The Wheel of Fortune

The concept of fate during the Middle Ages

In ancient and medieval philosophy the concept of "wheel of Fortune" ("Rota Fortunae") represents the unpredictable nature of fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna who constantly spins it randomly, causing griefs and joys to mankind: some suffer misfortune, while other live happily... until the wheel spins again.

Severinus Boethius (480-524) - a Roman philosopher of the 5th century - described the wheel of fortune in the book "De consolatione Philosophiae". He represents the Goddess Fortuna like a monstrous lady who cheats on those whom she intends to cheat on, "until the moment when she unexpectedly abandons them, and leaves them reeling in agony beyond endurance" (Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 19).

Lucky people always presume to own the right to what fortune gave them (money, pleasures, richness, health...), but they are wrong: the goddess may always take these things away at any time. Anyway, the mutability of Fortune can be considered as good: the wheel may always spin and "what is now making you miserable will also pass away" (Book 3, p. 36). Even bad luck can be useful to men: it helps them to understand the things that really count in life and also who are good friends and who are not.

"Having entrusted yourself to Fortune's dominion, you must conform to your mistress's ways. What, are you trying to halt the motion of her whirling wheel? Dimmest of fools that you are, you must realize that if the wheel stops turning, it ceases to be the course of chance." (Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 20)

With the personification of Fortune, Boethius introduced an important theme that became central during the Middle Ages: the continuous and unpredictable change of fate. According to this point of view, personal life and also human life is always led by a blind force and what may appear bad or misfortune in a particular moment of life, may change into good luck.

The Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly also in the Carmina Burana, a manuscript composed of 254 poems, written between the 11th and the 12th centuries, mainly in Latin. One of these poems is dedicated to Fortune ("Fortune, Empress of the world") and it is also better known thanks to the 19th century composer and musician, Carl Orff who composed the most famous musical work, "Carmina Burana". One of the most famous stanzas of the poem states:

Sors immanis

et inanis,

rota tu volubilis,

status malus,

vana salus

semper dissolubilis,


et velata

michi quoque niteris;

nunc per ludum

dorsum nudum

fero tui sceleris.

. . . . . . . . . .

Fortune rota volvitur;

descendo minoratus;

alter in altum tollitur;

nimis exaltatus

rex sedet in vertice

caveat ruinam!

nam sub axe legimus

Hecubam reginam.

Fate - monstrous

and empty,

you whirling wheel,

status is bad,

well-being is vain

always may melt away,


and veiled

you plague me too;

now through the game

bare backed

I bear your villainy.

. . . . . . . . .

The wheel of Fortune turns;

I go down, demeaned;

another is carried to the height;

far too high up

sits the king at the summit -

let him beware ruin!

for under the axle we read:

Queen Hecuba.

The continuous change of fortune represents the basis of many written poems and novels during the centuries following the Middle Ages, for example Shakespeare's works.


Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius: The Consolation of PhilosophyHarvard University Press, 2008 - pp. 19-20, 36

 Abbagnano - Fornero: "La ricerca del pensiero", Ed. Paravia - pag. 174-175

Written for by:

Prof. Flaminia Ercolani