Simanaitis Says

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WHO ISN’T AWED by Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana? Its throbbing rhythm in O Fortuna/Velut luna/Statu variabilis (“O Fortune/Like the Moon/Changeable”). Its salacious lyrics composed for lusty 12th-century monks. And, for some wackos, its links to Nazi aryan supremacy.

This and the following images from Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, by Christopher De Hamel, Penguin Press, 2017. Part of Jean Pierre Ponnelle’s 1975 version of Carl Orff’s 1934 work can be heard in this video.

Christopher De Hamel fine-tunes my perceptions of Carmina Burana. Here are tidbits gleaned from his book.

A Significant 12th-century Shift. De Hamel writes, “There were huge changes to society and literacy in the twelfth century. The urban cathedrals, also staffed by canons rather than monks, increasingly … became centres of learning, reaching out to new audiences.”

He continues, “… we should see the Carmina Burana as product of that great twelfth-century shift from exclusively monastic learning to the migration of knowledge into the streets outside.”

Who Wrote the Carmina Burana? De Hamel observes, “It is sometimes suggested, especially from an indignant Protestant perspective, that the Carmina Burana are merely coarse songs to be giggled over irreligiously by smutty-minded monks.” However, he notes this overlooks the fact that, where sources can be identified, “they are often unexpectedly scholastic and even clerical.”

Peter of Blois is one example. He studied at cathedral schools in Tours in the 1140s, then resided in Bologna and Paris, and eventually became tutor for the infant king of Sicily and, later, the archbishop of Canterbury. Another possible contributor is Peter Abelard, of Abelard and Héloise fame.

The Carmina Burana manuscript binding is about 7 by 10 inches and around 1 3/4 inches thick. It has resided in Munich’s Bayerische Staatsbibliothek since 1806.

A Handy Breviary Format. De Hamel says the manuscript’s binding resembles that of a Breviary. “A Breviary,” he writes, “was (and for monks still is) the standard compilation of psalms and readings for the church year recited during the daily offices from Matins to Compline…. The resemblance is not merely in shape and size, but also in the page layout with nearly every sentence beginning with a red initial, like the verses of psalms, and the insertion here and there of specimen lines of musical notation above the script as often in Breviaries.”

Dating the Manuscript. Its handwritten nature provides a clue to dating the Carmina Burana. “Before writing a page of any manuscript,” De Hamel explains, “a medieval scribe generally ruled a precise grid of lines to keep the script straight and tidily circumscribed. Before about 1230, the scribe wrote his first line of text above the top horizontal line. After about 1230, scribes dropped their script below that line. We do not know why the change took place, except as part of the general trend towards compressed neatness in gothic design, but it happened extraordinarily fast and consistently right across Europe.”

“On that basis,” De Hamel says, “a date of around 1220 to 1230, perhaps with slight flexibility into the early 1230s, seems justifiable.”

The Carmina Burana is usually classified into four portions: moral and satiric poems, love songs, drinking and gaming songs, and religious dramas. The love songs, 188 of them, form the longest and most famous section. They’re also the most notorious (a goodly number of them being highly objectionable these days).

A Christmas play, complete with stage directions and opening songs.

On 800-Year-Old Drinking Stains and Dust. One of the drinking songs begins, “In taberna quando sumus/non curamus quid sit humus.”

The most damp-stained page of the Carmina Burana contains a drinking song.

“When we are in the tavern, we are not concerned with the nature of the earth….” Nor, apparently, with the manuscript.

Last, De Hamel shares the rare experience of touching the Carmina Burana manuscript first-hand, in white gloves, at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. In the course of his examination, the white gloves “became really dirty, having evidently picked up 800 years’ worth of dust clinging to the pages, even though I was extremely careful to touch only the corners of the margins…. I carefully brought the gloves home as a precious souvenir, stained by the Carmina Burana, and my shocked wife found them and put them straight into the wash.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. kkollwitz
    August 18, 2019

    Cinematic teatment of CB here:

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