Prior to the Danse macabre (which features Death taking with him a hierarchical medley live), The Three Dead Kings is in the form of painting, miniature, d of illumination or sculpture, three corpses addressing three young pedestrians (or three young riders) richly adorned, often chasing.
Here the theme is not death itself – that of three young men – as in the Triumph of Death, Ars moriendi, Vanities or Memento mori, but the lesson, warning decomposition, a rot coming in a future more or less distant.
The first known text on The Three Dead Kings date 1280s. The Arsenal library maintains oldest French engraving of the late thirteenth century. The oldest painted representation, also the thirteenth century, was probably that of the church of Sainte-Ségolène Metz, who disappeared during the restoration of the building, between 1895 and 1910.
De tribus regibus mortuis.
An a byrchyn bonke • ther bous arne bryght,
I saw a brymlyche bore • to a bay broght;
Ronke rachis with rerde • thai ronnon aryght;
Of al hore row and hore rest • lytil hom roght.
Methoght hit ful semelé • to se soche a syght
How in a syde of a salghe • a sete him he soght;
Fro the noyse that hit was new • til hit was ne nyght,
Fro the non bot a napwile • methoght hit bot noght.
Methoght hit noght bot a throw
To se how he throbyt and threw.
Hontis with hornes thai kowth blow;
Thai halowyd here howndys with “how!”
In holtis herde I never soche hew!
Soche a hew in a holt • were hele to beholde,
To se how howndis him hent • and gart him to helde!
Ther come barownce to that bay • with barsletys bolde;
Thai blewyn here bewgulys ful breme • hore brachus to belde.
Thre kyngys ther come, • trewlé itolde.
With tonyng and tryffylyng • and talis thai telde,
Uche a wy that ther was • wroght as thai wold.
These wodis and these wastis • thai waltyn al to welde.
Thai waltyn at here wil to ware
These wodis and the wastus that ther were.
Herkyns what befel of here fare —
Ham lykyd no lorchip in lare! —
The lede that wold, lestyn and lere.
When thai weren of these wodys • went at here wyn,
Thai fondyn wyndys ful wete • and wederys ful wanne.
Bot soche a myst upo molde, • with mowth as I youe myn,
Of al here men and here mete • thai mystyn uche mon!
“Al our awnters,” quod one, • “that we ar now inne,
I hope fore honor of erth • that anguis be ous on.
Thagh we be kyngis ful clene • and comen of ryche kyn,
Moche care us is caght; • fore kraft that I can,
Can I no mo cownsel bot chist,
Bot coverys and cachis sum cest;
Be morne may mend this myst;
Our Lord may delyver us with lyst,
Or lelé our lyvys ar lest.”
Where thai not forth gone • fotis bot a fewe,
Thai fondon feldus ful fayre • and fogus ful fow;
Schokyn out of a schawe • thre schalkys at schew,
Schadows unshene • were chapid to chow,
With lymes long and lene • and leggys ful lew,
Hadyn lost the lyp and the lyver • sethyn thai were layd lowe.
Ther was no beryn that ther was • dorst bec nor bewe,
Bot braydyn here brydilys agayne, • hor blongis can blow.
Here blonkis can blow and abyde;
Siche barns thai can hom bede;
Thai se no sokur hom besyde,
Bot oche kyng apon Crist cryde,
With crossyng and karpyng o Crede.
The furst kyng he had care, • his hert ovrcast,
Fore he knew the cros of the cloth • that coverd the cyst.
Forth wold not his fole, • bot fnyrtyd ful fast,
His fayre fawkun fore ferd • he fel to his fyst:
“Now al my gladchip is gone! • I gre and am agast
Of thre gostis ful grym • that gare me be gryst.
Fere of have I walkon • be wodys and be wast,
Bot was me never so wo • in word that Y wyst —
So wo was me never, I wene;
My wit is away other wane;
Certis sone hit wil be sene
Our ronnyng wil turne us to tene;
Fore tytle, I trow we bene tane!”
