Carmina Burana

This article is about the medieval collection of poetry. For Carl Orff's musical composition, see Carmina Burana (Orff). For the album by Ray Manzarek, see Carmina Burana (album).
The Wheel of Fortune from Carmina Burana

Carmina Burana (/ˈkɑːrmnə bʊˈrɑːnə/, Latin for "Songs from Beuern"; "Beuern" is short for Benediktbeuern) is the name given to a manuscript of 254[1] poems and dramatic texts mostly from the 11th or 12th century, although some are from the 13th century. The pieces are mostly bawdy, irreverent, and satirical. They were written principally in Medieval Latin; a few in Middle High German, and some with traces of Old French or Provençal. Some 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 satirized the Catholic Church. The collection preserves the works of a number of poets, including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon, and an anonymous poet, referred to as the Archpoet.

The collection was found in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern, Bavaria, and is now housed in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. Along with the Carmina Cantabrigiensia, the Carmina Burana is considered to be the most important collection of Goliard and vagabond songs.

The manuscripts reflect an international European movement, with songs originating from Occitania, France, England, Scotland, Aragon, Castile and the Holy Roman Empire.[2]

Twenty-four poems in Carmina Burana were set to music by Carl Orff in 1936. Orff's composition quickly became popular and a staple piece of the classical music repertoire. The opening and closing movement, "O Fortuna", has been used in numerous films.


Carmina Burana (abbreviated CB) is a manuscript written in 1230 by two different scribes in an early gothic minuscule (small letters; what is today called lower-case, as opposed to majuscule – large, capital, upper-case, used in Roman manuscripts) on 119 sheets of parchment. In the 14th century, a number of free pages, cut of a slightly different size, were attached at the end of the text.[3] At some point in the Late Middle Ages the handwritten pages were bound into a small folder, called the Codex Buranus.[4] However, in the process of binding, the text was placed partially out of order, and some pages were most likely lost as well. The manuscript contains eight miniatures: the rota fortunae (which actually is an illustration from the songs CB 14–18, but was placed by the book binder as the cover), an imaginative forest, a pair of lovers, scenes from the story of Dido and Aeneas, a scene of drinking beer, and three scenes of playing games – dice, tables, and chess.[5]

The Forest, from the Carmina Burana


Older research assumed that the manuscript was written where it was found, in Benediktbeuern.[6] Today, however, Carmina Burana scholars have several different ideas about the manuscript's place of origin. It is agreed that, due to the dialect of the Middle High German phrases in the text, the manuscript must be from the region of central Europe where the Bavarian dialect of German is spoken, a region that includes parts of southern Germany, western Austria, and northern Italy, and that, because of the Italian peculiarities of the text, it must be from the southern part of that region. The two possible locations of its origin are the bishop's seat of Seckau in Styria and Kloster Neustift near Brixen in South Tyrol.

In support of the first origin, Seckau, a bishop named Heinrich, who was provost there from 1232 to 1243, is mentioned as provost of Maria Saal in Carinthia in CB 6* of the added folio (* denotes the song is in the added folio). It is possible that he funded the creation of the Carmina Burana. The marchiones (people from Steiermark) were mentioned in CB 219,3 before the Bavarians, Saxons or Austrians, presumably indicating that Steiermark was the location closest to the writers. Many of the hymns were dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was venerated in Seckau, for example, CB 12* and 19*–22*.[7]

In support of Kloster Neustift, the text's open-mindedness is characteristic of the reform-minded Augustine Canons Regular of the time, as is the spoken quality of the writing. Also, Brixen is mentioned in CB 95, and the beginning to a story unique to Tirol called the Eckenlied about the mythic hero Dietrich von Bern appears in CB 203a.[8][9][10]

Less clear is how the Carmina Burana traveled to Benediktbeuern.[11] The Germanist Fritz Peter Knapp suggested that, if the manuscript were written in Neustift, it could have traveled in 1350 by way of the Wittelsbacher family, who were Vögte of both Tirol and Bavaria.[10]

A famous poet and composer of songs, active in the early Middle Ages, was the philosopher Peter Abelard (1079–1142). Abelard's son Astrolabe[12] had a prebend in the monastery of Benediktbeuern, so it is likely that the Carmina Burana began as the personal collection of his father's works.


Generally, the works contained in the Carmina Burana can be arranged into four groups according to theme:[4]

  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)
  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. Another group of spiritual poems may have been included in the Carmina Burana and since lost.[13] 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 of 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.[14] Following Ovid, depictions of sexual intercourse in the manuscript are frank and sometimes aggressive. CB 76, for example, makes use of the first-person narrative to describe a ten-hour love act with the goddess of love herself, Venus.[15]

Tables players, from the Carmina Burana

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 "a priest with his lady wife" (humorous because Catholic priests must swear an oath of celibacy). CB 215 even provides an example of the religious rites of this order, the Officium lusorum, the "Service", or "Mass", "of the Gamblers". 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 literally and assumed there actually existed such a lazy order of priests.[16] In fact, though, this outspoken reverie 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 of life in the Middle Ages."[17] 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.[18]


