Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Carmina Burana: 
The University and the Advent of Popular Satire

The rise of the cathedral school and university in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries presented the papacy with a troubling new paradox. With the population of Latinate Europe ever swelling, its cities and towns bursting out beyond their former walls, a radical increase in the number of clergy was necessary to reach an increasingly sophisticated laity whose spiritual rectitude could not be left in their own hands. Moreover, the sacred and secular authorities who managed these new masses required a steady stream of educated and literate bureaucrats to oversee the ever compounding difficulties of regulating and taxing the nascent commerce and industry that was rapidly replacing agricultural land-holding as the source of wealth. The methods of former monastic traditions, slow, irregular, and parochial, were insufficient to meet these demands.

The answers were the cathedral schools and the prestigious universities that would develop from them. With regular curriculums, sophisticated methods of book production, and libraries that brought together the collected volumes of the classical and christian traditions in greater numbers than ever previously seen, the universities would churn out hundreds of students over the period and a new culture of lay literacy unrivaled in Western Europe since the fall of Rome. If the problem was a lack of clergy, it was a problem abundantly solved.

But these new schools, while protected and promoted by papal authority, provided a new problem for the church. Intended to promote and protect orthodoxy against the possibility of lay heresy, these new institutions with their sophisticated professors steeped in classics and philosophical knowledge of a kind sacral and unwholesome seemed to certain eyes suspiciously worldly. In fact, in a new and perhaps more insidious way, heretical.

Much of the debate concerning the merits of pagan writings and, arguably, secular knowledge would take place between papal legates and teachers like Peter Abelard. Abelard, Thomas Augustus and their like would claim that christian moral lessons could be read in allegory from classic works, and that the skeptical logic of Aristotle would only lead them to greater faith. Detractors from these scholars argued that to put scripture to question at all was prideful heresy, and that if God had so valued philosophy, Christ would have surrounded himself with philosophers rather than simple fishermen.

While such debates raged on, a simpler and perhaps more informal form of dissent was already taking place. The Carmina Burana is a witness to this second mode. Likely begun in the early 1220’s and finished around 1230, the Carmina Burana is a beautiful if not richly ornate manuscript. It has eight full illustrations and a number of large capitals inked in black and red, with smaller red capitals being used to designate the beginning of lines and sentences within the various verse. Two scribes made the document, but a number of edits have been made over the years, largely by writing corrections between the lines over the offending script. The poems within are an anthology of well known poets of the time, likely to be presented before court. The poems themselves are a collection of verse of popular poets, several of whom wrote in the vernacular. The verses include biting anti-clerical satire, and examples of the Goliardic tradition, a poetic pseudo-movement composed of wandering students and itinerant monks who concern themselves largely with themes of drink, women, and humor in a distinctly un-sacral manner.

One of the immediate features of the manuscript that sticks out is its familiarity with classical myth and reference. If these poems were to be read at court, I think it not an unreasonable assumption to see the use of such reference as implying familiarity with the material not only in the case of the author, but the audience. If true, this speaks to the rapid dispersal of classical material in the thirteenth century. Even the opening illustration to the Carmina Burana features the Roman goddess of destiny, and the love poems within make heavy reference of Venus and Cupid. That this sort of education, once the exclusive property of monks whose cloistered existence allowed for the solemn meditation on such relics of the Roman past could now be bandied about by a wandering poet, speaks volumes about the changing social atmosphere of Europe.

Another telling feature: the poetry is unapologetically intended for amusement. This is both based on the actual assertions of the poets and the clearly humorous material they chose as a subject. Further, the writing of some of the verse in vernacular implies that the intended amusement was meant to be accessible, not just to the latin literate, but to the lay people (albeit, likely not the serfs in the field, but those only semi-literate in Latin). Take this excerpt (found at

1.To each one Nature gives                     3.Never does the spirit
Their unique endowment:                       Of poetry visit me
when I’m making verses I                       If there aren’t enough
Drink for my enjoyment,                         Rations in my belly
With the very innkeeper                          When in my arching brain
Who the purest cask blest                       Bacchus controls me,
Such wine creates the best                      Phoebus erupts again
Written entertainment.                            Uttering marvelously.

2.Such is the verse I write,
Such the wine I drink
Not a word can I indite
Unless I eat and think;
Nothing has inner power
When I fast above the ink
The nearer Ovid in my verse
The more the wine I sink.

If there is an edifying moral message to this verse, it has eluded me. The material is irreverent and self-laudatory, and that is its act of dissent. It shows the desires of a sophisticated and literate culture whose aesthetic tastes are developing to indulge more than saint’s-lives and similarly moralizing tales. That this has an anti-clerical, or at least anti-orthodox, slant is made more obvious by the anti-clerical verses such as the one featuring the Abbot of Cockaigne who merrily drinks and gambles at the local tavern.

These features of the manuscript display the evidence of the shifting social attitudes of Europe, and the demands of a newly sophisticated upper class for a different type of culture than the neat parables and biblical glosses that the thirteenth century papacy was comfortable seeing in the university curriculum.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of The Carmina Burana as a secular transition in the world of manuscripts. It is interesting that this secular foray is so lewd and meaningless. My main question is: What was the religious response to this manuscript and/or manuscripts like this? Was there a defined response to it? If so how would they respond to it? I also like the idea of the ornate nature of the Carmina Burana as a form of appropriation of the normal religious manuscripts. Even a laymen’s look at the illustrations reveals similarity’s to manuscripts of a more religious nature.
    Viewing the manuscript as a form of orthodox rebellion is also very interesting given the example of the abbot of Cockaigne was also very interesting. In snippets from other classes I have heard about the misconduct of certain figures in the church and I wonder if the story concerning the abbot represented a popular disgruntlement with the abbot’s actions, or a symbolic anger created by the decisions of the Abbot towards the people.
    In conclusion, I feel like ultimately the hunger of the new upper-middle and upper class for culture was the main driving force behind the creation of the new secular manuscript movement.