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 at the annual sysmposium of The Taborers Society, 2011
[with further additions]
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)
19th century, Honoré Daumier (France)
two instrumentsfrom Danse Macabre Association
  1830's re-enactment USAUSA re-enactment 21st century  
15th century France15th century France player from 15th century Franceplayer On the head of the musician and the dancers stand black imps. These defile the souls of the living by leading them into recklessness and worldly pleasures.  
Basle - copies over 5 centuries
early 15thc painting on cemetery wall, Basle
painting mid 16thc Lucerne Switzerland
copies - 1681
1875, guide book cover Basle statuetteBasle statuette    
Editions of Holbein's 'Dance of Death'
1488 The King
1516 Bern The Nun
1448-53 The Nun, stained glass window
Bern Switzerland

Holbein alphabet
Dance of Death on dagger sheath
Holbein dagger sheath design
1529 design
17th century17th century copy of Holbein, possibly a reed instrument
Victorian copy of 1570 dagger sheath      
15th century 'The Dance of the Blind' - French poem

'The Dance of the Blind' by Pierre Michault is a French poem first published in 1465. It is an allegorical vision of three blind forces affecting mankind: Love, Fortune and Death.

It was very popular and repeatedly reproduced in both manuscript and printed copies. Some have illustrations of instruments other than the pipe and tabor.

1465 player1465   1465 player 21465
15th century player15th century late 15th centurylate 15th century 1486 player1486 15001500



top of page