Lessons in "Hopping": The Dance of Death and the Chester Mystery Cycle


The Chester mystery play of the Massacre of the Innocents contains a famous repeated joke by Secundus Miles to two of the Bethlehem mothers that he will teach their children to ‘hop’ on his spear. In John Lydgate’s Dance of Death poem Death tells the ‘Chylde’ to ‘lerne of newe to go on my daunce’. This verse curiously echoes medieval German Totentanz poems in which the child complains to his mother that Death forces him to dance when he cannot yet walk. The Chester soldier’s cruel jibe is thus linked with the popular medieval theme of the danse macabre and the frequent depiction in medieval art of Death with a spear. Further danse macabre references in Chester play 24 of the Last Judgement suggest a familiarity with this theme on the part of the playwright(s).

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.