‘Beginnings’ and the Danse Macabre

In the Christian Middle Ages, death was emphasised as the great equaliser by the artistic, allegorical genre, the Danse Macabre.

Lambeth Palace Library ms 275, f. 1v-2, c.1495

From peasants to kings, none could escape the final ending, and the latent whispers of death beset the ears of all medieval people, especially after the merciless plague, or Black Death, of 1346-53. As a result, the Ars Moriendi, the texts about the art of dying well, became popular in the later Middle Ages, especially since Canon Law taught that humans would be resurrected as fully embodied.

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 clearly stated that we are resurrected with our own bodies:

He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

This sentiment was reinforced at the Council of Vienne in 1311-1312:

Moreover, with the approval of the said council, we reject as erroneous and contrary to the truth of the catholic faith every doctrine or proposition rashly asserting that the substance of the rational or intellectual soul is not of itself and essentially the form of the human body.

And as wrote John of Damascus (d.749) much earlier, who, in echoing St. Luke that ‘a hair of your head shall not perish’, said ‘it is not a re-surrectio unless the same human being rises again’.

In medieval culture, literal steps were taken to ensure that the transition from life to death – to full, embodied resurrection – was secured. One had to avoid despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice: to imitate Christ. Those at their friend or relative’s bedside had strict guidelines about how to behave, what to do, and which prayers should be said at the moment of death. Mortality was the blight of humankind, and nobody was exempt. All one could hope for was an afterlife of otherworldly existence.


Bernt Notke, ‘Danse Macabre’, St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia, c.1466

So it was striking that, during the final seminar of an undergraduate module that I have been teaching named ‘Beginnings’, which had paradoxically come to an end, Beginnings and Endings collided. It was impossible not to be mindful of the symbolic closure of a course that had focused, in diverse ways, on openings. On creations.

We began at the beginning – in Genesis, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – and the rapid transition from innocent perfection to fallen understanding. We reversed back in time to the ancient world, to the Gilgamesh epic, the Odyssey, and into the Middle Ages via Beowulf, Gawain and Marie de France; then Marlowe, The Winter’s Tale, Pope, Swift, and finally, perhaps the most monstrous ‘beginning’ of them all, Victor Frankenstein and his creature.

We talked about journeys (not least the intellectual journey of our own). About heroism. About epic tales, storytelling, ancestry, identity-formation, failure, civilisation. About being human. How things begin.

How they must always end.

But one of the most memorable ideas that emerged through our later ruminations was an example of the simultaneity of beginnings and endings in the insect, the Praying Mantis. Known for its striking appearance, as if in a state of continual prayer, the Mantis is also (in)famous for its sexual cannibalism, and, as a result, its own danse macabre. Often, the female of the species decapitates and eats the male during, or after copulation. Various scientific theories have been mooted for this phenomenon which, incidentally, is not restricted to the Praying Mantis (but, as might relieve some readers, seems to be common only in the mantises and arachnids of our planet). One theory suggests that ‘weaker’ males, who are more frequently devoured, achieve a selective advantage by producing more offspring. Males have been observed to perform elaborate mating and dancing rituals – their own dance of death – in order to distract the female from her more literal hunger, and to avoid being consumed.


The Praying Mantis thus makes the timeless connection between sex and death much more immediate. Whilst it is an accepted fact of human existence that procreation begets mortality – that we generate in order to die – there is, at least, a measure of life, or existence, for the human species before we succumb to the same fate as them all. We, at least, hope to see our children grow. A bit, surely.

But is it a coincidence that we have named this brutal and unforgiving species the Praying Mantis? Though the obvious denotation of the ‘praying’ arms, is clear to us, it would be profoundly questionable to suggest that these mantises are actually praying. Is there not some hopeful, human subtext here of a ‘way out’ for these ruthless insects? That their species’ grim survival stratagems need not mean The End? 

Since humans first existed, we have sought gods, heavens, and immortality. Even the great, Homeric hero Odysseus was aided by deific intervention when the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena, prevented a potential conflict at his eventual homecoming. 800 years before Christ, even epic heroes needed gods.

So what inspired this connection between the perilous existence of the Praying Mantis, trapped somewhere between generation and extermination, and the stories of our recent module?

The unfortunate mantis faces the polar markers of existence – the beginning and the end – in synchronic peril. While there are no preparations for ‘good dying’, or any anticipation of what comes after, individual security is sought in the elaborate Dance of Death that the male enacts in a procreative / sacrificial performance. If certain scientific studies are to be believed, even the death of the male could well secure its species’ immortality; an efficacious act that is well beyond the reach of natural human endeavour so far.

As Gulliver reported with such satirical eloquence on his voyage to Liliput, in one of our ‘Beginnings’ texts:

For, since the Conjunction of Male and Female is founded upon the great Law of Nature, in order to propagate and continue the Species; the Lilliputians will needs have it, that Men and Women are joined together like other Animals, by the Motives of Concupiscence; and that their Tenderness towards their Young, proceedeth from the like natural Principle: For which Reason they will never allow, that a Child is under any Obligation to his Father for begetting him, or to his Mother for bringing him into the World; which, considering the Miseries of human Life, was neither a Benefit in itself, nor intended so by his Parents, whose Thoughts in their Love-encounters were otherwise employed.

Perhaps the Lilliputians had a point. Even human reproduction can beget ‘misery’, as current global happenings illustrate only too well.

But with the Christian celebration of Christmas – of Christ’s birth – fast approaching, it is perhaps timely to remember another act of sacrifice for one’s species. While medieval people did not have the Praying Mantis’ option to ‘dance’ in the face of mortal jeopardy, they did have the promise of another sacrificial act for the greater good. Indeed, the ubiquity of texts about dying well in the Middle Ages are testament to the faith of their readers in such a promise.

To witness the artistic depictions of the Danse Macabre in the churches and books of medieval society, to absorb the iconography of Christ’s crucifixion in paintings, carvings, and illuminations, offered a different way of ‘dancing’.

The inevitability of death was / is inescapable. But while the images of the Danse Macabre hung only too imminently in the Middle Ages, those other images of sacrifice and resurrection were equally present.

The collision of birth and death. Or death and birth?

Hans Memling, Last Day of Judgement, triptych, distemper oil on panel. Bruges, c.1467-71. National Museum of Gdansk



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