Almost nothing is known about the authors of the Carmina Burana. Only a few songs can be ascribed to specific authors, such as those by Hugh Primas of Orléans (d. c. 1160), by the Archipoeta (d. c. 1165), by the Frenchman Walter of Châtillon (d. c. 1201), and by the Breton Petrus Blesensis (d. c. 1203). Additionally, the attached folio contains German stanzas that mention specific authors, so they can be ascribed to the German Minnesinger Dietmar von Aist (d. c. 1170), to Heinrich von Morungen (d. c. 1222), to Walther von der Vogelweide (d. c. 1228) and to Neidhart (d. c. 1240). The only signed poems are contained in the attached folio, and they are by the so-called Marner, a wandering poet and singer from Swabia. Many poems stem from works written in antiquity by Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, and Ausonius; however, the majority of the poems (about two-thirds) appear not to be derivative works.[19] The text is by-and-large an anonymous work, and it appears to have been written by Goliards and vagrants, who were either theology students travelling between universities or who were clerics who had not yet received a prebendary (or they had the poor fortune of losing their clerical position and its regular income). Presumably these individuals scrounged and begged for a living—which would explain why a good portion of the moral songs are dedicated to condemning those who aren't generous givers of alms (for example, CB 3, 9, 11 and 19–21). The authors demonstrate a broad knowledge of ancient mythology, which they employ to rich effect through metonymical and allegorical references, and which they effortlessly weave into scenes from the Bible. For example, in CB 194, Lyaeus (a byname for the god of wine Dionysus) casually makes an appearance at the Marriage at Cana, where Jesus performed the miracle of transforming water into wine (John 2:1–12).

Rediscovery and history of publication

The manuscript of songs and poems from Benediktbeuren probably lay hidden in the monastery's library for quite some time. It was not until the monastery was opened in 1803—as the result of a vote in the Reichstag of the Holy Roman Empire to dispossess territorial claims by ecclesiastical princes, Free Imperial Cities and Imperial Knights (a period in German history called "mediatization")—that the manuscript was discovered by the librarian Johann Christoph von Aretin. He transferred it to what is today the Bavarian State Library in Munich, where it currently resides (Signatur: clm 4660/4660a).[20][21] In breach of good conservatory practices, Aretin regarded the Codex as his personal reading material, and wrote to a friend that he was glad to have discovered "a collection of poetic and prosaic satire, directed mostly against the papal seat".[22] The first pieces to be published were selected Middle-High German texts, which Aretin's colleague Bernhard Joseph Docen published in 1806.[23] Additional pieces were eventually published by Jacob Grimm in 1844.[24] The first collected edition of the Carmina Burana was not published until 1847, almost 40 years after Aretin's discovery.[25] The publisher, Johann Andreas Schmeller, unfortunately chose a misleading title for the collection, which created the misconception that the works contained in the Codex Buranas were not from Benediktbeuren.[26] Schmeller attempted to organize the collection into "Joking" (Scherz) and "Serious" (Ernst) works, but he never fully completed the task. The ordering scheme used today was proposed in 1930 by Alfons Hilka and Otto Schumann in the first critical text edition of the Carmina Burana.[27] The two based their edition on previous work by the Munich philologist Wilhelm Meyer, who discovered that some pages of the Codex Buranus had mistakenly been bound into other old books. He also was able to revise illegible portions of the text by comparing them to similar works.[28]

Musical settings

About one-quarter of the poems in the Carmina Burana are accompanied in the manuscript by music using unheighted, staffless neumes,[29] an archaic system of musical notation that by the time of the manuscript had largely been superseded by staffed neumes.[30] Unheighted neumes only indicate whether a given note is pitched higher or lower than the preceding note, without giving any indication of how much change in pitch there is between two notes, so they are useful only as mnemonic devices for singers who are already familiar with the melody. However, it is possible to identify many of those melodies by comparing them with melodies notated in staffed neumes in other contemporary manuscripts from the schools of Notre Dame and Saint Martial.[30]

Between 1935 and 1936, German composer Carl Orff composed music, also called Carmina Burana, for 24 of the poems. The single song "O Fortuna" (the Roman goddess of luck and fate), from the movement "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi", is often heard in many popular settings such as films. Orff's composition has been performed by many ensembles.

