per-WF-art - 7/16/94
"Things Your Persona Might Have Known IV: The Wheel of Fortune" by Nicolaa de
Bracton of Leicester.
NOTE: See also the files: persona-msg, per-literacy-art, per-latin-art,
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanšs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Things Your Persona Might Have Known IV: The Wheel of Fortune
Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
O Fortuna, O Fortune
velut Luna like the Moon
statu variabilis changeable in state
semper crescis always waxing
aut decrescis; or waning;
vita detestabilis detestable life
nunc obdurat at one moment hard
et tunc curat and at the next cares for
ludo mentis aciem the witty games of the mind
dissolvit ut glaciem it dissolves like ice..
(Carmina Burana ) (not the Techno version!)
Those of you who were observant have probably already guessed the
topic of this month's article. The idea of Fortune and her wheel was
one of the most pervasive ideas throughout the Middle Ages. I thought
I'd give a little background on this idea and show you a few places
where it pops up.
The idea of Fortune's wheel is quite old and seems to have originated
with the classical philosophers. Cicero seems to have particularly
liked the metaphor. But its influence in the Middle Ages can be
traced mostly to the Consolation of Philosophy of the late Roman
philosopher Boethius. This book has been called "the influential book
in the Middle Ages other than the Bible". Boethius' writings,
contained here and in a few other works, were for years the only
source known to medieval people for the ideas of the Greek
philosophers. Even after the influx of Latin translations of
Aristotle (often via Arabic translations of the Greek) in the twelfth
century, Boethius' works continued to be influential, particularly for
the elite laypeople who wanted to learn of philosophy.
When Boethius wrote the Consolation , he was in prison accused of
treason. This had followed a stellar career at the court of Theoderic
the Great, which had won him great renown as statesman, orator, and
scholar. He had made a brilliant marriage, and his sons had been made
consuls, the greatest honor a Roman could hope to attain. But the
advisors of the aging king had used Theoderic's uneasiness over the
future of his kingdom to accuse a number of their enemies of working
to subvert his rule. Boethius was one of these. Suddenly his
brilliant career is in tatters, and so he sits in prison raging
He is comforted by the spirit of Philosophy, who tells him that the
greatest gifts are not due to Fortune, but to other forces, such as
the laws of God and nature. Fortune's gifts are fleeting and may be
withdrawn at any time, because that is her nature. Holding an office
will not make an man better, for instance, because "...honour is not
accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office
because of the virtue of the holder". Those who pin their hopes on
Fortune should always realize the risk they take. In describing
Fortune, Boethius (speaking through Philosophy) provides us with a
very visual description of the turning of the wheel:
"Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as
I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy
as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise
up on my wheel if you like, but don't count it an injury when by the
same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require."
Depictions of the Wheel in literature in the Middle Ages abound, from
the Romance of the Rose to Chaucer, to name just a couple. Dante's
Inferno has this to say:
No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel.
The nations rise and fall by her decree.
None may foresee where she will set her heel:
she passes, and things pass. Man's mortal reason
cannot encompass her. She rules her sphere
as the other gods rule theirs. Season by season
her changes change her changes endlessly,
and those whose turn has come press on her so,
she must be swift by hard necessity.
(Inferno VII 82-90)
The famous 13th century text of the Carmina Burana quoted above is
just another example of this phenomenon.
Illustrations of Fortune's Wheel in various texts are also common.
Earlier conceptions of the wheel seem to depict a globe on which
Fortune stands, turning it with her feet. However, in about the
twelfth century this evolves into a depiction of Fortune standing
beside a mechanical wheel which she controls with a lever. On the
wheel are depicted (usually) four figures: one at the top, one at the
bottom, one rising, and one falling. These figures often wear the
guise of kings. The metaphor became so popular during the latter
twelfth and thirteenth centuries that it made it into the iconography
of the cathedral, culminating in the great rose wheel windows of many
cathedrals, which were essentially based on the idea of Fortune's
wheel. The image was a favorite of Henry III of England (who
apparently spent too much time dwelling on higher things), to name
just one noble who was mindful of the idea.
The Wheel served to remind people, particularly nobles who were seen
as being the most susceptible to the sin of ambition and the wiles of
Fortune, of the temporality of earthly things. Far better for one to
aspire to higher things--God and his divinely-inspired philosophy, as
Boethius eventually concludes in the Consolation ; for these things
are untouched by Fortune's waxing and waning. Boethius was later
executed on grounds of treason; his wheel had indeed come full
circle. But the medieval readers of Boethius saw victory, not defeat,
in his life and his final rejection of the wiles of Fortune.
I think the metaphor can be useful to us in a number of ways. Not
only does it help us get into a medieval mindset, but it can help
remind us that the important things in life come from within, that
hard work has its own merits. An award, an office, a title--these are
not the things that make for greatness, though a worthy person holding
one of these can enhance its glory. Riding the Wheel of Fortune can
still be dangerous.
Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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Generated: Sun Dec 10 2000