Spin the Wheel

Detail from BL Royal 18 D ii, fol. 30v, by permission of the British Library.

One of my favorite episodes in Le Morte d’Arthur relates a dream Arthur has as the battle with Mordred looms nigh.

So upon Trinity Sunday at night, King Arthur dreamed a
wonderful dream, and that was this: that him seemed he sat upon a
chaflet in a chair, and the chair was fast to a wheel, and thereupon sat
King Arthur in the richest cloth of gold that might be made; and the
king thought there was under him, far from him, an hideous deep
black water, and therein were all manner of serpents, and worms, and
wild beasts, foul and horrible; and suddenly the king thought the
wheel turned up-so-down, and he fell among the serpents, and every
beast took him by a limb; and then the king cried as he lay in his bed and slept: Help.

Book XXI, Chapter III

While the creepy-crawlies are fascinating, it is the appearance of the topsy-turvy throne that I find most intriguing.

The Rota Fortuna, or Wheel of Fortune, is a trope with which medieval audiences would have been very familiar. The medieval reader most likely developed an awareness and understanding of the Wheel through Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). Written during his (unjust) imprisonment, Consolatione finds Boethius attempting to derive solace through a series of conversations with the metaphorical figure, Philosophy. A large part of their discussion revolves around the role of fate, or Fortune. Philosophy first rebukes Boethius for committing himself to Fortune and then bemoaning her absence:

Again I ask, Is Fortune’s presence dear to thee if she cannot be trusted to stay, and though she will bring sorrow when she is gone? Why, if she cannot be kept at pleasure, and if her flight overwhelms with calamity, what is this fleeting visitant but a token of coming trouble? Truly it is not enough to look only at what lies before the eyes; wisdom gauges the issues of things, and this same mutability, with its two aspects, makes the threats of Fortune void of terror, and her caresses little to be desired.

Book II, I

Finally, she sternly reminds Boethius that:

Thou hast resigned thyself to the sway of Fortune; thou must submit to thy mistress’s caprices. What! art thou verily striving to stay the swing of the revolving wheel? Oh, stupidest of mortals, if it takes to standing still, it ceases to be the wheel of Fortune.

Book II, I

The embodiment of fate or luck in the feminine form can be found across belief systems. In the Western tradition, from the Greek Moirai and the Roman Parcae (aka, The Three Fates), to the Norse Norns, Hesiod’s Tyche, to the Roman Fortuna, destiny is frequently depicted as female. And, these depictions do not generally induce warm, fuzzy feelings for the entity. In perhaps the most unkindest cut of all, Fortune’s own conceit forms the foundation for our contemporary understanding of fate as a fickle bitch.

Now I would fain also reason with thee a little in Fortune’s own words. Do thou observe whether her contentions be just. “Man,” she might say, “why dost thou pursue me with thy daily complainings? What wrong have I done thee? What goods of thine have I taken from thee? Choose an thou wilt a judge, and let us dispute before him concerning the rightful ownership of wealth and rank. If thou succeedest in showing that any one of these things is the true property of mortal man, I freely grant those things to be thine which thou claimest. When nature brought thee forth out of thy mother’s womb, I took thee, naked and destitute as thou wast, I cherished thee with my substance, and, in the partiality of my favour for thee, I brought thee up somewhat too indulgently, and this it is which now makes thee rebellious against me. I surrounded thee with a royal abundance of all those things that are in my power. Now it is my pleasure to draw back my hand. Thou hast reason to thank me for the use of what was not thine own; thou hast no right to complain, as if thou hadst lost what was wholly thine. Why, then, dost bemoan thyself? I have done thee no violence. Wealth, honour, and all such things are placed under my control. My handmaidens know their mistress; with me they come, and at my going they depart. I might boldly affirm that if those things the loss of which thou lamentest had been thine, thou couldst never have lost them. Am I alone to be forbidden to do what I will with my own? Unrebuked, the skies now reveal the brightness of day, now shroud the daylight in the darkness of night; the year may now engarland the face of the earth with flowers and fruits, now disfigure it with storms and cold. The sea is permitted to invite with smooth and tranquil surface to-day, to-morrow to roughen with wave and storm. Shall man’s insatiate greed bind me to a constancy foreign to my character? This is my art, this the game I never cease to play. I turn the wheel that spins. I delight to see the high come down and the low ascend.

Book II, II

Although this is Philosophy speaking for her, clearly Fortuna comes and go as she pleases, man must never forget that. But, more important to remember is that she controls the ever-spinning wheel. Fortuna is a powerful woman. However, her power is contained by capriciousness. Forutuna’s art is game play–not the serious control of destiny. She comes on a whim, and leaves on a whim. And, the luck associated with her is just as transient.

But, does Fortune actually control, or determine man’s fate? Is she an active agent in command of her own will? I would argue against Fortune having any sort of autonomy. If predestination lies in anyone’s hands, that responsibility will most fall to a masculine deity. In the Middle Ages, that deity would, of course, be the Christian God. The argument could be made that Fortuna, like Shakespeare’s Wyrd/Weird sisters, exists outside the Great Chain of Being. She would seem to be a creature and agent of Chaos. However, in order to bring this pagan figure in line with sanction Church doctrine, she takes on the role of God’s enforcer. Again, while this embracing might appear to recognize her power, Fortuna is still contained within the predominant Patriarchal structure.

This post is leading somewhere. In the coming days, I will be putting together a series of posts that examine the appropriation and containment of the female body in early manuscript culture. Fotuna might appear in those posts. Or not. That depends on how she spins her wheel.

And, because this is my blog, I present the incomparable Journey with their homage to Rota Fortuna.

Journey – Wheel in the Sky (Official Video – 1978)
Jan 17, 2013

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