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19.01.08 Traill, ed./trans., Carmina Burana

19.01.08 Traill, ed./trans., Carmina Burana

The Carmina Burana ("Songs of Beuren") is unquestionably the most famous collection of medieval poetry in the modern imagination, in no small part because of the industry of the composer Carl Orff (1895-1982), who in 1937 put twenty-four of these poems to music for chorus and orchestra. His arrangments have subsequently enjoyed immense success in concert halls, television commercials, and film soundtracks. Given the enduring popularity of Orff's compositions, it is surprising that the enterprise of translating the entire manuscript of the Carmina Burana into English has proven elusive until very recently. Many scholars have translated excerpts from the collection in anthologies of medieval verse over the past hundred and thirty years, including John Addington Symonds' Wine, Women, and Song (1884), Helen Waddell's Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (1929), George F. Whicher's The Goliard Poets (1949), and David Parlett's Selections from the 'Carmina Burana' (1986), but never the Songs of Beuren as a whole. David A. Traill's prose and verse translation of the entire corpus of the Carmina Burana is thus reason to celebrate. In these two handsome volumes, he presents the text of over two hundred and fifty poems (most of them in Latin with a handful of Middle High German and a smattering of French) with lucid facing-page translations, making available for the first time the complete contents of the largest anthology of poetry to survive from the Middle Ages. [1]

The Carmina Burana survives in a unique thirteenth-century manuscript (now Munich MS Clm 4660) discovered in 1803 at the monastery of Benediktbeuern in modern Bavaria. [2] Two centuries of research have revealed some of its secrets. Scholars believe that the manuscript did not originate at the abbey. While most of the poems in the collection originated in the twelfth century, the manuscript itself has been dated c. 1220-1230. The folios of the manuscript were unbound at some point in the Middle Ages and subsequently rebound in a different order in the eighteenth century. Along the way, many of its leaves were lost, but fortunately some were rediscovered in the nineteenth century and given the collective shelfmark Clm 4660a. Three-quarters of the poems in the Carmina Burana are anonymous, but several of them are the work of well-known twelfth-century authors like Philip the Chancellor, Walter of Châtillon, and Peter of Blois.

Like many other medieval anthologies, the Songs of Beuren have been organized thematically. Scholars have discerned four thematic groups. The first group comprises moral and satirical poems about the vices of the present age in the style of Juvenal and Horace with particular attention to clerical abuses (CB 1-55). Mingled therein are songs related to the crusades (CB 46-55) as well as an incantation against demons (CB 54) and two lines of gibberish, which may have been a charm (CB 55). The second and longest group are the love songs (CB 56-186), which make up 50% of the manuscript. This section was originally even longer, but many folios from this part of the manuscript went missing before it was bound in the eighteenth century. The love songs encompass topics that include amorous encounters in pastoral settings, seductions, debates, as well as unhappiness in love both in ancient history (CB 97-102) and in the present (CB 103-120). Many of the songs in this section are German-language compositions unattested elsewhere. The third group (CB 187-226) comprises tavern songs about eating, drinking, gaming, with a heavy dose of satire. The anthology concludes with two long religious dramas, the first a Christmas play drawn from the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke (CB 227) and the second featuring Mary, Joseph, and the king of Egypt (CB 228).

Traill's new translation of the Carmina Burana is a vast improvement over the widely used English rendering made by David Parlett for Penguin Classics (1986). The virtue of Traill's work is twofold: it is complete and it is eminently readable. To be fair, Parlett was explicit in his aim to create a verse translation of a selection of the Songs of Beuren "that would follow the same metrical and rhyming patterns as the Latin, and so be singable to Orff's tunes" (9), but the sing-song character of his translation has not aged well. Compare the following lines from the first poem in the collection about the power of money:

Manus ferens munera

Pium facit impium.

Nummus iungit foedera,

nummus dat consilium,

nummus lenit aspera,

nummus sedat proelium.

Parlett renders these lines as follows:

Hands with handsome gifts to wield

Put the 'pi' in piety.

Money sees the compact sealed –

buys a court's propriety –

helps the adamantine yield –

smoothes our contrariety (53).

In contrast, Traill's sober translation cleaves much more closely to the Latin without the artificial constraint of following the rhyme scheme of the original:

The hand that offers gifts

makes a pious man impious.

Money seals treaties,

money gives advice,

money smooths over rough spots,

money stops a battle (1,3).

As this example shows, for students and casual readers with some Latin, Traill's translation is a better guide to the meaning of the original language of the Carmina Burana than any other previous translation.

This new translation of the Songs of Beuren deserves a wide readership. In addition to providing a clear and accurate translation of the complete text of the Carmina Burana, it shares the handsome production qualities of other volumes in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. The short introduction, a hallmark of the series, stands in contrast to the copious up-to-date bibliography on these poems and the generous index of proper names. While the size and expense of these two volumes will prohibit their use in undergraduate courses, scholars and students alike will welcome the opportunity to read the Carmina Burana in translation alongside the original Latin and German. The satirical poems in particular have lost none of their potency or relevance in our current dark age (CB 4, vol. 1, pp. 11-12):

Hypocrisis, fraus pullulate

Et menda falsitatis,

quae titulum detitulat

vere simplicitatis.

Fraud and hypocrisy are spreading

as is dishonesty's lying,

which undoes any claim

to simple truth.



1. I have not seen the translation by Tariq William Marshall, self-published in 2011 with CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, which purports to be the first translation of the entire anthology into English.

2. For a lively history of the manuscript and its contents, including excellent reproductions of several of its eight decorated folios, see now Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 330-375.