Then bespeke the medil kyng, that mekil was of myght,
Was made as a man schuld • of mayn and of maght:
“Methenkys, seris, that I se • the selquoth syght,
That ever segge under sonne • sey and was saght,
Of thre ledys ful layth • that lorne hath the lyght —
Both the lip and the lyver • his fro the lyme laght!
Fore yif we tene to the towne • as we hadyn tyght,
Ha ful teneful way, I trow, • that us is taght.
Us is taght, as I trow;
I tel you no talis bot trew.
What helpis our hontyng with ‘how’?
Now rayke we to the yonder row,
Or raddelé our rese mon we rew.”
Then speke the henmest kyng — • in the hillis he beholdis;
He lokis under his hondis • and his hed heldis,
Bot soche a carful knyl • to his hert coldis,
So doth the knyf ore the kye — • that knoc kelddus!
“Hit bene warlaws thre • that walkyn on this woldis —
Oure Lord, wyss us the redé way, • that al the word weldus!
My hert fars fore freght, • as flagge when hit foldus;
Uche fyngyr of my hond • fore ferdchip hit feldus.
Fers am I ferd of oure fare;
Fle we ful fast therfore!
Can Y no cownsel bot care —
These dewyls wil do us to dare
Fore drede lest thai duttyn uche a dore!”
“Nay, are we no fyndus,” quod furst, • “that ye before you fynden;
We wer your faders of fold • that fayre youe have fondon.
Now ye beth lykyr to leve • then levys on the lynden,
And lordis of oche towne • fro Loron into Londen.
Those that bene not at your bone • ye beton and byndon;
Bot yef ye betun that burst, • in bale be ye bondon.
Lo, here the wormus in my wome — • thai wallon and wyndon!
Lo, here the wrase of the wede • that I was in wondon!
Herein was I wondon, iwys,
In word wan that me worthelokyst was.
My caren was ful cumlé to cysse;
Bot we have made youe mastyrs amys
That now nyl not mynn us with a mas.”
That other body began • a ful brym bere:
“Lokys on my bonus, • that blake bene and bare!
Fore wyle we wondon in this word, • at worchip we were;
Whe hadon our wyfe at our wil • and well fore to ware.
Thenkes ye no ferlé, • bot frayns at me fere:
Thagh ye be never so fayre, • thus schul ye fare!
And yif ye leven upon Crist • and on his lore lere,
Levys lykyng of flesche • and leve not that lare.
Fore warto schuld ye leve hit? Hit lyus!
His ledys youe be lagmon be leus,
When thou art aldyr-hyghtus and hyus;
Away of this word when that thou wryus,
Al thi wild werkys hit wreus.”
Then speke laythe upo last, • with lyndys ful lene,
With eyther leg as a leke • were lapid in lyne:
“Makis your merour be me! • My myrthus bene mene:
Wyle I was mon apon mold, • morthis thai were myne;
Methoght hit a hede thenke • at husbondus to hene —
Fore that was I hatyd • with heme and with hyne —
Bot thoght me ever kyng • of coyntons so clene.
Now is ther no knave under Crist • to me wil enclyne,
To me wil enclyne, to me come,
Bot yif he be cappid or kyme.
Do so ye dred not the dome —
To tel youe we have no longyr tome —
Bot turn youe fro tryvyls betyme!”
Now this gostis bene grayth, • to grave thai glyde.
Then began these gomys • graythlé to glade;
Thai redyn on the ryght way • and radlé thai ryde;
The red rowys of the day • the rynkkys kouthyn rade.
Holde thai never the pres • be hew ne be hyde,
Bot ay the hendyr hert • after thai hade;
And thai that weryn at myschip • thai mend ham that myde.
And throgh the mercé of God • a mynster thai made.
A mynster thai made with masse,
Fore metyng the men on the mosse,
And on the woghe wrytyn this was.
To lyte will leve this, allas!
Oure Lord delyver us from losse. Amen.