Saturday, February 21, 2009

Illustrated Vado Mori

The excellent Death in Art site by Patrick Pollefeys includes this comment about Vado Mori poems.

Before the first Dance of Death was created, there was a literary genre called Vado Mori (I prepare myself to die): poem written in Latin, of French origin, which went back to the 13th century. In these writings, representatives of various social classes complain, mostly in two verses, about the fact that they will soon have to die. In the oldest texts of that kind, there was a prologue underlining the certainty of death and, following this prologue, the last verses of eleven dying men (the king, the pope, the bishop, the knight, the physicist, the logician, the young man, the old man, the rich, the poor and the insane). In the most recent versions, the prologue was abolished and the number of characters increased significantly. The Vado Mori and the Dance of Death thus share some characteristics: the lament of a dying man, characters representing their social class, and a clear separation between the laic people and the clerks. However, death does not appear in the Vado Mori and nobody answers the laments of the dying ones. Consequently, the Vado Mori cannot be considered as a direct ancestor of the Dance of Death, nor the medieval superstitions, and nor either the mysteries, medieval theatre plays with religious theme.

Vado Mori was a prominent, early, and widespread example of the macabre genres. (The Latin vado mori or Middle English "I wende to dede" means "I go to die".) Although it is strikingly similar to the Dance of Death, Death personified is absent. There is another way in which it generally differs: whereas the Dance of Death works almost always combined text and image, Vado Mori were almost never illustrated. There are, however, three 15th-century English manuscripts that contain a version of the Vado Mori notable for being both brief and illustrated. Each of these volumes, (Additional 37049, Cotton Faustina B.VI, and Stowe 39) contains the longer Desert of Religion, and other works. Jessica Brantley has published a study, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England, (2007), which examines the relation between text and image in such works, primarily Additional 37049. She refers to texts with such integrated pictures as "imagetexts". (It sounds better than "medieval comic books".) The term was promoted by W.J.T. Mitchell, and it is intended to emphasize the multi-media nature of certain works which foreshadow aspects of the later emblem book tradition.

Although the relationship among the three manuscripts of the Desert of Religion cannot be traced precisely, the question is made all the more intriguing by their common witness to several other text-and-image combinations. Two other imagetexts travel with the Desert of Religion in all three extant copies, linking the manuscripts still more closely together. All three include an illustrated English version of what are known as Vado Mori verses, extant also often in Latin. Although these verses are commonly found in several languages, illustrations accompany them in no other manuscript apart from these three. The text is spoken by a king, a bishop, and a knight, as they relate their individual encounters with Death:
I wende to dede knight stithe in stoure:
thurghe fyght in felde I wane the flour.
Na fightes me taght the dede to quell.
I weend to dede soth I ghow tell.

I weende to dede a kynge iwisse.
What helpis honor or werldis blysse?
Dede is to mane the kynde wai:
I wende to be clade in clay.

I wende to dede clerk ful of skill,
that couth wt worde men more and dill.
Sone has me made the dede ane ende
beese ware wt me to dede I wende.
The point of these verses—that Death levels all traces of worldy station—is made implicitly by the human speakers, but in the Stowe version, the figure of Death himself speaks further lines that make the point explicit:
Be ghe wele now warr wt me:
My name then is ded.
May ther none fro me fle
That any lyfe gun led.
Kynge Kaser then no knyght,
Ne clerke that can on boke rede,
Beest ne foghel ne other wyght,
Bot I sal make tham dedde.
The Stowe manuscript, then, offers a more fully elaborated variant of the Vado Mori texts and images than Additional and Cotton, but the substance of all three versions is recognizably the same. They offer a double memento mori that capitalizes on the rememorative function of visual art so commonly cited by medieval theorists of the image.

As best I can make it out, the final lines of Death's verse read something like this: There is no kaiser, king, knight, nor cleric who can read from books, nor beast nor bird nor other creature but I shall make them dead. In addition to Death's appearance and dialog, the illustration for the Stowe manuscript shows another variation -- the Bishop is replaced with the Pope. With the mention of Kaiser and the depiction of Pope, we have the traditional highest-ranking figures from many Dance of Death and Triumph of Death works.

Brantley's central thesis is that private devotional reading, especially of works with dialog and illustrations, tended to have a performative character. As such it created in the mind of the reader an experience akin to witnessing a drama or pageant. Like today's cartoons and comic books, this image above shows action and dialog and virtually comes to life before the mind's eye. The dominance of certain recurrent themes in the most popular art, literature, and drama of the late Middle Ages would accentuate this transference of experience. (Cf. Gerard NeCastro's From Stage to Page - Medieval and Renaissance Drama for examples of early English drama.)

The idea that dramatic enactments, powerful tableaux vivants like those seen in liturgical tropes, mystery and miracle plays, and especially morality plays, would come to life for readers has an obvious application to the design and reception of Tarot. The trumps are a hierarchy of allegorical triumphs, reminiscent of similar works in art, literature, and dramatic pageants. Petrarch's Trionfi were the archetypal expression, but many subsequent works depict allegorical personifications triumphing over both individuals and other allegorical figures. During cardplay, every time one trump was outplayed by another a mini-tableaux was created for the players.

Each trick that involves at least two trumps creates a dramatic scene, an allegorical triumph of the higher-ranking figure over the lower. It does so in a striking manner, with one figure played after the other, literally placed on top of the other, defeating the lower-ranking subject. This is as vivid and participatory as a child playing with toy soldiers. In a culture where artistic, literary, and dramatic works, including outdoor pageants, represented this same kind of allegorical triumph, echoes of those other triumphs would be inevitable. As Brantley said of imagetexts, it reproduces not just the spiritual and moral message of popular dramatic performances, but also the experiential effects. (The best survey of all the medieval genres related to the moral allegory of Tarot is Willard Farnham's 1936 The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.)


  1. Could you tell me where the three picture do come from ? Which medevial book ? (especially the third one).

  2. The book from which I scanned the images is Reading in the Wilderness, (2007), by Jessica Brantley. The first and third images are from page 89, while the middle one is from page 91. You may be able to preview the book, including these pages, on either Google Books or on

    The first image, (with king, bishop, and knight standing next to each other), comes from MS Cotton Faustina B. VI (Pt. II), folio iv, in the British Library.

    The second image, (with king, bishop, and knight seated and Death over each one's shoulder), comes from MS Additional 37047, folio 36r, also in the British Library.

    The third image, (with king, bishop, and knight standing next to each other, threatened by Death), comes from MS Stowe 39, folio 33r, also in the British Library.