The Right Approach to Money and Life – What the Dances of Death Can Still Teach Us Today

Rudolf und Conrad Meyer (Kupferstiche), Die menschliche Sterblichkeit unter dem Titel Todten-Tanz in LXI Original-Kupfer.

First printed in Zurich in 1650, reprinted in Hamburg and Leipzig in 1759.

When was the last time you saw a skeleton? As a mask on Halloween? In a slightly dated horror film? Skeletons don’t play much of a role as a personification of death in our western culture anymore. The fascination that human remains held for the people of past centuries is something we can no longer understand. Memento mori – ‘remember that you have to die’ – has, even in times of coronavirus, given way to a repression of death. Yes, especially nowadays, people are dying alone in hospital and only a few people have ever seen a dead body in their life.

 

The “Dance of Death” has therefore become an alien concept to us. This term describes an artistic motif that first emerged around 1400. A skeleton, as the personification of death, takes people from all the different social classes as dance partners and leads them in a round dance. For centuries, the Dance of Death was seen as a reminder that every life must end sometime and that, on Judgement Day, a decision will be made as to whether the deceased led a good or a bad life.

So, let’s not get distracted by the skeleton. The Dances of Death are not actually about death. The Dance of Death is all about life. What can be considered a good, fulfilled life? What can be considered a bad, failed life?

Whereas the people living in the early modern period believed that an all-powerful God would reward a good life with paradise and punish a bad life with hell, nowadays, we have long since lost our fear of punishment after death. And yet, carers for the terminally ill tell us that those who are at peace with themselves and their lives seem to pass away more easily and contentedly.

What does that mean for our lives? In the end, could the ancient Dances of Death still teach us how to lead a good life?

The rich merchant and Death.

Oh, Cursed Greed!

No, no, I cannot be bribed with gold.
What are you so upset about?

says Death to the merchant.

The artist has captured the haunting scene with powers of observation akin to those of a psychologist. How arrogantly this merchant, so used to being in control, faces death! No modern manager could hold a candle to him in terms of self-assurance! Death stands a little below, looking attentively and calmly into the man’s furious face. He has put down his scythe and hourglass so that he can grasp the merchant even tighter. We know the merchant doesn’t stand a chance, no matter how much he struggles.

And perhaps we also feel a touch of schadenfreude when we look at this scene. As the merchant protests, outraged:

I, who gained my goods and gold
from cunning, tricks and lies I told,
am now, just like the poorest man,
to become prey to Death’s cold hands.

That’s the comforting thing for all of us who haven’t managed to make a great fortune. In the end, everyone is just a mortal human being!

And nobody would want to switch places with the rich merchant in this situation, however much they might have envied him a few days earlier. Because when he asks

Where will my wealth go?

we all know that, while money can be used to build a very comfortable life, it can’t pay for the really important things in life. His money can’t buy him a longer life!

The Dance of Death therefore illustrates nothing other than the very modern question of the work-life balance. How much quality of life are we willing to give up for how much money? It’s a very personal question and the answer will be different for everyone. And a good life is linked to the right answer to this question: what is really important to me in my life?

It seems that this merchant, whom Death is snatching so unexpectedly from his business here at Limmat harbour in the city of Zurich, has answered it wrongly.

The usurer and Death.

The Questionable Luck of Inheriting a Fortune

Someone who has it even worse than the merchant is the usurer, that is, a man who does not make a living from his own work, but rather by letting his money work for him. The artist who produced this Dance of Death makes that abundantly clear to us.

The usurer sits in a palace. He is well fed and he wears expensive robes and high boots. The table at which he counts his money is bedecked with an exquisite damask cloth. In the background, the room is decorated with a valuable painting. Of course, the subject is something profane: an unclothed woman displays her nakedness, rather shamelessly for the time. And notice how money takes centre stage. It’s piled up on the table and stored in sacks and chests under the table; there are even money bags, full to the brim, hanging from the wall, and let’s not forget the money pouch the man carries on his belt. The text of this Dance of Death reveals what this usurer believed during his lifetime:

I live in pride and peace unbroken.
These chests are mine to close and open!
And I see how people get ahead
when they serve not God, but gold instead.
The preacher, that poor old fool,
says treasures are the hope of fools.
Well, we’ll see about that.

And indeed he does: Death approaches the usurer almost playfully, pulling his beard, grasping one of the money bags and hitting him round the head with it. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happens to the man next: there’s already a little devil sitting on the usurer’s shoulder, and another devil – note the cloven hooves – scooping the coins lying on the table into his own bag. Death remarks:

Gold is your god.
Let’s see whether it can help you.

Now, although we still use the term usury today, its meaning is far removed from its early modern equivalent. The ecclesiastical authorities were disturbed by the power of money. It was capable of changing a person’s status. Suddenly, emperors and kings were dependent on these citizens with their fat money pouches. And so commandments had to be issued, commandments that were casually broken by noblemen, the clergy and citizens alike. There’s a reason so many citizens were so deathly afraid of hell.

