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ClassicsOnline Home » Carmina Burana
The collection of medieval Latin and Middle High German poems and songs known as Carmina Burana takes its name from the monastery of Benediktbeuren in Upper Bavaria, preserved in a manuscript that dates, it is thought, from about 1230, with additions from later in the century. The collection was probably compiled not at Benediktbeuren but by at least three different scribes either in Seckau (Styria) or in Carinthia. The manuscript was taken from the Abbey in 1803 and deposited in Munich (Codex Latinus Monacensis clm 4660/4660a), to be edited and published under its present title in 1847 by the Munich librarian Johann Andreas Schmeller. Some parts of the manuscript are damaged and rearranged. The miniature of the wheel of fortune, for example, was later used as a frontispiece. With the few poems in Middle High German most of the texts of Carmina Burana are in Latin.
Musical notation is preserved for some of the poems, but this is in the form of heightened neumes, relatively inexact notational symbols for pitch or rhythm, although this practice was already obsolete by the mid-thirteenth century. For the reconstruction of melodies it has been necessary in some cases to have recourse to contemporary repertoire in other notation of musicians at Notre Dame and the important St Martial repertoire at Limoges, while secular German settings may be derived from surviving Minnesinger works by the German troubadours. To find melodies for the remaining texts recourse may be had to parallel manuscripts. The widespread medieval practice of matching an existing text with a melody or of coupling a new poem with a known melody is known as Contrafactum. Medieval musicians were past-masters at this, so that scarcely two identical versions of a song, either in text or in melody, can be found. Similarly in the writing of personal names what is written down is what was heard or thought to be heard.
A greater part of the texts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries are of French origin, by writers who are mainly anonymous. Those who are known include Walter of Châtillon, Peter of Blois, Philip the Chancellor, Walter von der Vogelweide, the Archpoet, Gottfried of St Victor, and Marner, who alone is given by name in an a superscription in the collection.
Walter of Châtillon was born in Lille in 1135 and was a respected scholar and cleric. He studied in Paris, had contact with Henry II of England and worked in Rome, Bologna and Rheims. In his poems he condemns the corruption of the Church and of secular princes and denounces the greed of the clergy, as, for example, in Fas et Nefas.
Peter of Blois studied in Tours and Bologna and was until 1168 tutor to Friedrich II in Palermo. As a result of an intrigue he left Italy to work at the English court of Henry II. After the latters death he remained in the service of the Queen, Eleonore of Aquitaine. He was the author of a political song to raise a part of the ransom for the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart. Walter of Châtillon described Peter of Blois as one of the four leading Latin poets of his time (qv.Vite perdite).
The two hundred or so poems fall into four groups, works of moral or satirical intention (carmina moralia), songs of spring and love-songs (carmina veris et amoris), songs of drinking and gambling (carmina lusorum et potatorum), and songs of spiritual content (carmina divina). Most of the texts are anonymous, forming the most important surviving collection of goliardic songs, the work often of wandering scholars and clerics. The secular themes follow conventional literary patterns and need not be taken as a reflection of the actual behaviour of the writers, while many of the poems suggest a level of scholarship that points to an educated audience.
The rhetorical figures and imagery of medieval Latin poetry follow the patterns of the classical literature of antiquity and the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Latin was not only the language of the Church, of learning and of the law, but formed, beside the national languages, the universal language of educated Europe.
Some of the texts of Carmina Burana have become widely known through the use made of them by Carl Orff. In their original poetic form and in the music associated with them, as far as this can be reconstructed, the songs have all the exuberance and bawdiness associated with Chaucer, with what was once described as the occasional concomitant crudity.
English version by Keith Anderson
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