Although not directly related to the history of surgery, Danse Macabre reflects a theme which undoubtedly preoccupied surgeons during the early modern period: death.
Danse Macabre–also known as ‘Dance of Death’–is a late medieval allegory which depicts the universality of death. These illustrations are designed to remind the viewer that wealth, power and beauty are fleeting, and that death is the great equalizer. Thus, they portray a range of subjects being lead to their final resting places by jubilant skeletons. Whether a king or a pope, an infant or a peasant, we are all the same in death.
Visual depictions of Danse Macabre date from the early 15th century and are typical of the pessimistic attitudes of those living in the late medieval period, many of whom experienced recurring famine, war and disease during the preceding century. Most terrifying of all was the Black Death, which killed between 1.5 and 2 million people in England (or half the country’s population) over the course of the 14th century.
Undoubtedly, England suffered its greatest fatalities during the medieval period; however, bubonic plague continued to terrorise the population well into the 17th century. During outbreaks, those who could afford it would flee the city to take refuge in the countryside, far from the epicenter of disease. Along with the wealthy went many of the physicians, leaving plague-ridden cities devoid of much-needed medical assistance during times of crisis.
As a result, surgeons often took up where the physicians left off. Although there was little they could do to combat the plague, many continued to bleed and purge patients in a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable. After the epidemic had passed, those who remained behind were often praised for their courageous efforts, while those who fled tried desperately to rebuild their reputations.
In the above illustration, we see Death leading a beautiful woman, clad in her burial shroud, to a freshly dug grave. The two figures move gracefully, as if they are waltzing, while demons lurk in the background, some playing musical instruments. This particular example comes from E. H. Langlois’s work, Essai Historique, Philosophique et Pittoresque sur les Danses des Morts. At the time of its publication in 1852, Danse Macabre had been around for over 400 years. Thus, this illustration is not only a testament to the subject matter’s resiliency as an art form, but it is also a reflection of the continuity that existed between medieval and early modern periods with respect to people’s attitudes towards death.