Nowadays, we no longer consider it a reprehensible thing to earn interest on the money we save. On the contrary. The fact that we will soon have to be paying negative interest on our savings is utterly outrageous to us.

So what else can this image still tell us? Perhaps that it isn’t a good thing to have never worked for your money. That it’s unhealthy to know from birth that you’ll never have to work because of your family’s fortune? After all, as the saying goes, money can’t buy you happiness. And we know the fate of the Christina Onassises, we know all about the downfall of the Lisa Maria Presleys. And all the other people who have never had any money troubles.

Could it be that those who don’t have to worry about the need to earn a living actually find it much harder to find meaning in their lives?

The innkeeper and Death.

Unscrupulous Profit

No, nobody likes to think of themselves as a criminal, and neither does this innkeeper, who is being treated so harshly by Death. The innkeeper, who has just stepped out of a high-end inn to greet the guest, is set upon by Death, who is simply out of control. He’s kicking him, pulling his hair and hitting him around the head with his bag. In this way, Death is imitating an inn brawl, the likes of which the innkeeper has probably experienced all too often, though probably more often as a bystander than a participant.

We are therefore presented with someone who may not have done anything evil himself, but has made a very good living from enabling others to really go wild. Or, as he himself says to Death:

For gold, I let them all run free,
to rage like Scythians, wild as beasts.
There could be no more awful vice,
and I let it be, with games and wine. …
Oh, oh, my earnings are
gone! Gone!

The fact is, we can probably understand this poor landlord quite well. What can he do about it if men can’t hold their drink and go out to fight each other and assault women? What can the tobacco industry do about chain smokers dying of lung cancer? Doesn’t everyone have the freedom to take risks? Why shouldn’t the state earn money from online gambling portals by profiting on every loss a gambling addict makes through tax? And of course, we can’t be expected to check which companies are supported by the equity fund that promises the highest return.

The question is: how long can we suppress the fact that other people suffer for our profit? Does it lessen our guilt to know that we do not bear the blame for this injustice alone but share it with many others?

The Waisenvogt and Death.

Saving Money at the Expense of the Poor

While we might feel a little sorry for the innkeeper when we see his horrible death, we can really rejoice at the death of the man depicted in this image: the artist of this Dance of Death presents us with the Zurich ‘Waisenvogt’, that is, the official in charge of the early modern equivalent of the social welfare office. This dignified gentleman with his magnificent beard is well fed, sitting in an impressive office and, of course, wearing expensive robes. Look closely: the room is well protected. There are iron bars on the window to stop anyone breaking in from outside. That’s very important – after all, this is where the city of Zurich stores all the money designated to help the poor.

But what is this official doing? Is he handing out coins to the needy people appealing to him? No, it seems that they have come to this hard-hearted official in vain. And now, Death is taking his revenge: he smacks the official in the face with his certificate of appointment, almost climbing over the table in a fit of rage. This official’s end will not be a peaceful one!

And yet he is only doing his duty. He is saving money for the state coffers. He makes a good living from his position, but he has no interest in the welfare of those entrusted to his care.

Doesn’t this image bring to mind the reproachful looks of the African refugees who put their lives on their line to gain just a tiny portion of our wealth? Don’t we perhaps have to remember that we have nothing to spare for them, while big companies are bailed out by the state every so often for many billions?

It is simply a question of priorities. And the Zurich Waisenvogt seems to have got his priorities wrong.

The judge and Death.

Responsibility in Authority

A position of authority not only brings power, but also responsibility. It’s nice to see that the Dances of Death also shows us people who have lived up to their responsibilities. This image depicts a judge in the middle of his courtroom. We can see the room’s wooden panelling, as we’ve seen on many old Zurich houses. Our judge sits on a raised seat beneath an elegant canopy. And yet, the poor seem to approach him trustingly. There are many people there, men and women, children and the elderly, noblemen and citizens. They are all waiting patiently for the judge to attend to their problem.

But he won’t be able to do that anymore. Almost tenderly, Death shows him the hourglass, which has run out, and gently takes his staff of office, a sign of his position of responsibility, from his hand. And the judge is glad:

It’s good that I did not forget
that I would soon be judged myself.
I helped the innocent out of their need,
now I hope that God helps me.

This is something we can relate to. A clear conscience is like a soft pillow. The knowledge that you’re using your position of authority for the benefit of everyone brings a deep sense of satisfaction. And modern psychologists agree. Acting purely in your own interest will leave you much more discontented.

The politician and Death.

Success in Failure

Strangely enough, actually succeeding in your mission doesn’t seem to be as important for personal fulfilment as the conviction that you’re doing the right thing. Someone who knows they’re in the right can also cope with failure. And this is the very message conveyed in this Dance of Death. It focusses on an elector, one of seven high nobles who had the right to elect the emperor in the early modern period. Not that they could have had any decisive influence on imperial policy afterwards.

