner. Each character is drawn with a few strokes of verisimilitude, presented to the reader with precise and specific characteristics, sketched with elegant distancing; the author offers a social radiography that provokes complicity with a satire, the accommodated to his denunciation, the acceptance of his moral style. Death, in return, is endowed with a whole repertoire of symbols and allegories that highlight the figurative talent of the poem.

The last feature of the work is its mixture of cultured and popular elements. From the title of the work you can understand this construction procedure since the "dance" is usually related to the festive environment, while "death" appears as a sordid subject, which only poets, philosophers and theologiansworry about. In addition, the construction of the work that we have already evoked, implies the universality of the message transmitted here. The work is therefore full of a certain didacticism. For example, in the text, Death will ask three rhetorical questions from which the attentive reader can draw a lesson: "or omne, why do you cure / of life so brief in passing point?" (vv. 3-4), "How madness is this so magnificent/ that you think, omne, that the other will die/ and you will remain to be well conposed/ your conplision, and that it will last?" (vv. 9-12), "Or do you think for being a brave manšebo,/ or a child of days, that aluenne I will be,/ e fasta that you liegues to old powerless/ my coming I will be detardaré?" (vv. 17-20). Of all this stands out an inevitable invitation to asceticism.

Article translated, abridged and adapted from the original Spanish: This text on this page is available under a Creative Commons license: Howver he artwork on this page is copyrighted and may not be reproduced withoute permission..

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