the Pipe and Tabor compendium

the Pipe and Tabor compendium

essays on the three-hole pipe

Last Dance of All

The Dance of Death

images used in a presentation atthe annual sysmposium of The Taborers Society, 2011
by Frances
the first time that anyone has investigated the presence of the pipe and tabor in Dance of Death images.
gallery contents

Dance of Death images started in the 15th century and both French and German researchers say that the idea originated in their country. But wherever it originated the images spread outwards throughout Europe, including to the UK. Such images depicting skeletons symbolising death would not have necessarily shocked nor seemed morbid in medieval times. Infact many scenes show the death symbol having a lot of fun and often teasing humans.

The original dance of death style is one long line of people doing the farandole, with a skeleton inbetween each character. One skeleton leads the line and generally a jester, fool, is at the other end. Each living person depicted along the line symbolises a station in life such as king, nun, pedlar, beggar and so on. Most such images were painted on walls, but almost every other medium has been used including canvases, stained glass, manuscripts, printed images in books, and carvings of wood and stone. These early images and concepts were copied for centuries. Later, in printed books, images show just one social status per page together with it's death symbol and a short poem.

Where there is a dance there must be a musician. And sometimes the musician was a pipe and tabor player, pictured in the middle of the dance, or at the front.

By the 14th century there were already poems and plays about death, both secular and religious, even before such concepts became popular subjects for drawings and paintings. Images illustrating death became particularly fashionable in Europe around the time of the Black Death, which was also a time of crop failure, climate change, pestilence, and the Hundred Years' War. The mortality rate was high; the average man lived to around 50 and a high proportion of children died before the age of 5. Public executions were commonplace and most people would have seen a dead body; death was not hidden away as it is today.

16thc Dance of Death (farandole)
unknown, double pipes
copies over 5 centuries
early 15thc painting on cemetery wall, Basle
copies - 1681
1875, guide book cover
mid 16thc Lucerne Switzerland
Editions of Holbein's 'Dance of Death'
1488 The King
1516 Bern
1448-53 The Nun

Holbein alphabet
Dance of Death on dagger sheath
Holbein dagger sheath design
1529 design
Victorian copy of 1570 dagger sheath



top of page