The Wheel of Fortune

Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune with a crowned king at the top, from John Lydgate’s Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 30v. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/02/the-wheel-of-fortune.html

The wheel of fortune or rota fortunae features in Chaucer’s writing and in Shakespeare’s. Both Hamlet and Lear have something to say on the topic.

Dating from Classical times the goddess Fortuna is pictured blindfolded with a cornucopia in one hand and a wheel or a rudder in the other. The original concept of the wheel or even sphere was linked to the astrological frame in which the signs of the zodiac were placed. Boethius, writing in the sixth century, extended the idea. The problem with Fate was that it was pagan and the Church didn’t necessarily approve.

But by the medieval period the rota fortunae was being used to remind people that it was probably best to concentrate of God and the hereafter rather than earthly things because Fortuna can bring luck, fortune and power or can remove all those things at a slip of the wheel and because everyone is bound to their wheel they have no choice but to accept what Fate throws at them. Fortuna isn’t being capricious – she’s more of a Heavenly enforcer. It is God’s will whether your business venture is successful, whether there is a famine, whether you suddenly find yourself being usurped from your throne.

The concept of destiny is an important one in the medieval and Tudor world views. It is linked also to the concept of the Great Chain of Being – everything has it’s place and shouldn’t try to step out from the place that God has allotted. Another way of describing the Great Chain of Being is to call it Divine Order. Essentially the more “spirt” something has the closer it is to God so therefore the higher up the Great Chain of Being it is – ladies you will no doubt be delighted to know that we’re lower down the chain than men. You are where you are in a rigid social hierarchy because God wants it that way – so please don’t revolt because if you do the Divine Order will be upset and this will reflect across the universe…there will be storms and floods and strange and monstrous happenings.

So – we’ve all been given a place in the universe based on the Great Chain of Being. Our destinies are in the stars and allotted to us when we’re born – remember horoscopes are cast as part of the medical process and Books of Hours contain dates which are more auspicious than others for things like moving house, having blood taken and going on journeys. The wheel of fortune is in the background as the main controlling force in life – explaining all life’s successes and adversities, joys and tragedies. It helped explain all those things for which there seemed to be no explanation.

Of course the Renaissance and the concept of humanism sees things a bit differently.

Radding, Charles M. “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol.” Mediaevistik, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 127–138. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42584434. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

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