Considering the belief that it had originally been intended for an influential court, the Carmina Burana contains an interesting array of lyrical poetry. Dating back to about AD 1230, the colored miniatures contained within are decorative and complex, showcasing both pagan scenes and more fanciful, romantic springtime scenes. The poetry inside varies similarly from romantic songs that focus on love and spring to a vast number of satirical, goliardic verses. The 320 poem collection features a great number of different poets, those that are identifiable hailing from a myriad of different backgrounds and writing styles.
The pages themselves – disregarding the eight colored miniatures - are mostly undecorated aside from the ornate initials spread throughout the text. The distinctive, careful writing style was written and edited by a collection of many different scribes, two of which are believed to have contributed the most work. One of the two may even be credited with the painting of the miniatures, as there appear to be stylistic similarities between some of the initials and the illustrations themselves. Of course, there seem to have been a period of years after these two scribes and the completion of the book wherein there were several corrections made. It is believed that there were a total of five different scribes who put work into the codex before it was finally left alone. However, his wasn’t until around the year 1300, when the last, yet most extensive, editing took place.
The sections of the book that do include illustrations appear to have intricate and well painted scenes, most notably the first miniature. Showcasing a scene where in a sovereign is being drawn around the Wheel of Fortune – an ornately dressed Fortuna seated in the center – the color and detail put into the miniature accurately supports the manuscript as a more high class document. Bright colors - including vibrant hues of blue, red and yellow - were used in these miniatures and seem as though they may have been just as expensive to commission as they appear to be.
The poets included within the texts are not outshined in comparison and are not lacking in variety. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, whether Latin, German or French, their educations and roles within society ranging from clerics and theologians to politicians and writers. Some of them had influential patrons standing behind them, while others wrote through their school days, their credits (if they had the,) ranging from their proper titles to pen names. Such a varying collection of poets is not surprising, as the content within the book seems to be rather varied itself.
What’s most interesting is that many of the poets seem to have rather fascinating progressions between the time they wrote their additions to the book and their eventual contributions to the world. One of these writers in particular was Peter of Blois (1135-1204), a tutor to King William II of Sicily, servant of Henry II and Latin secretary to Eleanor of Aquitaine in his later years. His contributions to the book are comprised of a collection of ten Goliardic sequences written in his student days, a common practice among students at the time but no less entertaining to remember in light of his later life. Another man, Walter of Chatillon – a learned French writer and theologian – also wrote a number of Goliardic poems that were included in the text, all the while going on to be a writer of epics.
Other writers, such as Godfrey of Winchester, seem to have poems that lie on the opposite spectrum of their usual work, such as the satirical writers who had their love poems published within the manuscript. However, there are still more poets found within that simply contributed to all of the different categories identified inside, such as Philip the Chencellor. Contributing much to the poetic world, eventually being deemed one of the more influential poets of the 13th century, Philip had eight of his poems input into the codex, including anything from satirical or moral songs to those that were more romantic.
Interestingly, the collection’s current popularity is credited to the composer Carl Orff, whose famous compositions are based off of the poems inside the manuscript. Orff himself draws inspiration from everything that the manuscript seems to encompass, from the verses speaking of meadows and spring time, to those dealing with the court of love or the tavern. The predominantly orchestral and dramatic nature of the opus, however, seems strange at times, especially in consideration of the more ridiculous sounding goliardic verses they were occasionally inspired by. The song named “Cignus ustus canat,” (The Roast Swan) fits this description quite well, as someone not familiar with the lyrics would find the song more dramatic or lamentful than silly, as many find it to be. In many performances, after all, those in audience who understand the lyrics seem to be suppressing giggles throughout the heavily emotional choral segments.
In general, though, this opus has remained massively popular and widespread, his compositions invading even today’s popular culture. One such composition is his Carmina Burina: O Fortuna, which is commonly known as one of the go-to dramatic songs in TV and film, becoming more ironically dramatic in today’s terms than in the 1970-80’s. You’ve probably heard it a hundred times before - used in a multitude of comedy shows in popular media as joking transitions into melodramatic scenes – without the knowledge that it was based off of this manuscript.