A comparison of Death's representation in the medieval danse macabre poems and the contemporary novel "The Book Thief"

Term Paper, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 The Danse macabre
2.2 Comparison: Death's representation in the danse macabre poems and the contemporary novel The Book Thief

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

The concept of Death as an autonomous figure is nearly as old as human life itself. While the outer appearance and attitude of it has changed many times during the centuries, the people's fascination of death remained, which is reflected in art, music and literature of all time.

Already as early as in the Old Testament death was represented by the apocalyptic horsemen;1 In early Norse mythology by the goddess of Death named Hel 2 and in the Middle Ages by skeletons that rose from their graves3, as well as by the image of the Grim Reaper with his black cape and a scythe,4 which is still popular nowadays.

What do those figures have in common? In what aspects do they differ? And in how far have the common interpretation of personified Death changed over the centuries?

To find answers to these questions I will examine two representations of Death in literature in the following essay. First, I will refer to the medieval motif of the danse macabre with special attention on the German Totentanz and the French danse macabre poems that were freely translated into English by the monk John Lydgate in the beginning of the 15th century.

I will further focus on the characterization of Death in the contemporary novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and compare it to the former. Afterwards I will conclude in how far the two personifications differ or are alike.

2. Main Part

2.1 The Danse Macabre

To understand the emergence of the motif danse macabre it is necessary to consider the living conditions within Europe during the Middle Ages.

Influenced by the high mortality caused by fourteenth and fifteenth century's plagues (e.g. the Black Death) and wars (like the 100 years war) people were highly aware of death, which is why it established in different ways in literature and art. Personifica - tions of a violent death were popular, like the belief, that the deceased dead rose from their graves to tempt the living to join them in a dance of death.5

This allegory of a dance, called danse macabre, Totentanz, dance of death or danza de la muerte was commonly known all over Europe. In most of the about eighty surviving pieces of art and literature the victims are resistant, but death does not have mercy. The motif is often associated with the later motif of memento mori – remember (that you have) to die.6

It most probably firstly appeared as a mural, accompanied by hortatory inscriptions in the cemetery and charnel of the Innocents in Paris”7. Inspired by famous woodcuts by Guyot Marchaut and Hans Holbein, the motif was progressively found in literature as well. In a collection of poems, freely translated into English by the monk John Lydgate, the personified death comes to persons of each social class, including the pope and kings, but also a bride and a plowman to pull them to the grave.

“Out of the French I drough it of intent not word by word, but following in substance and from Paris to England it sent, only of purpose you to do pleasance.”8

In general, the poems are divided into three main parts and this structure seldom differs. Each poem begins or ends with an appeal by Death or a preacher, that all men -no matter of which social class- must dance with Death. In the following Death calls for his victim and he or she answers by reflecting his or her live and trying to resist Death, but in the end they all have to dance with Death to their graves.9

2.2 Comparison: Death's representation in the danse macabre and Totentanz poems and the contemporary novel The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a contemporary novel by Markus Zusak first published in 2005. It is set in Molching, a small town near Munich, during the Second World War. The two main protagonists are a girl called Liesel and Death, who is the narrator of the story. Liesel happens to meet Death several times during the war, but she always succeeds to survive.

The aspect of dancing appears on the book cover of the novel, where Death –a skeleton in a black cape- dances happily with the girl. She does not seem to be afraid at all, but instead seems to enjoy his company.

Whereas dancing in this case refers to its more modern, positive connotation as an act of joy and social pleasure, with lively moves that go with the rhythm of music played, 10 the concept of dancing had a different meaning at the time, when the danse macabre emerged. Caused by the high influence of Christian virtues during the Middle Ages dancing was seen as a sensual act, that was closely associated with seduction. Already in the thirteenth century dancing in churchyards was prohibited by the church, arguing, that the churchyard was a place for the lifeless to rest while dancing asserted a very vivid activity.11 Binski further claims that: “the Dance of Death is a theatrical piece of vaudeville whose strength derives from its parodic acknowledgement of emerging social norms and conventions and its picaresque inversion of those norms[...]”12. This results in another interpretation of dancing, namely its association with the Bakhtinian idea of carnival, which suggests social equality to expel social tensions. 13


1 Old Testament, Revelation 6:1-17.

2 Carolyne Larrington: The Poetic Edda (Oxford's World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999, 240.

3 Maare E. Tamm: Personifications of Death. Web. <http://www.deathreference.com/Nu-Pu/Personifications-of-Death.html> (28.07.2015)

4 “grim.” and „the Grim Reaper“. oxforddictionaries.com, Oxford dictionaries n.d. Web. 28.07.2015.

5 Tamm. Web, 28.07.2015.

6 Paul Binski: Medieval Death. Ritual and Representation. London: British Museum Press. 1996, 153.

7 Binski (ibid.).

8 John Lydgate v.665. In: Hellmut Rosenfeld: Der mittelalterliche Totentanz. Entstehung- Entwicklung- Bedeutung. Köln: Böhlau Verlag Köln Wien. 1954, 170.

9 William Combe: The dance of death. London: Ackermann's Repository of Art, 1816. Online Version: http://digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de/ihd/content/titleinfo/2527901

10 „dance“. Merriam-webster.com, Merriam-Webster Dicitonary. n.d. Web. 29.07.2015.

11 Binski, 154.

12 Binski, 156.

13 Binski (ibid).

Excerpt out of 10 pages


A comparison of Death's representation in the medieval danse macabre poems and the contemporary novel "The Book Thief"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Manifestations of Cultural Concepts in Medieval English Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
danse macabre, old english, middle english, literature, the book thief, marcus zusak
Quote paper
Elena Mertel (Author), 2015, A comparison of Death's representation in the medieval danse macabre poems and the contemporary novel "The Book Thief", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464313


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A comparison of Death's representation in the medieval danse macabre poems and the contemporary novel "The Book Thief"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free