When History Bites you on the Bum: Eight Centuries of Magna Karma.

MOL225600 #82 Charter of King John (1167-1216) 9th May 1215 by English School, (13th century) © Museum of London, UK English, out of copyright

2015 is a year of anniversaries: some big, some small. As we celebrate eight hundred years since the signing of the iconic Magna Carta, or “Magna Carter” as it has been bucolically represented on occasion, we must not overlook that other significant phenomenon existing in its shadow. For implicit in the justice of the Magna Carta is that other powerful medieval force: the wheel of fortune. There would be no Magna Carta without a sense of Magna Karma.

The Rota Fortunae was a concept that really took hold in the medieval imagination. Presided over by the goddess of the same name, it represented the cyclical and fluctuating nature of luck; the inevitability of improvement but also of failure: a positive and negative construct that predicted the fall of kings and the rise of peasants. From Babylon to the Ancient Greeks, from Tacitus to Boethius, this allegory allied with Catholic doctrine to create an expectation that sinners would be punished and the meek would creep through the gates of heaven through the eye of a needle. But the medieval man or woman was not entirely helpless. There were ways and means to placate the goddess too. Penance, offerings, prayers, bequests and charitable works could all buy the bearer a pass through purgatory and smooth one’s way to the pearly gates.

One of the most significant examples of the wheel of fortune is to be found in an early thirteenth century manuscript included in the Carmina Banana collection, now held in Munich’s Bavarian State Library. Frequently crude and explicit in detail, it contains a number of marginal images depicting the fall of man from various deadly sins: a vain prince slipping whilst looking in the mirror, a former beauty eaten by worms, a glutton being dragged away from a feast by the carcass of a cow slaughtered on his behalf. On the verso of page six in folio four, the goddess Fortuna appears, sitting atop her wheel and looking down at the mortals at her feet. It is a typical image in many ways, except for the unusual figure at the bottom. A handsome, bearded man wearing a crown sits astride a large ripe yellow fruit, which can only be a banana, hence the manuscript’s name.

Certain details such as the clothing and crown, along with the suspected date of composition suggest this is a portrait of King John falling from grace in 1216, a year after the signing of the Magna Carta. Yet the appearance of the banana is challenging. It calls into question what was thought to be the first recorded appearance of bananas in England in 1633 and existing understanding of trading routes. At the edge of the manuscript, as King John is almost crushed under the wheel of fortune, the head and shoulders of a small, red-faced devil lean into the page, jaws wide open to bite the backside of the unlucky king. Thus the sense of the noble ideals of the Magna Carta are somewhat fuddled by the crude nip of magna karma. It is a joyous reminder of the earthiness of the medieval mind, a slap stick humour, a proto Chaucerian joke that represents the darker side of this year’s anniversary.

Sources

Syrup de Fortunae

Creme de Menthe

Banana cake.

Jeff R Vescent is horizontal at present.

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