Thursday, February 7, 2019


David A. Traill, Carmina Burana. (2 vols.) Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. xxix, 567; 794. ISBN 9780674660250; 9780674980976. $59.50.

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine (

Version at BMCR home site

Felicitate Iovem supero! (116) Here it is, the flos florum (78), the mother of all Latin anthologies, and in David Traill's superb new presentation it deserves a Pindaric victory ode. At nearly 1,400 pages and gorgeously produced, this two-volume edition of the "the Beuern Abbey poems" is a magnificent achievement. It is a model of translation-as-interpretation and concise commentary, and it opens the Carmina Burana up to extensive as well as close reading and to aesthetic as well as textual criticism. Before getting to specifics, I salute the entire editorial board for making these masterpieces of medieval Latin lyric so attractive and available to lovers of literature everywhere.

For many, say the words "Carmina Burana" and they'll hear somber voices intoning ♩♩o-o-o For!-tu!-na!. I myself always think of Dr. Seuss, though, because if he had written Latin, this is exactly what it would've looked like. Here's a typical example (117):

Iuro Phoebum, iuro Martem
qui amoris sciant artem,
iuro quoque te, Cupído
arcum cuius reformído.

I swear by Phoebus, I swear by Mars,
since they both know the art of love;
I swear also by you, Cupid,
whose bow I dread.

Rather than suggesting childishness, though, there is something weirdly expressive and haunting about these rhyming, medieval stress-based meters (trochees, iambs, and anapests, without elisions). To my mind, they convey raw emotion with a greater sincerity and immediacy than the classical meters most of us are familiar with. Take the speaker of 126, who has accidentally gotten pregnant:

Cum foris egredior,
a cunctis inspicior,
quasi monstrum fuerim. …

Nutibus me indicant,
dignam rogo iudicant,
quod semel peccaverim.

When I do go out,
everyone looks at me
as if I were a monster. …

They indicate me with nods of their heads,
they think I deserve to be burned to death
because I once committed a sin.

Likewise, that speaker in 117 cries out in anguish at being falsely accused:

Sciat deus, sciant dei,
non sum reus huius rei!

Let God know, let the gods know:
I am not guilty of this!

And that sort of ingenious wordplay is as common as the rhymes are (42):

Roma mundi caput est,          sed nil capit mundum.

Rome is the capital of the world but contains nothing clean.

We seem to be light-years away from arma virumque cano.

These poems are the glory of the Middle Ages, and they come from many different hands. Around AD 1230 in or near the monastery of Novacella in Brixen (Bressanone), they were gathered into a huge manuscript anthology that is now held in Munich (digitized here ). The poems deal with themes both topical (medieval society, student life, the Church, courtly life) and timeless (love, lust, and sex; the return of spring; indignation at hypocrisy, greed, and corruption; personal vice or sin; pessimism, disillusionment, and death).

Most reflect daily life, but some reimagine classical literature. A superb cycle based on Aeneid 4 (98-102) reimagines Dido's plight, and another, 105, hints at a contemporary manner of reading Ovid's Ars Amatoria that cries out for elaboration:

Artes amatoriae,          iam non instruuntur
a Nasone traditae,          passim pervertuntur.
Nam siquis istis utitur,          more modernorum,
turpiter abiicitur hac assuetudine morum.

The arts of love, handed down by Ovid,
are no longer taught but rather everywhere perverted.
Whoever deploys them as do people today
is shamefully degraded by this pattern of behavior. 1

Traill's prose translation, which I have been quoting, is uniformly excellent. It is also only the second complete translation of the Carmina Burana into English. The first appeared in 2011 as a self-published book by the Hollywood actor Tariq Marshall, and it has never, to my knowledge, been reviewed or noticed in a scholarly journal.2 For comparison's sake, here are their two versions of 4.3:

Hypocrisis, fraus pullulat
et menda falsitatis,
quae titulum detitulat
vere simplicitatis.
Frigescit ignis caritatis,
         fides a cunctis exulat,
aculeus cupiditatis
         quos mordet atque stimulat.

Fraud and hypocrisy are spreading,
as is dishonesty's lying
which undoes any claim
to simple truth.
The fire of charity grows chill;
trustworthiness is not to be found
in any who have been stung and goaded
by the sting of greed. (Traill)

Hypocrisy, fraud,
and falsehood's blemish debouch
and distitle the title
of true rectitude.
The fire of charity grows cold;
faith lives in exile from all men,
whom cupidity's sting
doth bite and arouse. (Marshall)

Both translations are impressive and strong, but in different ways. Marshall's is more poetic, Traill's more direct and interpretative (and in translating fides as "trustworthiness" rather than "faith," more correct in this example). Such is Traill's approach to translation throughout. He is always accurate3 and always suitably interpretative rather than excessively literal, so that his translation functions as a running mini-commentary on the hard parts. In a bilingual edition like this, this was exactly the right way to go.

That brings me to the Latin (and German) text that faces the translation. Traill offers a critical text based on the Hilka-Schumann-Bischoff text, the gold standard.4 It includes nearly fifty new conjectures of his own, all minor and all plausible, and a negative apparatus printed at the back. As the samples above show, far and away its greatest merit is that Traill prints all the Latin in restored classical spelling—hence (for example) laevae and Phoebi and hypocrisis instead of leve or Febi or ipocrisis—even though the medieval poets themselves didn't write them that way. Again, this was clearly the way to go: just as no one tries to read Pindar in his original spelling, so too here the deliberate anachronism reduces ambiguity and improves accessibility. And Traill has done a terrific job; the only mistakes I caught appear, ironically, in the very first two poems.5

A number of extras round out the edition: 225 pages of interpretative notes on the translation, a bibliography, an index of first lines, and an index of proper names. The notes tell you the meter, attribute authorship where known, explain literary allusions, summarize other scholars' ideas about difficult passages, and occasionally offer Traill's new ideas on interpretation. I found countless helpful and useful points in them. At the risk of sounding as florid as a medieval poet, therefore, I'll sum up my respect for Traill's Dumbarton Oaks edition of the Carmina Burana by quoting 77:

Cum vidissem itaque,          quod semper optavi
tunc ineffabiliter          mecum exultavi.

When I saw what I had always longed for,
I was filled with indescribable joy.


1.   In addition to discussing prior scholarship (principally that of Alison Elliott), Traill's note on this poem makes a new and original connection to Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto 3.3.
2.   Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuern. Translated with critical annotations. 3rd edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Marshall's first edition of 2011 included a facing text but in the third edition of 2014 that is currently available, readers are directed to download the Latin and German text from a proprietary website, Carmina Burana).
3.   A single exception proves the rule: in 25.6 "laugh to scorn" for deridet must be a typo (likewise, in 103.3b, delete the comma and 104.2.5, delete the period).
4.   Hilka, Alfons, Otto Schumann, and Bernhard Bischoff (eds.). 1930-70. Carmina Burana. Heidelberg. 2 vols.
5.   In 1.3 and 2.2 que should be quae (correctly translated); in 84.3 I spotted a stray michi (for mihi).

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