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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2
Carmina Burana

          Chronology: A large, extraordinary collection of medieval poetry came to light in 1803 at the southern Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern (fig.1), after it was secularized during the French Revolution. This collection of 320 poems, known as Carmina Burana or "Songs of Benediktbeuern,"dates back to about AD 1230, and includes four basic categories of poems. These are satirical or moralizing lyrics (carmina moralia); songs celebrating springtime and love (carmina veris et amoris); gambling and drinking songs (carmina lusorum et potatorum), including goliardic verse; and poems with religious content (carmina divina).

This collection of lyric poetry was first published in 1847 as the Codex Buranus by the librarian Andreas Schmeller. The Codex Buranus manuscript of 112 vellum leaves (25x17cm), with illustrations and colored initials, was presumably intended for an influential court. This may have been the court of the Bishop of Seckau (1231-43), since it was probably written and compiled in the Bavarian-Austrian linguistic region of Steiermark, Tirol, or Kaernten. How the Codex Buranaus later found its way to the southern Bavarian monastery at Benediktbeuern (fig.1) is unknown. Today the original manuscript is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. Individual poems are referred to as CB followed by a number.

[Fig.1: Map showing location of the southern Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern].

          The dating of the Carmina Burana is based on two main types of evidence, textual and paleographic (the study of handwriting styles). Textual evidence dates two of the songs by German poets to 1217 and 1225, including one by Neidhart (CB 168) at 1217-19; and one by Walter von der Vogelweide (CB 211), from the early 1220s (Benedikt 1987). These serve as a terminus post quem; in other words, the collection of poems must have been compiled sometime after (post) the writing of these two. Secondly, various aspects of artistic and handwriting styles in the manuscript indicate that it was created prior to 1250 (serving as terminus ante quem). This combination of clues has helped date the Codex Buranus at ca. 1230.

Based on distinctive features of writing style, two anonymous scribes appear to have copied most of the Codex Buranus texts, and to have drawn many of the decorative initials, headlines, and musical notations. One of these scribes may have also painted the eight colored miniatures, which show some stylistic parallels to the initials. In the years following completion, the entries in the codex underwent several corrections. Overall, five different scribes left their imprints on the vellum leaves of the codex. The last, and most extensive editing took place in about 1300; thereafter there are no more manuscript entries.

          Content: The Codex Buranus contains eight colored miniatures of considerable interest. The miniature inserted at the beginning of the manuscript portrays Fortuna, the Roman Goddesss of fate, seated within the wheel of fortune, wearing a crown and ermine mantle (fig.2). Around the wheel is shown the stages of the rise and fall of a sovereign. At first he surmounts the wheel, but as it turns, he eventually falls to the ground beneath its spokes, symbolizing the impermanence of power and the vicissitudes of fate.

          By contrast, a cheerful springtime scene shows fanciful trees, flowers, and animals, including birds, a lion, a horse, and a rabbit. Other illustrations portray scenes of revelers, and gamblers playing dice, backgammon, and chess; two scenes from Virgil's Aeneid; and two lovers lying side by side with a bouquet of flowers (fig.3).

          Much of the lyric poetry in Carmina Burana is frankly pagan and sensual in content. This includes the so-called Goliardic verse (named for Goliath, who served as a medieval symbol for pagan, unruly behavior), typically composed by traveling students or young clerics, who often wandered from city to city to study under different mentors. Some vagabond poets (from Latin vagari) earned their bread by singing songs, typically satirical, and often employing graphic imagery. These goliardic songs were the "Bohemian" or student counterpart of the generally more refined, courtly, and morally idealized minne songs (minne=love) of German poets, and of the troubadour poems celebrating aristocratic ladies at the courts of France.

[Fig.2: The Wheel of Fortune from the 13th century Carmina Burana manuscript, showing the rise and fall of the king (Bavarian State Library, Clm 4660 f.1r)].

