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The Thing of It Is, We Must Live with the Living

The Medium Is the Massage, pp. 94-96

John Walter, Author

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Death and the Printing Press

"This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for instance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme of The Dance of Death."

While McLuhan's claim that the medieval Dance of Death is, in part, a expression of anxiety and fear over the new technology of print may seem odd at first, we find the connection between the printing press and the Dance of Death made on a number of occasions in the late medieval and early modern period. 

One of the most famous representations of the Dance of Death is Hans Holbein's Dance of Death series of woodcuts (1523-26). In a preface to the 1538 edition, Jean de Vauzèle, the Prior of Montrosier, makes a direct connection between the technology of print and the memento mori the Dance of Death represents. (See Gundersheimer, 5). Likewise, the first known representation of a printing press is in Mathias Huss' 1499 Danse Macabre (Moran 25).

One of the messages in the Dance of Death is that no one is safe from Death's reach, and representations of the Dance of Death include people from all walk of life as we can see in these examples from Holbein's Dance of Death, which include Death's Coat of Arms, a bridal pair, a knight, a child, an old man, a pedlar, a nun, and the Pope.

Works Cited
Gundersheimer, Werner L. The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger: A Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition of Les simulachres et histoirees faces de la Mort. New york: Dover Publications, 1971.

Moran, James. Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

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