OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Anonym (XV c.)
Anonym - Conversation of a Master with Death
CONVERSATION OF A MASTER WITH DEATH
De morte prologus
(Prologue on death)
Greater than all creation,
Help me to compose this work,
So that I can carefully unfold it
For the extension of Your glory,
For the improvement of mankind!
Learn about the cruelty of death! –
You who think little of her
Will know her at the end of life.
Be he old or young,
No one will escape the mortal danger;
Death will strangle them all,
Everyone must attend her school;
She appears in a strange way to clerics,
She will deprive everyone of life.
I want to tell a story;
Listen to it, those who want to know!
Polycarpus, this was his name,
A great sage, illustrious master,
Earnestly asked God
To see Death in a visible form.
When he was praying intensely to God,
Left alone in the church,
He saw a naked being
Of the female gender,
With an awfully ugly appearance,
Wrapped up in a piece of cloth,
Skinny, pale, with a yellow face
Shining like a wash bowl;
The tip of her nose had fallen off;
Bloody ooze flowed from her eyes;
She wrapped her head with a kerchief
Looking wrymouthed like a man-eater;
No lips in her muzzle,
She gnashed her teeth yawning;
She cast her eyes around and turned,
With threatening scythe in her hand;
Bare-headed, stridently talking,
A hideous figure all around –
She stuck out her ribs and bones,
And slashed ominously without pity.
The Master, seeing this ugly figure,
Yellow eyes, pallid belly,
Became awfully frightened;
Down he fell and groaned.
When he lay on his back like a fool,
Death spoke to him:
Why are you so afraid?
You seem to be healthy, and yet you groan!
The Lord made it happen this way
Because you prayed to Him so much,
So that I would appear to you,
And show all of my power;
So here I stand before you;
Take a good look at me:
I will reveal myself like this to all,
When I deprive them of life.
Don't fear me this time,
Seeing me in this form;
When I come, my dearest, to you,
Then you will truly feel sick:
You will cast furtive glances,
Until sweat pours out of your body.
I will pounce like a cat on a mouse,
Until your heart pants for breath;
You won't care for plums with honey
When I bring the jug of poison –
You'll have to drink it against your will.
When you suffer great distress,
You will have plenty of sorrow,
You will abandon your lover.
Forsake all of this, I order you;
Against your will I'll wrench you away.
Speak, because I have work to do,
If you want to talk with me;
You see, I am at work –
Why are you so unhappy?
My scythe cuts rushes, grass;
No one will escape it.
Arise, Master, and answer, if you can!
Don't you understand Polish?
No game of chance
will help you;
You are frightened, poor soul!
Now recover your senses, pitiable man;
Speak to me, poor cleric;
Don't be afraid of my school today;
I won't have you read a lesson.
The Master spoke very humbly:
I feared that I would perish.
What has happened is very distressing
Because you frightened me so much;
And if you said something cruel,
All my veins would burst;
You would kill me on the spot
And chase away my soul.
I beg you, step back a little,
Because I don't know what has happened to me:
I feel faint and turn pale,
My health and hope are gone.
Please, throw away the scythe,
So I may raise my head!
Master, your words are useless,
I am not ready to deal with you.
I hold my scythe in readiness;
I strike down doctors and masters;
I always have it at hand;
I take the night's lodging by force.
Stand up, you can trust me;
I don't want to betray you today!
The Master stood up with effort, staggering,
His legs trembled, he was frightened.
Dear Death, where did you come from?
Were you born a long time ago?
I would like to know fully,
Where are your father or mother?
When God created man,
So that he could live forever,
God made Eve out of a bone
For Adam to be happy.
He gave him power over the beasts –
So that he could rule as a saint;
He gave him fishes from the sea
To protect him from poverty.
He entrusted him with the gardens of paradise;
To save him from all misery,
All this He put in his power;
One tree He forbade him,
To ever think of touching,
Or even to reach for,
Telling him: "If only you touch it,
Then surely you must die!"
But the evil spirit deceived Eve,
When it urged her to touch the fruit.
Eve yielded to this temptation,
And acted with boldness.
At that time I was conceived;
When Eve touched the apple,
She gave the apple to Adam,
And I was in that apple.
Adam ate me in the apple,
And had to die because of me;
In this he insulted God greatly,
And infected the human race.
Dear Death, pray reveal to me,
Why do you want to take people's lives,
Why did they lose your favor,
What did they do to wrong to you?
We want to bring you gifts,
So that you can be appeased.
I would have a good cake baked
If I could run away from you.
Keep your gifts yourself;
You only anger me twice as much!
I don't profit from these gifts
I will send everybody to death;
If you want to know exactly,
I'll tell you most clearly:
The Father of all creation
Has granted me such power
That I can kill by day and night.
I slay in the east, in the south,
And I do this work wonderfully.
From the north to the west
I walk not looking for the way.
This is my greatest joy,
When I have many to kill:
When I start to dance with my scythe,
I want to bite a thousand of them.
This is a sign of my might –
I put to death all of mankind:
I put to death the wise and the foolish;
In this I show my great power;
Whether sick or healthy
I will take everybody's life;
Whether old or young;
My scythe will take care of everyone;
Whether rich or poor,
My scythe will destroy them all;
The palatines and castellans,
All the lay dignitaries,
Whether princes or counts,
I'll take them all with me.
