Dances of death, occupational mortality statistics, and social critique

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7072.1587 (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1587
  1. Johan P Mackenbach, professora
  1. a Department of Public Health, Erasmus University, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, Netherlands

    In the late middle ages and early renaissance dances of death were a popular art form. Despite important differences in outlook, the moral messages of these art forms and of modern analyses of socioeconomic inequalities in mortality overlap considerably. This theme has survived in modern dances of death, which are popular in certain parts of Europe, especially in Germany and other German speaking countries in central Europe, and are clearly inspired by the late medieval and early renaissance examples. In the modern dances of death, however, unlike their historical counterparts, social critique (crtiticism of social inequality) is almost absent, although they include representations of differences between people in social position. Remarkably, references to socioeconomic inequalities in mortality, which have been documented extensively, are also uncommon in the modern examples. This raises important questions about public perception of social inequality in general and socioeconomic inequalities in mortality in particular, and it suggests that modern Western society has not developed the cultural means of conveying the moral message that follows from research into socioeconomic inequalities in health.

    Dances of death were once an immensely popular art form throughout Europe.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The two most common types were mural paintings in churches or cemeteries and wood cuts in books. Some of the mural paintings can still be found, especially in France (where they are called danses macabres) and in the German speaking part of central Europe (Totentanze). The most important British example was a mural painting in Pardon Churchyard, near St Paul's Cathedral in London. This was an imitation of one of the earliest and most famous dances of death, the now lost danse macabre of the Saints Innocents cemetery in Paris, which was painted in 1424–5. The London version was executed by an unknown painter around 1430 …

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