Can you imagine the reaction we’d get if we said that tomorrow night we were going dancing – not the usual quick step or barn dance or waltz kind of dancing, but rather we were going to do The Dance of Death. Hang on a minute. What’s that? Are you serious?
“Every era responds to crisis in its own way,” writes John McDonald, in Mortal Masquerade, Jigging with skeletons in The Dance of Death was an antidote to morbid brooding (Spectrum, SMH 9-10 October 2021).
“Our answer to COVID has been to bunker down, trust in science, and wait out the worst of it. In the Middle Ages, when Europe was devastated by the Black Death, it was believed that illness was sent by God to punish human depravity”
“The average lifespan from 1200-1300 was 43 years, but it fell to 24 years from 1300-1400 because of the Plague, which killed up to a third of the population in some regions, along with the high rate of infant mortality and the primitive medicine.”
“Death was ever present. Rather than brooding on their fate, people embraced it in ways that provided a release from tension and anxiety. One outlet was the Dance of Death – In Danse Macabre – in which, at carnival time, people would dance around with characters dressed as skeletons,” reports McDonald. “The Dance of Death was one of the truly egalitarian things in a rigidly hierarchical age. Death did not discriminate between kings and commoners.”
John McDonald goes on to provide a history of how death has been depicted in art and dance across the centuries.
But, as he notes, we are a long way from the carnival atmosphere of the medieval Dance of Death.
Writes McDonald: “I thought I’d find a few memorable works made in response to the pandemic, but while there are plenty of skeletons very few of them are dancing. The lack of such images is symptomatic of the way we see ourselves. For us, the pandemic is not an excuse for wild abandon but seclusion. Parties and dances are strictly forbidden, and there’s nothing celebratory about mindless demonstrations by militant anti-vaxxers.”
“Despite the perpetual furore generated by religion, the virus reveals the thoroughly secular nature of the developed world. We are not throwing ourselves on God’s mercy and embracing fate but resisting the very notion of death. In the Middle Ages, people lived with death and thought about it every day, but today we put it out of our minds, wishing it would go away. It’s almost axiomatic that as a society beings to believe in its own perfection, it wants less and less to do with this intractable subject. When Death comes knocking on the door and invites us to dance, we pretend there’s nobody home.”
This story kind of leaves you hanging out for answers. It raises questions and deserves thoughtful conversations.
Our next post, which will be a short review of the book Mortals, How the fear of death shaped human society, by Rachel and Ross Menzies, might be the go.