By Cait Stevenson
What comes to mind when you think of medieval music? Unless you’ve been binge-streaming the delightful Civilization VI soundtrack, which seems to think “Scarborough Fair” was the only song that existed in England for a thousand years, it’s probably the thundering “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. In fact, “O Fortuna” and its partner, “Fortune Plango Vulnera,” owe much more musically to the Baroque renditions of “Dies Irae” by Mozart and Verdi than their medieval original. Are we being swindled?
In fact, the poems that comprise the Carmina Burana’s lyrics step up where the music falls short, and “O Fortuna” might just be the most medieval of them all.
The manuscript known as the Codex Buranus (carmina is Latin for “songs”), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 4660, was composed in thirteenth-century Germany. It’s more than 200 poems all date from the 11th through 13th centuries. They’re in Latin and in vernacular (Middle High German); they promote Church doctrine and criticize the clergy; they allude to stories from Ovid and from the Crusades. When the manuscript leaves were edited and rearranged probably in the fourteenth century, the most significant change was to move a key illumination right to the front to announce the book’s contents.
The rota fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune, and Christian theology are the point and counterpoint of the western medieval worldview—seemingly clashing perspectives that nevertheless made perfect sense amidst the vagaries of war, famine, triumph, disease, love, and loss.
Classic Wheel iconography, like Carmina Burana’s, includes four figures, portrayed as kings, at compass points on the wheel: I will reign, I reign, I have reigned, I have lost my kingdom. Or, if you will: I have reigned, I am without a kingdom, I will reign, I reign. This concept, as we’ll see, drives our most iconic “medieval music.”
O Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis / semper crescis aut decrescis: Oh Fortune, like the moon, with an ever-changing state / always waxing or waning.
“O Fortuna,” the first of the two pieces that comprise the Carmina Burana’s opening sequence, turns out to be a great fit for the sports games and sporting good ads it so often underlines in popular culture. Its theme is the spinning wheel of fortune itself—an immutable, inscrutable, and above all, fickle force. Over and over, the poet calls Fortune veiled and shadowed; ravaging and healing; and treating human life as a game. Fortune cuts down even the strongest man, the poet sings, “so everyone, lament with me!”
In the Carmina Burana, “O Fortuna” segues smoothly into another poem, “Fortune plango vulnera”: I lament the wounds of fortune. Indeed, in this song, the poet is not having a good time. Two key differences separate this poem from the other. First, in “O Fortuna,” Fortune is portrayed as fate, almost a disembodied force. “Fortune plango vulnera,” on the other hand, embodies Fortune in two forms. First:
Quod sua mihi munera, subtrahit rebellis / Verum est quod legitur, fronte capillata / Sed plerumque sequitur, occasio calvata:
The gifts she gives to me, she snatches away / Truly it is said, Fortuna has a full head of hair / But when your opportunity is there!—she is bald
This stanza invokes Fortuna, the classical goddess—the classical bald goddess. As the poet explains, Fortuna is a lovely woman with a lovely head of hair. But when you go to seize the day, there is nothing there to grasp—Fortuna is bald. She cannot be grasped—fortune cannot be controlled by humanity.
Fortune rota volvitur, descendo minoratus / Alter in altem tollitur, nimis exaltatus:
The wheel of fortune turns; I descend, having been brought down / Another is raised up; he is exalted—too much!
Aha! Here it is, our explicit Wheel of Fortune—always turning, subject everyone to it. The poet portrays himself as crushed beneath the bottom of the wheel, but he warns that even the person at the top must beware.
And so, the Carmina Burana, the iconic statement of “medieval music,” crescendos open with a fortress of fatalism. Fortune is the empress of the world and she does not care about you. So Caveat ruinam: beware of ruin. Here, indeed, is our calamitous Dark Ages of disaster and death, where harvests fail for seven years straight and kings lose their thrones to their once-beloved rebelling sons.
So riddle me this: if Fortuna turns every king who reigns into a man without a kingdom, why does the maiden (or…not maiden) of Carmina Burana’s “Chramer, gip die varwe mir” exult the rich pleasures and bounty of the world? Why can the poet of “Amor volat undique” rejoice that “love flies everywhere / young men and women are joined together, and rightly so”?
It turns out that when Orff and archivist Michel Hoffman winnowed down the Codex Buranus poem to the 24 of the Carmina Burana, they skipped one called “O varium fortune.” (Fortunately for us all, Corvus Corax did not skip it when recording their version of the poems, Cantus Buranus). You don’t need Latin to gather that this is another one about fortune, and more to the point, about the whims of fortune.
The poem starts off almost…dubiously admitting the system is not as bad as it could be? “Paras huic praemium / quem colere tua vult gratia: You prepare a reward for him whom your grace wishes to build up.” Fortune, this poet notes, can raise a pauper from the gutter, can choose a blustering populist speaker to become an elite patrician ruler. (Of course, that patrician ruler had still best beware: “Fortune builds up and tears down / now abandons those it earlier helped.”)
But Orff and Hofmann didn’t just skip the poem that focuses on the apex of the wheel—they also rearranged the order. Carmina Burana booms open with “O Fortuna,” about the qualities of fortune itself, a force beyond God and nature alike. This concept then bleeds into the first-person lament of their own bad situation in “Fortune plango vulnera.”
The manuscript tells a different story. “O varium fortune” is presented first! We meet fortune in all its fickleness, but the poet insists the fickleness can indeed work in particular humans’ favor, at least temporarily. “Fortune plango vulnera” follows: on the other hand, sometimes fortune works against you. Or rather, against me, bemoans the poet. And finally, “O Fortuna” finishes it off. It’s a conclusion, not an introduction. Fortune might seem good, fortune might seem bad; the point is, fortune is beyond us all. This, in the end, is the significance of the rota fortunae in medieval culture: not a ceaseless parade of torment, but a cycle of rising and falling, and a warning not to take anything for granted.
Wheels of fortune abound in medieval culture, from the haute philosophy of Boethius to the popular romance of Le Morte d’Arthur. So the next time you hear “O Fortuna” blasted over the loudspeakers at a hockey game, don’t scoff that it’s not true “medieval music.” Celebrate the aspects of the medieval worldview that its lyrics conveyed in the Middle Ages—and, I think, that that style of music has come to mean to us today.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. Click here to read more from Cait.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.