‘Danse macabre’: The Medieval Dance of Death in the Time of COVID-19

Seeta Chaganti, University of California, Davis

This video discusses art and movement with reference to the medieval motif of the Danse Macabre.


Primary Sources

High-resolution image of the Marmion danse macabre altarpiece

Megan L. Cook and Elizaveta Strakhov, eds., John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related Works (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2019). A free online edition accessible to students, with linked explanatory and textual notes and introductory material.

John Lydgate, The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren and Beatrice White. EETS o.s. 181. (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971). This edition is much less easy to follow than Cook and Strakhov’s but its introduction contains useful information, particularly about manuscript history.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do modern interpretations of danse macabre respond to the medieval tradition beyond the replication of the skeleton images themselves (i.e. in Saint-Saëns’ music)?
  2. What are the impacts of presenting this performance in an outdoor setting as opposed to framed by architecture or other structural elements? (Another interesting example to discuss might be the ending Bergman’s Seventh Seal, which includes a famous outdoor danse macabre.)
  3. What do you notice about the different kinds of interstitial or in-between space in this painting – between stone and paint, people and paint, and between the people and skeletons in the painting? What do you perceive as happening in those spaces?
  4. Danse macabre seems to use its combination of text, art, architecture, and performance to acknowledge an important reality that death both is and is not an equalizer. How might we use the imagery and tradition of danse macabre to talk about this idea in our own time and understand it better?
  5. How do danse macabre’s visual and poetic aspects give us some new languages for thinking about experiences of repetitiveness, especially where the only structure becomes one of underlying anxiety or dread rather than the usual things that structure us?

Secondary Sources

Seeta Chaganti, “‘A Certain Slant of Light’: Reenacting Danse macabre as Dance,” in Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 99-143. The University of Chicago Press has graciously made a pdf of this chapter available, free of charge. Please visit the University of Chicago Press for more information about my book.

Amy Appleford, Learning to Die in London, 1380-1450 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Elina Gertsman, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).

Cathy Park Hong. “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020.” New York Times 16 April 2020. Related to my point about personifying and embodying death, this piece is an excellent and important meditation on anti-Asian sentiment and who is seen to embody COVID-19.

Ashby Kinch, “How the Dead Danced with the Living in Medieval Society,” The Conversation, 29 October 2017.

—–. Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

Sophie Oosterwijk and Stefanie Knöll, eds., Mixed Metaphors: The Danse Macabre in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).


Chaganti, Seeta “Danse Macabre: The Medieval Dance of Death in the Time of COVID-19,” Middle Ages for Educators, April 16, 2020. Accessed[date]. https://middleagesforeducators.princeton.edu/node/261/