Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Death and the old debutante
  • Creator: Master of Philippe of Guelders
  • Description:

    In this illumination, a dancing, skeletal figure representing death takes a woman by the hand. The figure of death is draped in a white sheet and the woman wears fine but out-of-date clothes, a gown with loose sleeves, a high, wide belt, and a hennin with flowing gauze. The pair are shown outdoors against a background of flowers and grass, with a hillock and buildings in the background. Below the picture are two columns of verse text, reading in English translation:

    Debutante from the good old days
    With all your old-fashioned headdresses
    It is time for you to come.
    Nature has run its course in you.
    You can’t live forever.
    I look ahead, come along,
    and don’t linger too long.
    Old women are close to death.

       The Old Debutante
    I have surely overstayed my time
    And would rather die
    Than review the past
    And go through so much misery.
    I have seen poor people languish
    And other things I keep to myself.
    Children, to live and die well
    There is no greater blessing than peace.
    [From The Danse Macabre of Women edited by Anne Tukey Harrison]

    The image and text are framed by a decorative border of squares containing flowers, insects, fruit, and acanthus leaves. On the left page, Death takes the pregnant woman by the hand. Death speaks to her kindly and the woman in turn commends her unborn baby to God along with her own soul. Like the old debutante, the pregnant woman sees everything as pitiful and miserable.

    The Danse macabre des femmes is a manuscript version of a poem in which the figure of death comes to claim women of all social statuses, inviting them to join the Dance of Death. Based on the earlier Danse macabre des hommes, a version in which Death invites various men to join in the dance, the Danse macabre des femmes appeared as a printed book before being elaborated into this manuscript. The images are accompanied by a verse text, beginning with brief remarks from Death and the author and then moving to short dialogues between Death and the various women. The Dance of Death motif was extremely popular in late medieval Europe, appearing often in murals and illustrated poems. Scholars disagree on the inspiration behind the motif- it may have stemmed from an obsession with death following the wars and plagues of the 14th century, though Gertsman argues that macabre motifs (especially The Encounter of the Three Dead and the Three Living) appeared in European art decades before the advent of the plague. Ultimately, the Danse macabre des femmes reminds the viewer of both death’s inevitability and its disregard for social station.

    In this image, the debutante is marked as elderly by her out-of-fashion garments. Around the turn of the sixteenth century, fashionable French women wore dresses with low, square necklines, wide sleeves trimmed in a contrasting material, and narrow, almost ropelike belts that hung down from the waist. They covered their heads in black hoods or coifs with the fabric generally brushing their shoulders. Many of the wealthy women in the Danse macabre are dressed in this style. The old debutante, however, is dressed in a style associated with an earlier period- her narrower sleeves, broad belt at the waist, and high, conical hennin mark her clothing as more than twenty years out-of-date. The implication is that the woman, unable to find a husband, has clung to her youth.

    In the Middle Ages, old age was recognized as part of the life-cycle, but views of the elderly were far from flattering. While old age could bring wisdom and temperance, elderly people were frequently viewed as bitter, sad, and spiteful. The elderly were expected to pray and meditate, preparing their souls for the coming of death. Thane writes that “little tolerance was shown for the deviations of the elderly from their expected state of mind and behavior,” and that the elderly authors whose works survive describe old age as “a time to be endured rather than enjoyed” (94-95). That the old debutante still dresses in her old finery, therefore, should be seen as an unflattering depiction. Instead of preparing her soul for the next world, she attempts to retain her youth through vanity and material possessions.

  • Source: Gallica - Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Death, Image of Fashion Mortality Old Age
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15- 16
  • Date: Ca. 1500
  • Related Work: Other records in Feminae from the Danse macabre des femmes:
         Death and the wet nurse
         Death and the prostitute
    Digital copy of Ms. fr. 995 including the Danse macabre des femmes in Gallica
    Other images from the Bibliothèque nationale copy of the Danse macabre des femmes:
         Death and the knight’s lady
         Death and the newlywed
         Death and the old woman
         Death and the witch
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 995, fol. 33r
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 31.3/20 [full page]/
  • Inscription:

        “La Morte
    Sa damoiselle du bon temps
    A tout voz anciens atours
    Il est de vous en venir temps
    Nature a en vous pris son cours
    Vous ne pouez vivre tousiours
    Je vois devant venez apres
    Et ne faictes point longs seiours
    Vieilles gens sont de la mort pres

       La vieille demoiselle
    Jay voirement mon temps passe
    Et ayme mieulx ainsi mourir
    Que revoir ce qui est passe
    Et tant de miseres courir
    Jay veu poures gens langourir
    Et autres choses dont me tais
    Enfans pour bien vivre et mourir
    Il nest plus grant bien que de paix”

    [From The Danse Macabre of Women edited by Anne Tukey Harrison]

  • Related Resources: Buren, Anne van. Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515. Morgan Library & Museum, 2011;
    The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Edited by Ann Tukey Harrison with a chapter by Sandra L. Hindman. Kent State University Press, 1994;
    Gertsman, Elina. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance. Brepols, 2010;
    Mieszkowski, Gretchen. "Old Age and Medieval Misogyny: The Old Woman," In Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Neglected Topic. Edited by Albrecht Classen. Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Pages 299-319;
    Shahar, Shulamith. "The Middle Ages and Renaissance," In A History of Old Age. Edited by Pat Thane. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. Pages 71-111.