O Fortuna and Other Medieval Mockery

Detail from Battle of Carnival and Lent, oil painting  by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Detail from Battle of Carnival and Lent, oil painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

My area of study in college was medieval studies. Once I discovered the glories of feudal drinking poetry set to powerful classical music, I was hooked for life.

The old-fashioned practice of bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son, often leaving younger sons penniless, is responsible for some of the most ribald and hilarious poetry of the middle ages.

Many noble and middle-class families had a tradition that the eldest son inherited everything, the second son went into the church, and the younger sons went to the crusades. The sons who were forced into the church were sent to the universities or monasteries of the time, places where theology was the prime area of study, inadvertently exposing them to all the literature of the Greeks and Romans. This widened their horizons, to the regret of the powers-that-be.

Even as late as the fifteenth century this was a common practice. Henry VIII was actually the second son, and up to his brother, Arthur’s death, he was intended as his family’s offering to the church.

As you can imagine, most of these reluctant clergymen had no desire to live monastic lives. These groups of over-educated, under-motivated priests embraced a life focused on carnal pleasures rather than the life of a celibate. They were medieval frat-boys, going from town to town, making the best of their unenthusiastic, churchly poverty by writing drinking songs, carousing, and indulging in licentious behavior.

There was such an abundance of well-educated clergy that most were unable to gain a decent appointment within the church, despite good family connections. These men weren’t content to spend their lives hidden away in a rural monastery painstakingly copying the great books written by others when they could be writing their own. Add to that the disillusionment they suffered in regard to the hypocritical, abusive, greedy state of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of that time, and what you have is fertile soil for medieval mockery on a grand scale.

Some of their more popular church services when they would arrive in a new town included celebrating the annual Feast of Fools, a brief social revolution, where roles were reversed, and power, dignity and impunity was briefly conferred on the lowest of the social order.

Then there was the ever-popular Feast of the Ass, during which a girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.

No joke—this religious (dis)order of wandering clerics was the twelfth century equivalent of a travelling, interactive, Monty Python Show in ecclesiastical robes.

These priests were given the name “goliard,” the roots of which name are a little muddled. The name came to mean an entertainer, but I assure you that despite being men of the church, they were the polar opposites of the better known troubadour, who sang of noble, chivalric love.

Unemployed scholars-of-the-wine-cup, they usually wrote their poetry in Latin. It was like English is today—a language that bridges cultures and enables communication and commerce between foreign countries.

The character from the Robin Hood tales that we call “Friar Tuck” would most assuredly have been a goliard, if he had been about during the time of Richard the Lionhearted. (Friars didn’t actually come into existence until long after the time of Richard I.)

Because they were over-educated and under-employed, goliards had no church or abbey to call home. Thus they composed many of their poems to be sung in the taverns and low establishments of the time.

Their bawdy poems and lyrics focused on two all-encompassing themes:

  1. Broad, explicit depictions of the lusty lifestyle of the vagrant
  2. Satirical criticisms of both noble and ignoble society and also pointing out the hypocrisies of the church.

When a goliard was in town, you locked up your daughters, your beer, and your goats, because there was no telling what would happen next.

One of the largest, most famous collections of goliardic poetry is the Carmina Burana. The uncertainty of Fortune and the characterization of it as a deity was a regular motif in medieval literature, and the Goliards wrote many of their poems celebrating the capriciousness of Fortune.

Carmina Burana is Latin for “Songs from Beuern” (“Beuern” is short for Benediktbeuern) and preserves the works of a number of poets, including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon, and an anonymous poet, referred to as the Archpoet.

In general, the works contained in the Carmina Burana can be arranged into four groups according to theme:

  • 55 songs of morals and mockery (CB 1–55)
  • 131 love songs (CB 56–186)
  • 40 drinking and gaming songs (CB 187–226)
  • two longer spiritual theater pieces (CB 227 and 228)

A famous poet and composer of songs, active in the early Middle Ages, was the philosopher Peter Abelard (1079–1142). Abelard’s son, Astrolabe (yes, his mother, Heloise, did consciously name him after a scientific instrument), was a clergyman in the monastery of Benediktbeuern, so it is likely that the anthology of poems known today as the Carmina Burana began as the personal collection of his father’s works.

Of the twenty-four poems in the Carmina Burana that were set to music by Carl Orff in 1936, the one he led off with, O Fortuna, is not really considered the best. Some scholars have suggested the vagueness conveyed by the prose of this poem indicates that some words were employed only to enable the rhyme, as they don’t fully convey the author’s intention the way he likely hoped even in Latin. (Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s perfect.) But they do get the idea across:

Fate, savage and empty, you are a turning wheel, your position is uncertain, your favor is idle and always likely to disappear; covered in shadows and veiled you bear upon me too; now my back is naked through the sport of your wickedness.(Middle stanza of O Fortuna)

The music in which Karl Orff set that lustful poetry raises this verse to the status of an anthem, a powerful, block-buster of an opening for full choir and orchestra. I was privileged to hear this piece performed by the Seattle Chorale Company and the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall in 2010–it was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my musical life.

Carl Orff and his amazing cantata, Carmina Burana, catapulted me into the poetry of the Goliards. From there, I moved on to an author who was highly influenced by the Goliardic poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. He was unique, in that he wrote in Middle English, the vernacular of his time, rather than in Latin. A century after the overabundance of bored poor-little-rich-boy clergymen that spawned the Goliards had been squashed by the church, that tradition of irreverence was carried on by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. The goliardic works that survive to this day still surprise us with how relevant the concepts put forth in those poems and tales are to contemporary society.

It is through the surviving literature and song that the truth of a past culture is discovered. The true nature of the common medieval man and woman survives in the rebellious, ribald literary tradition of the naughty clergy, the Goliards.

We may be separated in time by centuries, but we are not too different from those ancestors of ours who survived the dark ages by getting drunk and singing bawdy songs.A Love Song from the Carmina Burana

Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff


Author: conniejjasperson

Connie J. Jasperson lives in Olympia, Washington. A vegan, she and her husband share five children, a love of good food and great music. She is active in local writing groups, an editor for Myrddin Publishing Group, and is a writing coach. She is an active member of the both the Northwest Independent Writers Association and Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and is a founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group. Music and food dominate her waking moments. When not writing or blogging she can be found with her Kindle, reading avidly.

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