The Carmina Burana

Many a student has been enthused by hearing the work of Carl Orff (1936): a selection of the racier songs from the Beuern manuscript, set to music in the form of a cantata: some of them rowdy, others sweetly meditative in a way that listeners can find haunting.

Orff’s music is memorable enough, but so are the words—in medieval Latin, with some interludes in Middle High German and Provençal. The selection is entirely secular, and the poems celebrate the pleasures of drinking, eating, and gambling and the joy and pain of love affairs.

The manuscript from which they come was discovered in 1803 when the contents of the library in the monastery of Benediktbeuern, in Upper Bavaria, were transferred to the Bibliothek in Munich. It was not listed in the library catalogue, but seems to have been kept clandestinely in the cloister for almost 500 years, being at some point lovingly rebound in leather.

It is an assorted collection of items sacred, secular, erotic, satirical and scurrilous, written down in three different hands around 1300—carefully preserved though not systematically collated. The arrangement of them has occupied scholars ever since, and several editions of the manuscript have been produced. It contains quite a number of well-known medieval Latin poems, but many not found elsewhere. There are hymns; there is a nativity play; but also there are some jingles that are nonsensical or even silly. Scholars seem to agree that most of the poems are of the 12th century: a time of medieval renaissance.

These Carmina Burana, as they came to be called, also captured the imagination of the Irish writer Helen Waddell, who published several of the most memorable poems as part of her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics.

Geniality and happiness are communal things: they can get into the circumambient air. The 12th century embraced some happy and joyful times, not only in England—it was first called Merry England in 1150—but in Europe as well. It was the Europe of Peter Abelard, Frederick Barbarossa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II (King of England and part of France), St Anselm, Francis of Assisi, and William of Malmesbury.

During this time appeared the goliards, those wandering scholars, often the younger sons of  privileged families, highly literate, educated in European universities and the Benedictine monasteries, trained for the life of a cleric but with no intention or aptitude for that career, who instead wandered all over Europe, receiving hospitality where they could, repaying it with their songs and witticisms, and savouring the pleasures of the tavern, the wine, the gambling table and the delights of Venus (who is often invoked in their poems) with whatever beautiful girls they could find.

From this source of unrecognised and unused talent came some of the most beautiful medieval Latin lyrics, sometimes mixed with a vernacular:

  • Floret silva nobilis
    floribus et foliis.
    ubi est antiquus meus amicus?
    hinc equitavit.
    eia, quis me amabit?
    Floret silva undique.
    Nach mime gesellen ist mir we.
    Gruonet der walt allenthalben,
    wa ist min geselle also lange?
    Der ist geriten hinnen.
    O wi, wer sol mich minnen?
  • Tua pulchra facies
    me fay planszer milies,
    pectus habet glacies.
    A remender,
    statim vivus fierem
    per un baser..

The modern concept of nationality did not exist in the 12th century.