Fortune’s Wheel


If she were constant and behaved reasonably, so that she was just and true to everyone, she would not be Fortune. Machaut

In last week’s about gambling I used a picture of Fortune’s Wheel to illustrate the chancy nature of such activities. In one of the comments Fragglerocking said that it wasn’t clear what it was, so I thought I would crop the picture and enlarge it a bit.

Although it was a Christian society, some people held beliefs in the fourteenth century that we would struggle to reconcile to Christianity. Fortune’s Wheel is one of them.

The basic concept is that Fortune raises men up and can cast them down again when they least expect it. It’s almost a protection against pride. All men are on the wheel and the wheel turns all the time.

No one knew better than a fourteenth-century Englishman, or woman, how randomly the wheel was spinning. At either end of the century an anointed king was deposed and, probably, murdered. Men who had been a king’s favourite were executed. The ravages of the Black Death struck as if it were Fortune herself. Both high and low were taken, even the Archbishop of Canterbury and a daughter of the king. No one could predict who might be next.

In the image above you can see a man being raised up, a king, a king losing his crown and a man with nothing. Fortune sits in the middle spinning the wheel. There are many medieval pictures showing variations of this image.

The belief in Fortune’s Wheel dated at least from Roman times and the wheel itself was a popular literary figure in the fourteenth century.  It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  Troilus complains that Fortune has treated him unfairly and his friend points out that Fortune can’t be expected to do otherwise. If she stopped turning her wheel which raises up men and casts them down, she would no longer be Fortune.

Boccaccio used similar imagery in The Decameron, a book of tales he put into the mouths of people who had fled from Florence to avoid the Black Death.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

32 responses to “Fortune’s Wheel

  1. I absolutely believe in Fortune 🙂 the drawing is fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Life indeed was hard in those days and was taken away literally without a second thought!! As Em said the drawing is fascinating!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this post as I did wonder about the picture from the previous post. As always ever so interesting read. I can totally see why people believed in this. Probably quite similar to karma.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cheers April, fascinating as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s interesting what a potent and pervasive image Fortune and her wheel make. She’s sometimes referred to as a blind goddess, or shown with a blindfold to emphasise her neutrality towards all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She is pervasive. I’ve seen loads of pictures, with and without blindfold. There’s very little about her in my books, though. I’m looking forward to reading The Decameron so that I can find out some more.


      • She was a popular image in Elizabethan and Jacobean writing, too, but (from my rusty memory of Lit. studies) seems to have fallen out of favour after that. I suppose her ghost remains in modern sayings like, “Well, when you’re at the top/bottom there’s only one way to go.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • P.S. I just went and dug out one of my background readers from university and was reminded of Boethius and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ – one of the most influential texts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. (We were supposed to read it, but I don’t think I ever did.) Aunty Google then came up with a whole series of images for Boethius’s Wheel. He could be your man.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Boethius is the man, although he didn’t come up with the idea, he just adapted it to Christianity. He’s referenced a lot in my copy of Troilus and Criseyde, but there’s not enough information there to present a coherent picture. There’s stuff about him on the internet, but I don’t always trust what I read there.


            • Nor do I, but I’m constantly amazed by how much original source material is now available in digitised collections. I’m tempted to dip into The Consolation itself.


              • There’s a Project Gutenberg version in rather antiquated English. I also looked at the Penguin translation, which seems rather poor. The blurb on the translation says that he influenced Chaucer and Boccaccio, so that puts him into the ‘must-have’ category of desired books.


                • Penguin translations often look worthy but dull. When it comes to translations of old classics I tend to favour racy modern versions or else a translation from the period I’m writing about – though these are often heavily tailored The Internet Archive’s usually my first port of call

                  Liked by 1 person

        • I imagine it’s an idea that persisted until the Enlightenment when Reason became king.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. How utterly realistic!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In the absence of facts and an understanding of them, we seem to fall back on fear more than faith.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I believe the “Carmina Burana” has the lament “La Fortuna”. Read it in college. I agree that in an age understanding little about cause and effect, much less disease, climate, psychology, & natural cases, the wheel of Fortuna explained the unexplainable to medieval folk!


    • I’m kicking myself for not looking at Carmina Burana. A friend mentioned it to me yesterday. I’ve got three copies of the lyrics in the house, so it should have occurred to me. I’ll have to write an update if there’s anything worth including from it.


  9. josypheen

    This is fascinating April!

    It does make sense to think of a wheel when you think about it, especially as so many people were farmers at the mercy of the weather to make their fortune!! You can see why people would believe this!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. DL Jung

    Fascinating couple of posts. Interesting how people imbued winning and losing with some great cosmic meaning. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Advent Leads to Christmas | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s