Dame Fortune

Back in the goodle days of the Middle Ages people had a philosophical stance in relation to the moment in which they were living. Everything turned on the “wheel of fortune” — something more than mere “luck” and maybe not as dark as “fate.”

It was cosmic and whimsical; everyone had their turn. Of course people tried to influence their position through prayer, alms, going on a crusade, but as far as I can understand it the Wheel of Fortune was not quite the same as Divine Providence though everything does rest in the hand of God. If anything, faith could make the darker spins on the wheel a little more bearable. In any case, the Wheel of Fortune cannot spin you into Hell or Heaven. It was an earthly thing, a way of explaining all that was inexplicable.

Still, it is human nature to seek causation beyond the will of the divine and hope, somehow, to change their position on Fortune’s Wheel.

Not all medieval people were monks, peasants and lords. Some of them were itinerant scholars like the Goliards. Definitely a category apart, they were young clerics who wandered in search of work, usually live-in positions teaching the sons of nobles (they hoped). It’s difficult to see them as religious people. Much of what we know of them is from the amazing manuscript, Carmina Burana.

The Wheel of Fortune has a BIG role in that immense collection of poetry composed primarily in Latin and German. Carl Orff put some of the songs to music; I like Ray Manzarek’s version of Orff’s composition. Here is the poem sung in this song.

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.
. . . . . . . . . .
Fortune rota volvitur;
descendo minoratus;
alter in altum tollitur;
nimis exaltatus
rex sedet in vertice
caveat ruinam!
nam sub axe legimus
Hecubam reginam.
Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
status is bad,
well-being is vain
always may melt away,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
bare backed
I bear your villainy.
. . . . . . . . .
The wheel of Fortune turns;
I go down, demeaned;
another is carried to the height;
far too high up
sits the king at the summit –
let him beware ruin!
for under the axis we read:
Queen Hecuba.

In the Carmina Burana the poem that most beautifully (to me) depicts the Wheel of Fortune is the lament of a swan who has found he is now dinner. It’s a real swan song…

Once I lived on a lake
Once I was beautiful
When I was a Swan
Woe is me!
Now I’m burned black
roasting fiercely!

The servant turns the spit
roasting me in the fire
Now the steward serves me up
(Repeat chorus)

Now I lie on a plate
no longer able to fly
Now I see gnashing teeth


5 thoughts on “Dame Fortune

  1. What a sad swan story for Christmas!! Martha, best wishes and hope you’re recovering from flu’ and can have a wonderful white Christmas!

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