          The Carmina Burana collection owes its present popularity to the German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982), who wrote his famous opus of the same name in 1935-6 using twenty-four of the original texts. Themes include "in springtime/ in the meadow" (primo vere / uf dem anger), "in the tavern" (in taberna), and "the court of love" (cour d'amours), which he connected by choir passages with the motif of Fortuna, Goddess of fate, as empress of the world (fortuna imperatrix mundi).

          As Orff's work illustrates, much of the Carmina Burana deals with basic human themes such as the fickleness of fortuna or luck, the inevitability of death, the joy and pain of love, and the predominance of human frailties over virtues (including several satires directly aimed at clerics). The lyrics cover the lives of court aristocrats and vagabond artists, ranging from the rules of gambling to the touching lament of a roasted swan at a tavern (taberna). More grandiose topics include the crusades, myths of Classical antiquity (derived from Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal), religious issues, and occasionally, contemporary events such as the homicide of Philip of Swabia in 1208.

          While most of the songs are written in medieval Latin, the Carmina Burana also includes some examples of medieval German and French texts, plus a few verses in mixed Latin and German (fig.3) This variety of languages demonstrates the heterogeneous literary climate of the 12th and 13th centuries, reflected in the diverse authorship of the texts in the Codex Buranus.

          The poets of Carmina Burana: A total of fifteen poets have been identified from the over 300 verses in Carmina Burana (box 1). Only a few texts directly cite the author's name, such as the French poet Walter of Châtillon (ca.1135-1179), or the southern German wandering poet Marner who died around 1270. In other cases, however, it has been possible to infer authorship through comparisons with parallel manuscripts, which may reveal the identity of the poet, or provide stylistic concordances useful for connecting it with other sources.

          In many ways, the Carmina Burana anthology opens a window on a surprisingly active medieval cultural and literary scene, that began shortly after 1000 AD. Some 11th century Latin poets, who are now obscure but once celebrated, include Otloh of Regensburg, Marbod of Rennes, and Godfrey of Winchester. Otloh of Regensburg (ca. 1013-1072), a Benedictine monk at St. Emmeran, also spent four years at Fulda in central Germany, with its well-endowed library (an important source of classical manuscripts including Tacitus' Germania and nine plays of Plautus). Besides composing various lives of the saints, Otloh, considered one of the great writers of the Middle Ages, wrote moralizing poetry included in the Carmina Burana.

          Marbod, Bishop of Rennes (ca. 1035-1123), was a colorful cleric known both for his love poetry (i.e., "My mind did stray, loving with hot desire...." Errabat mea mens fervore libidinis amens...) and for his alchemical treatise on precious stones, De natura lapidum ("On the nature of stones"), describing such things as the heliotrope (or bloodstone), a gem which gives the possessor eternal life.

          Godfrey of Winchester (1053-1107), an Anglo-Latin satirical poet and epigrammatist, was sometimes known as the "Pseudo-Martial" (after the famous Roman writer of epigrams). One of Godfrey's short, pithy, 11th century verses is included among the love poems in Carmina Burana. There is also one by the ancient Roman poet Ausonius (310-395), a resident of Gaul well known for the pastoral poem "Mosella" describing wine barges on the Moselle River.

          Other Latin poets in the Carmina Burana include Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon, Philip the Chancellor, the somewhat mysterious Archpoet, and Hugo of Orleans. Writing under the name Primas ("chief"), Hugo of Orleans (1093-ca. 1160) was a savant who taught in cathedral towns from Orleans to Amiens, Sens, Reims, Beauvais, and Paris. Author of at least twenty-three poems, one of his drinking songs (carmina potaria) was included in the Carmina Burana.

          Known only by his pen name, the Archpoet (1130- post-1167) lived in Cologne and had a wealthy patron in Reinald von Dassel, the arch-chancellor and archbishop of that city. Ten of the Archpoet's poems survive, written between 1161-1167. Like Hugo of Orleans, the Archpoet used his verse to lament the fickle ways of fortune, and to poke fun at "respectable" society (as seen in his two drinking songs in the Carmina Burana). The Archpoet also wrote at least two tributes to his patron, von Dassel.

