The three dead

The legend of the three living and the three dead most probably comes from France. The oldest manuscripts go back to the 13th century with poems of Baudoin de Condé (Dit des trois morts et des trois vifs (1280)) , and Nicolas de Margival. There also exists a fifteenth-century alliterative English poem version, The Three Kings, which was possibly penned by John Audelay.

The Story

Three wealthy, prosperous young worthies (usually a duke, a count, and a prince) are returning one night from a feast (alternatively hunting), when on the road they encounter three animate skeletons or corpses in ascending states of decay. To the men’s amazement and terror, the cadavers move and speak and there is confusion about whether they are hellish demons.

In fact, the three dead warn their living counterparts of the transience of life and exhort the young men to live well as death may come at any time.

Eventually, the dead leave, the red daylight comes, and the living ride home. Stories say that the noblemen/kings built churches and held masses in remembrance.


The thema of the three living and the three dead was often painted as fresco in churches to accompany a dance of death, as in Paris, Mesley-le-Grenet, Kermaria, La Ferté-Loupière (France). Nevertheless, it sometimes stands by itself as in: Sempach, Bregninge, Tuse (Denmark), Überlingen (Germany). The thema is not exploited any more after the 15th century.

Despite numerous similarities with the dance macabre, such as the dialogue between the living and the dead, as well as a division into social classes, the three living and the three dead cannot be considered as its former direct precursor. In the dance of death, the bell has already tolled and all people must join the dance: it is too late to repent. But in “the legend”, the dead try to persuade the living to repent.



  • Chapelle Jodokus, Überlingen. Vers 1424


  • Église de Skibby 1325-1375
  • Église de Kirkerup 1400
  • Église de Bregninge 1450-1475


  • Église de Tuse 1420
  • Collégiale St-Victor, Ennezat. 1476-1505
  • Église St-Saturnin, Conan. 1480-1490
  • Oratoire de Bois Morand, Antigny. 1527-1544
  • Église Saint-Pierre, Auvers-Le-Hamont 1574
  • Église St-Martin, Courgenard End XVIth
  • Église St-Blaise et St-Orien, Meslay-Le-Grenet. Beginning XVIth
  • Chapelle dédiée à la Vierge Marie, Beginning XVIth
  • Église de St-Germain d’Auxerre, La Ferté-Loupière. Beginning XVIth
  • Chapelle de Réveillon dédiée à St-André, La Ferté-Vidame. Beginning XVIth
  • Église St-Pierre, Lancôme. Beginning XVIth
  • Église Notre-Dame, Alluyes Beginning XVIth
  • Chapelle Ste-Catherine de l’église Notre-Dame, Antigny Début 16ième siècle


  • Église St-Martin, Sempach. 1300-1310

Abridged version of ‘Le Dit des trois morts et trois vifs‘ (trans. Paul Binski)

“Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Wealth, honor and power are of no value at the hour of your death.”.

The First Living King:

Friends, look what I see:
Unless I have gone quite mad
My heart shakes with great fear:
See there three shades together,
How ugly and strange they are
Rotten and worm-eaten.

The First Dead King:

The first shade said: Lord,
Do not forget because of this bird
Nor for your bejewelled robes,
That you are not obeying well the laws
That Jesus Christ has commanded
By his holy will.

The Second Living King:

The second said: I desire,
Friend, to amend my life:
I have over-indulged my whims
And my heart is eager
To do, as much as my soul submits
To God the King of Pity.

The Second dead King:

Gentlemen, said the second shade,
The truth is that death
Had made us such as we are
And you will rot as we are now;
Until now you were so pure and perfect
However you will rot before the end.

The Third Living King:

The third living, who wrings his hands,
Said, why was man made so lowly
That he must receive such an end;
This was too evident a folly.
God would never perpetrate this madness
So brief a joy and such great pleasures.

The Third Dead King:

The third shade says: know
That I was head of my line;
Princes, kings and nobles
Royal and rich, rejoicing in my wealth;
But now I am so hideous and bare
That even the worms disdain me.

The thought bubbles above their heads say (translated) 'I am afraid’, 'Lo, what I see’, 'Methinks these be devils three’, 'I was well fair’, 'Such shall you be’, 'For God’s love beware by me’.