Other musical settings include:




  1. Carmina Burana. Die Lieder der Benediktbeurer Handschrift. Zweisprachige Ausgabe, ed. and translated by Carl Fischer and Hugo Kuhn, dtv, Munich 1991; if however e. g. CB 211 and 211a are counted as two different songs, one obtains the collection consisting of 315 texts, see e.g. Schaller, col. 1513
  2. Carmina Burana, Version originale & Integrale, 2 Volumes (HMU 335, HMU 336), Clemencic Consort, Direction René Clemencic, Harmonia Mundi
  3. Diemer, p. 898
  4. 1 2 Schaller, col. 1513
  5. Joachim M. Plotzek, "Carmina Burana", in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, vol. 2, Artemis, Munich and Zurich 1983, col. 1513
  6. Max Manitius, Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, vol. 3: Vom Ausbruch des Kirchenstreites bis zum Ende des 12. Jahrhunderts, (= Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, newly ed. by Walter Otto, Abt. IX, Part 2, vol. 3), C. H. Beck, Munich 1931, p. 966
  7. Walter Bischoff (ed.), Carmina Burana I/3, Heidelberg 1970, p. XII;
    Walther Lipphardt, Zur Herkunft der Carmina Burana, in: Egon Kühebacher (ed.), Literatur und Bildende Kunst im Tiroler Mittelalter, Innsbruck 1982, 209–223.
  8. Georg Steer, "Carmina Burana in Südtirol. Zur Herkunft des clm 4660", in: Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum 112 (1983), p. 1–37
  9. Olive Sayce, Plurilingualism in the Carmina Burana. A Study of the Linguistic and Literary Influence on the Codex, Kümmerle, Göttingen 1992
  10. 1 2 Knapp, p. 410f.
  11. Carmina Burana. Die Lieder der Benediktbeurer Handschrift. Zweisprachige Ausgabe, ed. and transl. by Carl Fischer and Hugo Kuhn, dtv, München 1991, p. 838
  12. The letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated with an introduction by Betty Radice, Penguin Classics, 1974, ISBN 0-14-044297-9
  13. Diemer, p. 898; this assumption is doubted at: Burghart Wachinger, Liebeslieder vom späten 12. bis zum frühen 16. Jahrhundert, in: Walter Haug (ed.), Mittelalter und Frühe Neuzeit. Übergänge, Umbrüche und Neuansätze (= Fortuna vitrea, vol. 16), Tübingen 1999, p. 10f.
  14. Hermann Unger, De Ovidiana in carminibus Buranis quae dicuntur imitatione, Straßburg 1914
  15. Knapp, p. 416.
    From Dum caupona verterem (On turning away from the tavern), verse 17: sternens eam lectulo / fere decem horis / mitigavi rabiem / febrici doloris. (I laid her on the couch, and for about ten hours quietened the madness of my feverish passion), Walsh, p. 58
  16. Helga Schüppert, Kirchenkritik in der lateinischen Lyrik des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 1972, p. 185.
  17. Rainer Nickel: Carmina Burana. In: Wilhelm Höhn und Norbert Zink (eds.): Handbuch für den Lateinunterricht. Sekundarstufe II. Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main 1979, p. 342, quote translated by Wikipedia contributor
  18. Christine Kasper, Das Schlaraffenland zieht in die Stadt. Vom Land des Überflusses zum Paradies für Sozialschmarotzer, in: Jahrbuch der Oswald von Wolkenstein-Gesellschaft 7 (1992/93), p. 255–291
  19. Dieter Schaller, "Carmina Burana", in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, Op. cit., col. 1514
  20. München, Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660 im Handschriftencensus
  21. Auch zum Folgenden s. Franz X. Scheuerer: Zum philologischen Werk J. A. Schmellers und seiner wissenschaftlichen Rezeption. Eine Studie zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik, de Gruyter, Berlin und New York 1995, p. 64
  22. quoted in Joachim Schickel: "Carmina Burana" in Kindlers Literaturlexikon. Kindler, Zürich 1964, S. 1794.
  23. Bernhard Joseph Docen: Miszellaneen zur Geschichte der deutschen Literatur, vol. 2, 1807, pp. 189–208
  24. Jacob Grimm: "Gedichte des Mittelalters auf König Friedrich I. den Staufer und aus seiner so wie der nächstfolgenden Zeit", in: Philologische und historische Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Aus dem Jahre 1843, Berlin 1845, pp. 143–254
  25. "Carmina Burana. Lateinische und deutsche Lieder und Gedichte einer Handschrift des XIII. Jahrhunderts aus Benedictbeuern auf der k. Bibliothek zu München", ed. by J. A. S. [i. e. Johann Andreas Schmeller], in: Bibliothek des literarischen Vereins in Stuttgart XVI, 1, Stuttgart 1847
  26. Eberhard Brost: "Nachwort". In: Carmina Burana. Lieder der Vaganten, lateinisch und deutsch nach Ludwig Laistner. Lambert Schneider, Heidelberg 1964, p. 200.
  27. Carmina Burana. Mit Benutzung der Vorarbeiten Wilhelm Meyers kritisch hg. v. Alfons Hilka und Otto Schumann, 2 vols, Heidelberg 1930.
  28. "Fragmenta Burana", ed. by Wilhelm Meyer, in: Festschrift zur Feier des hundertfünfzigjährigen Bestehens der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, phil.-hist. Klasse, Berlin 1901, pp. 1–190.
  29. Richard Taruskin, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (vol. 1 of The Oxford History of Western Music), p. 138
  30. 1 2 Carmina Burana. In: Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians
  32. "Gauntlet Legends Designer Diary". Archived from the original on 2009-04-13.


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