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“This Worlde Is but a Pilgrimage”: Mental Attitudes in/to the Medieval Danse Macabre

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Chapter Summary

Medieval society is popularly believed to have been obsessed with death: the motto memento mori is used to characterise the period, whereas the Renaissance is summed up by Horace's aphorism carpe diem. This chapter contextualises the Danse Macabre and analyses its messages through a close reading of two of the earliest texts: the French poem that was incorporated in a famous mural in the cemetery of Les Saints Innocents in Paris and the Middle English adaptation by the monk-poet John Lydgate, which in turn formed the basis of another famous cycle of paintings at Old St Paul's Cathedral in London. Unfortunately both schemes were lost centuries ago, but the woodcut edition that was first published by Guy Marchant in 1485 provides with at least an impression of the Paris mural half a century earlier, even if its illustrations evidently do not form a reliable copy as is so often thought.

Keywords: Danse Macabre; medieval culture; medieval society; memento mori; Paris



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