September 9, 2011

The Carmina Burana: Warnings From A Simpler Time

Illustration: The Forest, Carmina Burana
"I see the sunstruck forest,
In green it stands complete.
There soon we all are going,
The summertime to meet."

The Carmina Burana is a very interesting piece of ancient writing from the area of present day Germany. The 13th century manuscript highlights the delights of living well, free from conventional considerations. The rebels that wrote it dared to think differently.

I love the imagery of the poem quoted above for it reminds me of the importance of nature. We need nature to sustain us in body and spirit, and some of the poems and songs in the manuscript address this relationship, showing that environmentalism is hardly new. The prophetic writers went even farther.

They attacked the church for taking money for administering the sacraments, and conferring positions in the church hierarchy. Admonishing the clergy for their greed, the writings sound much like present day lamentations warning about the greedy practices of other corporate, bureaucratic entities.

At the time the Carmina Burana was being written, the money economy and capitalism were filling the void left when feudalism began to collapse. The authors could see trouble coming with these changes, and traveling and court minstrels spread the word among royalty and regular people alike.

These writings are said to have a simplicity on the surface, and a deep lust for life underneath. They were written in a time when massive changes were coming, and old ways were beginning to slip away. The set of poems and songs not only tell of these changes, but warn of their detrimental effects.

Were they mourning the loss of a better way of life, before money and commerce began to dominate our lives?

O Fortune, 
like the moon,
you are changeable,
Ever waxing and waning; 
hateful life first oppresses 
and then soothes 
as fancy takes it;
poverty and power,
it melts them like ice.

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