Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forget Fortune

[I've had this post sitting in my drafts folder for a few weeks, and hadn't got around to posting it - then, when I remembered that today is the commemoration of Boethius, widely regarded in the Middle Ages as the world's leading expert on Fate and Fortune, I realised this post would be appropriate.  So here it is.]

One of the most common google searches which brings people to this blog is 'medieval wheel of fortune', and they get this post, a fifteenth-century poem in which the lovelorn speaker begs Fortune to turn her famous wheel and let him/her have joy again.  It's a good poem, but the appeal to Fortune is conventional and perhaps a little overly mannered; so I like to believe that it was out of irritation with this poetic conceit that the song in today's post was born.  'Forget about Fortune', says the singer, 'God is on my side!'  It's meant to be a fairly cheerful sentiment, I think, and not as smug as that paraphrase makes it sound.

It's a sixteenth-century song which survives in the same printed book as this more famous one, Wynkyn de Worde's 1530 Twenty Songs (Bassus).  You can see images of the book here, with this song starting on the right-hand page of the third picture, K1 e1 004. I don't know much about medieval music notation, but the bass part looks pretty fun...

The phrase 'Auxilium meum a Domino' means 'my help comes from the Lord' and occurs in a number of contexts, including for instance the second verse of this psalm.

In youth, in age, both in wealth and woe,
Auxilium meum a Domino.

Though poets feign that Fortune by her chance
And her free will doth oppress and advance,
Fortune doth miss her will and liberty.
Then trust to Virtue; let Fortune go!
Auxilium meum a Domino.

Of grace divine, with heavenly assistance,
If Virtue do remain, Virtue alway
When she list, may call Fortune's chance again.
What [care] I then, though Fortune be my foe?
Auxilium meum a Domino.


In youth, in age, in suceess and in sorrow, my help comes from the Lord.

Though poets pretend that Fortune, by her use of chance and at her own will, forces people down and raises them up, Fortune misunderstands the extent of her power and freedom.  So trust to Virtue; forget about Fortune!  My help comes from the Lord.

By the power of divine grace and with heavenly assistance, if Virtue continues to be present, Virtue can always override Fortune's chances when she chooses.  What care I then, though Fortune be my foe?  My help comes from the Lord.]