I'll pluck the crown from the king,
I'll pull him by the hair under the scythe;
I also appear in the emperor's palace,
In winter, summer, and autumn.
Philosophers and astrologers,
I catch all of them in my snare;
Craftsmen, merchants, and ploughmen,
Everyone jumps in front of my scythe;
All traitors and usurers,
I will turn them into corpses.
Innkeepers, who cheat in serving beer,
Seldom remember me;
When they fill up their money-bags,
Then they find out about my scythe;
When they visit my school,
I'll pour pitch down their throats.
If I make only the slightest move,
I strangle everyone at once.
First, I strangle girls, boys,
Until a man's heart trembles.
I killed Goliath,
Annas and Caiaphas;
I hanged Judas
And nailed two thieves to the cross;
But I damaged my scythe
When I put Christ to death,
Because in Him there was God's might.
Only He conquered my scythe,
Because on the third day He came back to life;
I struggled with his life;
Then I lost all my might.
I have power over good people,
But more over the wicked;
Whoever commits the most sins,
I'll break his bones.
If you want, I'll disclose more to you,
But reflect on it well:
I'll tell you about my scythe;
Just sniff it with your nose;
If you want to see how sharp it is,
Your sister will cry over you;
Your tricks will be of no avail,
Very quickly your legs will shake;
As soon as I take my scythe out of the case,
You'll change your tune at once.
The Almighty permitted me
To put the living to death:
My strength is always famed;
I have put giants to death:
Solomon so wise,
Samson, very strong,
And the giant Wietrzych,
I took vengeance on them,
And made my scythe happy.
I also perform unusual deeds,
I hang some, behead others.
I don't know with whom you'll make friends,
Since you destroy all people;
When you do away with all people,
Where will you run away yourself?
People's friendship is needed everywhere,
So that they would warm you up in their bath,
And you would soak with sweat,
As if you had toiled very hard –
And then could work much better.
Well, then, I'll wash you off here,
Cut your throat in a moment.
Why do you interrupt with your talk?
You may not live to see tomorrow!
You talk to me so boldly
That I'll cut off your head, even in church!
Look here, you simpleminded Master,
You don't understand this business:
I don't want to take your clothing
Nor your greatest possessions;
Your raisins and almonds
Never meant much to me;
Your velvets and precious fabrics –
I never wanted to have them.
I dearly love human sin,
And I will never forsake it.
The clergymen and the laymen,
I'll deprive them all of life;
I slay and rob all of them,
And never pay a penalty for it:
Canons and parish priests
Will yet be in my school,
And vicars with fat necks,
Who drink beer a lot,
With chins hanging on their breasts;
Good merchants, horse traders,
My scythe will punish them all;
Women and fat ladies,
Who indulge in feasting,
Murderers and brutes,
I'll turn them into corpses;
Maidens, widows, married women
I'll slaughter for their shamelessness;
I take arrows and quivers from noblemen,
And leave them in their undershirts;
Clerics and courtiers,
I'll cut them down, miserable men;
All who contend in tournaments
I'll run after in hostile pursuit;
Whoever throws himself willingly into battle,
I'll cut off his hands and shoulders,
I'll tear him away from his beloved,
And make a fool out of him.
I want to curl his hair myself,
Until he changes his tune.
If you listen to me a moment,
I would like to ask you something:
Why are there doctors,
If they can't save us from your power,
And they also claim
That herbs have great power?
Well, every doctor deceives;
His ointments won't help;
They engage in their craft
Until my time comes;
As long as God's will is there,
So long is man free from misfortune;
No pharmacies will help;
No medicines will work against me;
After all, everyone has to die,
Even those who taste their medications;
For a while they may help,
And the weak may regain their strength.
And yet, it comes to this end,
When the doctor sits in my school,
Because against a mortal danger
No herb is found in the garden.
In vain you will take a lovage,
is ready for you;
No help from the smoke of wormwood
When my hour comes;
No help from sage leaves either –
Death will wash off everything without lye.
I don't care about any herb;
After all for so many years,
I have been using my power
And don't care about any medications;
I stage a show for the people,
And always treat them alike.
I kill judges and court clerks;
I will cause them lots of sorrow.
When they judge their own families,
They very often err in their verdicts –
But when the Judgment Day arrives,
The judge will come down a peg,
Will not go to trials any more,
Making illegal postponements,
Violating valid judgments,
Will not impose excessive fines,
Take gifts from malefactors,
Clearing them of their crimes –
All this will be revealed
And cruelly avenged.
Translated by Michael J. Mikoś
This poem (
Dialog mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią
) was wrtitten ca. 1463 by an anonymous author. It is the longest known medieval Polish poem, with 498 lines, most of them eight syllables long. Based on an anonymous Latin text, it is, however, an original work. It expresses the universality of death but, more importantly, is a social satire addressed against various estates, most explicitly against doctors, judges, and clergy. The ending of the Płock manuscript was lost.
Death is feminine in Polish.
Sortes - "sortilege" - an ancient custom of lottery of any type, e.g throwing dice or asking riddles, to foretell all kinds of personal matters. In the Middle Ages, a game of chance was often used to outwit the devil or death, and to avoid or postpone
"The Master replies."
Incorrect modification of the name of Dietrich (Theodorik) of Bern, hero of a German epic.
"Board": i.e., "coffin."
Lye was used instead of soap for washing and laundry.