Carmina Burana  

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Carmina Burana is a collection of lyrical poems written during the Middle Ages. It was found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern in 1803. It is written in Latin, Old French and Middle High German.

The collection consists of 254 poems and dramatic texts from the 11th or 12th century, although some are from the 13th century. The pieces were written almost entirely in Medieval Latin; a few in Middle High German, and some with traces of Old French or Provençal. Many are macaronic, a mixture of Latin and German or French vernacular.

They were written by students and clergy when the Latin idiom was the lingua franca across Italy and western Europe for travelling scholars, universities and theologians. Most of the poems and songs appear to be the work of Goliards, clergy (mostly students) who sent up and satirized the Church. The collection preserves the works of a number of poets, including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon and the anonymous one, referred to as the Archpoet.

The collection was found in 1803 in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern and is now housed in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. Along with the Carmina Cantabrigiensia, the Carmina Burana is the most important collection of Goliard and vagabond songs.

The manuscripts reflect an 'international' European movement, with songs originating from the following countries, Occitanie, France, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Aragon, Castille, Germany.


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

  1. 55 songs of morals and mockery (CB 1–55)
  2. 131 love songs (CB 56–186)
  3. 40 drinking and gaming songs (CB 187–226), and
  4. two longer spiritual theater pieces (CB 227 and 228).

This outline, however, has many exceptions. CB 122-134, which are categorized as love songs, actually are not: they contain a song for mourning the dead, a satire, and two educational stories about the names of animals. There also likely was another group of spiritual poems included in the Carmina Burana, but they have since been lost. The attached folio contains a mix of 21 generally spiritual songs: a prose-prayer to Saint Erasmus and four more spiritual plays, some of which have only survived as fragments. These larger thematic groups can also be further subdivided, for example, the end of the world (CB 24-31), songs about the crusades (CB 46-52) or reworkings of writings from antiquity (CB 97-102).

Other frequently recurring themes include: critiques on simony and greed in the church, that, with the advent of the monetary economy in the 12th century, rapidly became an important issue (CB 1-11, 39, 41-45); lamentations in the form of the planctus, for example about the ebb and flow of human fate (CB 14-18) or about death (CB 122-131); the hymnic celebration of the return of spring (CB 132, 135, 137, 138, 161 and others); pastourelles about the rape/seduction of shepherdesses by knights, students/clergymen (CB 79, 90, 157-158); and the description of love as military service (CB 60, 62, and 166), a topos known from Ovid's elegiac love poems. Ovid and especially his erotic elegies were reproduced, imitated and exaggerated in the Carmina Burana. In other words, for those unfamiliar with Ovid's work, depictions of sexual intercourse in the manuscript are frank and even sometimes aggressive. CB 76, for example, makes use of the lyrical I to describe a ten hour love act with the goddess of love herself, Venus (sternens eam lectulo / fere decem horis).

The Carmina Burana contains numerous poetic descriptions of a raucous medieval paradise (CB 195-207, 211, 217, 219), for which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, known for his advocation of the blissful life, is even taken as an authority on the subject (CB 211). CB 219 describes, for example, an ordo vagorum (vagrant order) to which people from every land and clerics of all rankings were invited—even presbyter cum sua matrona, or "priests and their wives" (humorous because Catholic priests must swear an oath of celibacy). In this parody world, the rules of priesthood include sleeping in, eating heavy food and drinking rich wine, and regularly playing dice games. These rules were described in such detail that older research on the Carmina Burana took these descriptions for their word and assumed there actually existed such a lazy order of priests. In fact, though, this outspoken revery of living delights and freedom from moral obligations shows "an attitude towards life and the world that stands in stark contrast to the firmly established expectations (German, Ordnung - order) of life in the Middle Ages." The literary researcher Christine Kasper considers this description of a bawdy paradise as part of the early history of the European story of the land of Cockaigne: in CB 222 the abbas Cucaniensis, or Abbot of Cockaigne, is said to have presided over a group of dice players.

See also

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