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.