          More in the political mainstream was Peter of Blois (1135-1204), a French poet and diplomat who studied law and theology at the Sorbonne in Paris. In his student days, he wrote numerous Latin sequences in the Goliard style, ten of which were incorporated into Carmina Burana. Peter became a tutor to King William II of Sicily in 1167, and in 1173, went to England and served Henry II and Thomas á Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as a Latin secretary. He later became Latin secretary to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Many of his letters still survive as primary historical sources.

          Walter of Châtillon (ca. 1135-1179), a French writer and theologian, was educated at the Sorbonne under Etienne de Beauvais. He wrote a number of Latin poems in the Goliardic manner, at least six of which are in the Carmina Burana collection. Five of these are moral/satirical verses written between 1170 and 1175. He is also known for his long Latin epic The Alexandreis, on Alexander the Great.

          Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1170-1236) is known as a theologian, cleric, politician, and poet. In ca. 1218, he became chancellor both to the bishop of Paris and of the University of Paris. Besides his theological treatises, he wrote many verses that earned him a reputation as one of the most important poets of the 13th century. Eight of his poems are found in the Carmina Burana, including five moral/satirical songs, two love songs, and a drinking song.

[Fig.3: Illustrated love poem from Carmina Burana with text in both German and Latin (Bavarian State Library, Clm 4660 f.72v)].

          Among the German poets that can be identified are some of the leading composers of minne songs of the 12th to early 13th century, who were often literate members of the nobility. One of these was Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-1230), the most important German minne poet of his time. While it is unclear if he was of noble lineage, he learned the art of minne songs at the court of Vienna after ca. 1190. Leaving Vienna in 1198, he wandered from one German court to another. After 1120 he seems to have lived on a new feudal estate near Würzburg in southern Germany, a gift from the German Emperor Frederic II. Walther inspired other minne poets by introducing more contemporary subjects, often political, and by loosening the rather stiff set of lyrical rules. Four of his carmina amatoria (love songs) are included in the Carmina Burana.

          Another leading minne singer represented by three love songs is Reinmar der Alte (Reinmar the Old), also known as Reinmar of Hagenau, (ca. 1160-1210). Reinmar, who taught the art of minne singing to Walther von der Vogelweide, was the son of a noble family, probably living in the south-eastern French Alsace region, and worked as a minne artist at the court of Vienna.

          The carmina amatoria collection also contains works of Neidhart of Reuental (1180-ca. 1246), son of a minor aristocratic line and participant in one of the crusades. Neidhart was the first to introduce rural motifs into the minne songs, and thus revolutionized it to a certain extent. Dietmar von Aist (active ca. 1150-1180), one of whose love songs is in the Carmina Burana, was another important poet of the early phase of minne singing. Other lyrics are identified as the work of Heinrich von Morungen, who seems to have lived and worked in eastern Germany around 1200. His lyrics are of a very individual style, full of picturesque symbols.

          Musical content of Carmina Burana: Many of the moralistic poems are provided with an early kind of musical notation, with a note ("neum") shown in the form of a point, a short line, or an accent-like sign. This so-called "neum" system, which lacked bars, staffs, or other notation lines, only gave information about the number of tones to be played at each word syllable, and about a vague course of the melody. Accurate pitches and tone lengths were not indicated, and can only be reconstructed by comparison with copies containing a more detailed notation.

The songs of the Carmina Burana represent the largest preserved collection of medieval Latin lyrics. They thus provide an extraordinary source on both the poetry and music of the late Middle Ages, and lend an especially human touch to the period.


Bischoff, B. (ed.). 1967/71. Carmina Burana. (Facsimile and introduction). 2 volumes. New York and Munich, Prestel.

Carmina Burana. ca.1230. Codex latinus Monacensis. Codex clm 4660; and 4660a. Munich. Bavarian State Library.

Dronke, P. 1968. Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric. 2nd edition. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Raby, F.J.E. 1934. A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages. 2nd volume. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

This article appears on pages 71-73 of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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