Our knowledge of the pagan or skeptical aspects of medieval life is naturally fragmentary; the past has not transmitted itself to us impartially, except in our blood. We must all the more admire the liberality of spirit—or the fellowship of enjoyment—that led the monastery of Benediktbeuern (in Upper Bavaria) to preserve the manuscript which reached print in 1847 as Carmina Burana (Beuern Poems), and is now our main source for the poetry of the “wandering scholars.” These were not tramps; some were footloose monks straying from their monasteries, some were clerics out of a job, most were students en route, often by foot, between home and university, or from one university to another. Many students stopped at taverns on the way; some sampled wines and women, and learned unscheduled lore. Some composed songs, sang them, sold them; some abandoned hope of an ecclesiastical career, and lived from pen to mouth by dedicating their poetic powers to bishops or lords. They labored chiefly in France and western Germany, but as they wrote in Latin their poems achieved an international currency. They pretended to have an organization—the Ordo vagorum, or guild of wanderers; and they invented as its founder and patron saint a mythical Rabelaisian personage whom they called Golias. As early as the tenth century Archbishop Walter of Sens fulminated against the scandalous “family of Golias”; and as late as 1227 a Church council condemned the “Goliardi” for singing parodies on the most sacred songs of the liturgy.6 “They go about in public naked,” said the Council of Salzburg in 1281; “they lie in bake ovens, frequent taverns, games, harlots, earn their bread by their vices, and cling with obstinacy to their sect.”7

We know only a few of these Goliardic poets individually. One was Hugh or Hugo Primas, a canon at Orléans about 1140, “a vile fellow, deformed of visage,” says a rival scribe,8 but famed “through many provinces” for his ready wit and verse; dying of unbought poetry, and flinging angry satires at the ecclesiastical rich; a man of great erudition and little shame, writing coarse indecencies in hexameters almost as chaste as Hildebert’s. Still more renowned was one whose name is lost, but whom his admirers called Archipoeta, the Archpoet (c. 1161), a German knight who preferred wine and ink to sword and blood, and lived fitfully on the occasional charity of Rainald von Dassel, archbishop-elect of Cologne and ambassador of Barbarossa at Pavia. Rainald tried to reform him, but the poet begged off with one of the most famous of medieval poems—the “Confession of Goliath”—whose final stanza became a favorite drinking song in German universities.

1. Seething over inwardly

With fierce indignation,

In my bitterness of soul

Hear my declaration.

I am of one element,

Levity my matter,

Like enough a withered leaf

For the winds to scatter.

2. Never yet could I endure

Soberness and sadness.

Jests I love, and sweeter than

Honey find I gladness.

Whatsoever Venus bids

Is a joy excelling;

Never in an evil heart

Did she make her dwelling.

3. Down the broad way do I go,

Young and unregretting;

Wrap me in my vices up,

Virtue all forgetting.

Greedier for all delight

Than heaven to enter in,

Since the soul in me is dead,

Better save the skin.

4. Pardon pray you, good my lord,

Master of discretion,

But this death I die is sweet,

Most delicious poison.

Wounded to the quick am I

By a young girl’s beauty;

She’s beyond my touching? Well,

Can’t the mind do duty?

5. Sit you down amid the fire,

Will the fire not burn you?

Come to Pavia; will you

Just as chaste return you?

Pavia, where beauty draws

Youth with fingertips,

Youth entangled in her eyes,

Ravished with her lips.

6. Let you bring Hippolytus,

In Pavia dine him;

Never more Hippolytus

Will the morning find him.

In Pavia not a road

But leads to Venery,

Nor among its crowding towers

One to chastity.

7. Meum est propositum

in taberna mori,

ut sint vina proxima

morientis ori.

Tunc cantabunt laetius.

angelorum chori:

“Sit deus propitius

huic potatori!”

7. For on this my heart is set:

When the hour is nigh me,

Let me in the tavern die,

With a tankard by me,

While the angels, looking down,

Joyously sing o’er me:

Deus sit propitius

Huic potatori*9

The Carmina Burana range over all the themes of youth: spring, love, boasts of seductions achieved, delicate obscenities, tender lyrics of love unreturned, a student’s song counseling a moratorium on studies and a holiday with love (omittamus studia, dulce est desipere)…. In one song a girl interrupts a scholar’s labor with Quid tu facis, domine? Veni mecum ludere (“What are you doing, master? Come and play with me”); another sings the faithlessness of woman; another, the grief of the betrayed and forsaken lass whose horizontal growth brings down parental blows. Many chant the joys of drinking or gambling; some attack the wealth of the Church (“The Gospel According to the Silver Mark”); some parody the noblest hymns, like Thomas’ Lauda Sion; one is a Whitmanesque song of the open road.10 Many are doggerel, some are masterpieces of lyrical craftsmanship. Here is a lover’s idyl of ideal death:

When she recklessly

Gave herself wholly unto Love and me,

Beauty in heaven afar

Laughed from her joyous star.

Too great desire hath overwhelmed me;

My heart’s not great enough

For this huge joy that overmastered me,

What time my love Made in her arms another man of me,

And all the gathered honey of her lips

Drained in one yielded kiss.

Again, again I dream the freedom given

Of her soft breast;

And so am come, another god, to heaven

Among the rest;

Yea, and serene would govern gods and men

If I might find again

My hand upon her breast.11

Most of the love poetry in the Carmina is frankly sensual; there are moments of tenderness and grace, but they are brief preludes. We might have guessed that by the side of the hymns of the Church there would sooner or later be hymns to Venus; woman, the devoted supporter of religion, is the chief rival of the gods. The Church listened patiently enough to these chants of love and wine. But in 1281 a council decreed that any cleric (therefore any student) who composed or sang licentious or impious songs should lose his clerical rank and privileges. Such wandering students as thereafter remained loyal to Golias sank to the level of jongleurs, and fell out of literature into ribald doggerel. By 1250 the day of the goliards was over. But as they had inherited a pagan current running beneath the Christian centuries, so their mood and poetry secretly survived to enter the Renaissance.

Latin poetry itself almost died with the goliards. The thirteenth century turned the best minds to philosophy; the classics retreated to a minor place in the university curriculum; and the almost Augustan grace of Hildebert and John of Salisbury had no heirs. When the thirteenth century ended, and Dante chose Italian for his medium, the vernacular languages became literature. Even drama, child and servant of the Church, put off its Latin dress, and spoke the peoples’ tongues.

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