The Wheel of Fortune

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

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
egestatem              poverty
potestatem             power
dissolvit ut glaciem   it dissolves like ice..
(Carmina Burana ) 

Those of you who were observant have probably already guessed the topic of this 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 against Fortune.

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 Fortune's gifts are fleeting and may be withdrawn at any time, because that is her nature.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. Dante1s 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 understand the medieval mind, 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 1993, 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.