Let’s imagine that, instead of an old-fashioned elector, this image depicts a confident politician who is prepared to stand up for his beliefs – whatever they may be. And this elector / politician says:

How gladly I leave my role and the Earth,
to meet a fate I quite deserve!
My heart tells me I have been true
To the fatherland and its people too.
And that, in the face of unjust power,
I did my duty for the good of the empire.

All this really means is that all the political martyrs of modern times, all the Martin Luther Kings and Emily Davisons who staunchly dedicated their lives to a cause, perhaps even died for it, led a successful life as defined by this Dance of Death, even if their actual circumstances couldn’t be considered successful in the ordinary sense.

And, in fact, this is still what we believe today.

The cook and Death.

A Sweet Tooth

But enough of duty, responsibility and greed – let’s take a look at a little weakness that we all share in this affluent society. We all have such a sweet tooth! And how greatly an entire industry loves to serve our pleasure-seeking palates, regardless of the consequences – either for our health or for sustainable environmental policies.

Food and drink have actually been linked to social status for centuries. In the early modern period, it was a big roast or the leg of a wild boar that indicated you lived in a wealthy household. Today, status food changes depending on the fashion, so for example, home-pickled salmon has given way to freshly prepared carpaccio or expensive sushi, paired with a fine wine.

In early modern Zurich, too, the rich and beautiful had their favourite dishes – and we can see them here, all piled up together in the kitchen, where our fat cook works, and which he is now being forced to leave by Death. Fine fish, tender hare, poultry: these were the status dishes of the time. Vegetables, grains or even mushrooms, the simple fare of peasants, are nowhere to be found here. The cook’s outstretched hand nicely draws attention to two containers attached to the cupboard wall, probably filled with expensive spices and salt. Braided bunches of onions, kitchen utensils and, in the background, a great big pot of soup, which was the basis of every dish back then: we can see that, at the time this Dance of Death was produced, the people of Zurich knew how to turn good money into good living.

And so the cook moans and complains:

I sweetly cook for wealthy guests
so I may fatten up myself,
and thus I thought, both day and night.
Inventing new delicious treats,
Adding bitter, sour and sweet,
I remember that business to this day.
Refreshing their satiety again, without a hitch
and serving their lust for food until they’re sick
was the dearest toil of my life,
how well it pays.

In other words, he didn’t cook to satisfy the hunger of others, but rather to enable the full to eat even more – without thinking of the consequences. He earned a good living and the people he served probably paid with various health problems. After all, to this day, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels, obesity and heart attacks still bear eloquent witness to the fact that constant overeating never goes well.

The old woman and Death.

Fear of the Unknown

You might think that the elderly would actually be more comfortable with death than younger people. After all, they no longer have as much to gain from life as young people – at least, that’s what you might think if you still have many decades left to go before retirement. The old woman in this image is a good example. She sits on a chair with her stick, because she can’t hobble more than a few steps without help. To her left is a bowl of soup, as she hasn’t any teeth left to bite into proper food. And she doesn’t seem to be hungry anyway, as her meal has barely been touched. There are just two dogs keeping the old woman company. She is alone, cut off from life, and yet she doesn’t have the faintest desire to leave the world.

And in fact, older people in particular sometimes hold onto life more than younger people. Death, as he is portrayed in our Dance of Death, knows why:

Yes, dear madam, I clearly see
the reason you resist and grieve.
You do not want what you do not know,
you feel secure on Earth below.
For all ‘heaven’ is to mortal man
is a name and a distant land.

And so the old woman must also follow Death. Almost lovingly, he takes her by the arm to lead her beyond.

The child and Death.

Nothing is Certain

While the death of an older person is thought to be acceptable, we consider the death of a child to be the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Things were different in the early modern period. It was part of everyday life to lose many of your own children during the first few years of their life. In the Middle Ages, every second child died before reaching their 14th birthday – and things didn’t improve in the early modern period, but actually got even worse due to the many failed harvests and wars.

And so Death speaks words of comfort to the small child as he pulls him from his mother’s arms.

You do belong not to your parents, nor to time,
You sweet flower who, as the slightest wind goes by,
fades into nothing to be
withering and blooming for eternity.

This compassionate attitude is also shown by a second Death in the background, who is playing lovingly with a child in a crib that he is about to lift up and carry away from life.

What else can this image tell us? That life is not guaranteed, however old you are. None of us are entitled to reach the average age. So is the answer to become bitter when death appears differently than we would prefer? Or is this bitterness simply a waste of the few hours we have left to live?

We never said that all the truths presented in the Dances of Death were happy ones. On the contrary, their messages are an unpleasant thorn in our full and contented lives. And that’s what the Dance of Death was intended to be!

 

So how are we supposed to live in a world with this merciless Death? A world in which every moment could be our last?

Well, it’s quite simple: the Dance of Death reminds us that before death, there is life, and that we should use every moment of our precious lives to do the things that really matter to us.

And that’s a message that no psychologist could have formulated any better.