The Goddess Fortune

It has been seen that there was a great deal of borrowing going on in literature in the Middle Ages. Writers borrowed from one another; clerks copying manuscripts would “borrow” entire works simply by signing their own names to the finished products. ideas were borrowed from other cultures, brought home to England by the traveling aristocracy or, earlier, imposed by conquering invaders. It leaves one to wonder if in fact, even to this day, “originality” is nothing more than a novel treatment of someone else’s ancient and much used basic concepts.

This paper deals with one of the oldest and most popular works of Latin origin that was to have a far wider and far reaching impact and influence on medieval literature and philosophy than, I am sure, the author could ever have dreamed of, with special regard to the ideas of fate, fortune, and free will, as handled primarily by Chaucer, one of the greatest authors of all English literature and, certainly, the greatest of the Middle English period

We find great evidence of the extensive use of Boethius’ (480-524) De Consolatione Philosophiae, which was written during the author’s imprisonment for treason, just before his death. The Consolatio itself is not entirely original, as Boethius leaned heavily on his studies of Plato, Aristotle, and outstanding commentaries of the same. In it, in an apparent attempt to rationalize his unjust predicament, Boethius dealt with the problem of how there could be pain and evil in a world governed by a just and loving God. This led him to envision Fortune as a Goddess controlling the Wheel of Fortune, which had man strapped to chairs on the rim, in favor or not, depending on whether he happened to be ascending or descending the Wheel’s revolution at the time, and putting forth the theory that what goes up (i.e., gaining favor in Fortune’s eyes) must come down (be stripped of possessions and power and other frivolous attributes). This leaves the philosopher, then, to ponder how to survive the system with one’s faith and dignity intact. His conclusion was that one must put aside desire for worldly things, love God, and try to lead a righteous life.

This work was copied extensively, translated, and widely circulated even before the invention of printing. Among the notables who tranlated the Consolatio were King Alfred, Queen Elizabeth I, Chaucer, and Jean de Meun, whose Roman de la Rose quotes long passages of the Consolatio almost verbatim. Chaucer’s interpretation of Consolatio was derived from working with both the Latin original and a French translation (probably not de Meun’s), as well as a well known commentary.

The full extent of Chaucer’s indebtedness to Boethius’ work is difficult to ascertain. In the Preface to Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius by Bernard L. Jefferson, the author refers to Chaucer as a “highly intellectual poet” capable of “thoroughly assimilating the Boethian teaching, of applying it to life, of using it in original ways in his poetry, and of expressing it aptly in language of his own.” The Chaucerian works exhibiting the highest degree of Boethius’ influence are Truth, to be found on page 279 of our own Norton Anthology, Troilus and Criseyde, a romantic tragedy, and the Knight’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales. Also showing such influence are the tales of the Monk, the Physician, the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Squire, and many more in the Canterbury Tales, as well as others of Chaucer’s work, including the Parliament of Fowls.

Chaucer’s treatment of Fortune in the Book of the Duchess is considered less Boethian (as it is concerned more with Fortune’s fickleness rather than others of her many characteristics that Boethius pays more attention to) than French, showing similarities in treatment of Fortune to Roman de la Rose and Remede de Fortune by Marchault. However, the device of depicting Fortune as playing a game of chess with human beings as pawns is a Chaucer original.

Fortune really gets good coverage in Trolius, the story of a young man madly in love with a girl who takes a good while to make up her mind before finally rejecting him for another. Although there is some French influence evident here, Boethius seems to have been the original source of all so, either directly or indirectly, it is Boethius who has molded Chaucer’s basic conceptions of Fortune. Fortune’s defense of herself, the idea that she teaches man his true friends (when she turns away, false friends desert you), the facts that she only “lends” her riches and that her dominion over man is given up at the time of death expressed in Trolius all find their parallels in the Consolation of Philosophy.

The short poem Truth mentions Fortune only briefly, as a ball that turns this way and that, exposing many sides, cannot be trusted. The rest of the poem, in its treatment of truth and its conclusion of the necessity of prayer to raise men above the level of beasts, is highly Boethian in concept, if not in verbal resemblance.

The Knight’s Tale depicts Fortune’s wheel and also discusses False Felicity, Destiny, Providence, and the infallible wisdome of God, all with a decidedly Boethian flavor.

Boethius’ personification of Fortune as a goddess so struck the fancy of the Midieval population that, in time, with much embellishment, she became considered an actual and very popular (that is, as a convenient whipping boy to blame all one’s troubles on) goddess. Much attention was given to detailed descriptions of her appearance, dwelling places, clothes, favorite vices, and so on. She was often depicted as debating with such other personifications as Philosophy, Love, Virtue, etc. Her most outstanding characteristic is her fickleness, without which (by her own admission) she ceases to be “fortune.” Fortune is generally accepted as an agent of God, having a rightful place in the overall scheme of things. She creates pain and misery because God has willed that these things should exist, in order to give man an opportunity to develop “character.” Fortune’s gifts are offered, but man is endowed with a sufficient degree of free will to exercise restraint and responsibility.

Of all the authors of the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s fertile imagination appears to be the most suitable ground for the seeds of Boethius’ work to have taken root in and flower. In his own way, Chaucer presents to the world his interpretations of Boethius’ philosphy, and in regard to Fortune, he concurred with Boethius on defense against her. Fortune gives gifts of possessions and physical pleasures and takes them away at her will. He who rises above the desire for such things cannot be threatened by her capriciousness.


CHAUCER AND THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY OF BOETHIUS, a dissertation presented in partial requirement for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Princeton University in 1914 by Bernard L. Jefferson, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1917

THE TRADITION OF BOETHIUS by Howard Rollin Patch, PhD., Litt.D., Russell & Russell, New York, 1935

A PREFACE TO CHAUCER, Studies in Mideval Perspectives by D.W. Robertson, Jr., Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1962

The Goddess Fortune

Ginny Schmidt

St. Petersburg, United States

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Artist's Description

In the process (if not struggle) to declutter my house, I am running across all kinds of things that distract me. Here is a paper I wrote for an English Lit class in 1975. Of course, I had to stop and read it and, of course, said to myself, hey this is good stuff. I have no earthly reason to hang onto the actual, 35 year old paper, but could not bear to throw it away without capturing it electronically. No reason not to share it. ( I got an A. )

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