A Curse Against a Thief

from the Carmina Burana

Let the thief who stole my cap be by death collected:
Let it happen suddenly, and be unexpected;
After death, to endless pain let him be subjected;
Once he’s gone may Paradise consider him rejected.

Let the thief who stole my cap feel death’s coils quicken:
With fever’s flame and scrofula may he waste and sicken.
From the Lord’s great Book of Life may his name be stricken;
Let Aeacus send him where the worst of troubles thicken.

Let his life be cut off short; let him end most meanly—
Let him not live two full days sedately or serenely.
Let the hell-hound Cerberus lacerate him keenly;
Let a Fury torture him even more obscenely.

Excommunicated he, in field or habitation—
Let no man look on his face in clear illumination;
Let him sit in solitude like one in desolation;
Let his bed be racked with pain, and torment’s visitation.

And if someone should hear this curse, episcopally spoken,
But then ignore the judgment that these solemn words betoken,
Unless he does repentance for the sanction he has broken
Anáthema shall that man be. That’s final, fixed, and oaken!

previously published in TRINACRIA
(Issue # 9, Spring 2013.)


Original Latin

Maledictio Contra Furem

Raptor mei pilei morte moriatur:
mors sit subitanea nec praevideatur;
et poena continua post mortem sequatur,
nec campis Elysiis post Lethen fruatur.

Raptor mei pilei saeva morte cadat:
illum febris, scabies et tabes invadat,
hunc de libro Dominus vitae suae radat,
hunc tormentis Aeacus cruciandum tradat.

Eius vita brevis sit pessimusque finis.
nec vivat feliciter hic diebus binis,
laceret hunc Cerberus dentibus caninis,
laceratum gravius torqueat Erinys.

Excommunicatus sit agro vel in tecto,
nullus eum videat lumine directo,
solus semper sedeat similis deiecto;
hinc poenis Tartareis crucietur lecto.

Hoc si quis audierit excommunicamen,
et non observaverit praesulis examen,
nisi resipuerit corrigens peccamen,
anathema fuerit. Fiat! Fiat! Amen.

Note: Medieval orthography has been classicized.


A Brief Note on the Carmina Burana

The Carmina Burana is an anonymous collection of mostly Latin poems from the medieval period. Carmina Burana means “Songs from the Monastery of Benediktbeuren,” a religious house in southern Germany. It is believed that the various authors of the poems were Goliards, a mixed band of students, lower clergy, traveling scholars, or university lecturers who knew their Latin, but were youthful and rambunctious enough to call for wine, women, and song.

A few of the poems in the collection are in vernacular languages, and some can be attributed to well-known professional poets. The entire collection must have grown to its current size (254 poems) over a long span of years, and probably includes work from many parts of Europe. The poems tend to be raucous, bawdy, irreverent, satiric, slightly anticlerical, with occasional spoofs on the liturgy, and lots of praises of drinking, wenching, and gaming. Many of the writers were no doubt young and preparing for Holy Orders, but also well read in the classics and classical mythology.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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27 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    This is a masterful translation with outstanding rhyme that from my limited vantage point of relative comparison of words, needed to be skillfully changed at the end of lines and subsumed elsewhere to achieve the rhyme and yet keep the intended sense of the lines and verses. The poem comes through as a powerful excoriation of a thief, condemning him to the nethermost regions of the afterlife.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your comments, Roy. The poem does seems very angry and excoriating, but like many of the Carmina it should also be read as comic and hyperbolic.

  2. Linda Marie Hilton

    the carmina burana is a wonderful collection
    of poetry, we should all be glad that orff set it
    to music. the poems show how the ordinary
    person thought and felt in the medieval period.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your comments, Linda. Orff picked out only a few of the songs for his musical treatment, but that made the collection world-famous.

  3. Yael

    Awesome translation that’s smooth and easy to read. The poem also evidences the genius and elegance of the Latin original, which is not nearly as wordy as the English version due to the efficiency of Latin grammar. This poem is fun to read in Latin and English, great job!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yael and RM, thank you both. Latin as an inflected language is always tighter than modern English, and takes less space on the page.

  4. Drilon Bajrami

    I really enjoyed reading this poem, Joe, and thank you for translating it into English — I don’t think translators get enough credit for what they do.

  5. James Sale

    Very very good – love the quadruple rhyming, so appropriate here as each rhymes reinforces the power of the curse! Very fine writing.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, James. I tried to keep close to the stresses of the original, and maintaining the quadruple rhyme in each quatrain was indeed tricky.

  6. Julian D. Woodruff

    Very resourceful rhyming, especially in the last 4train. Bravo!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Julian. I like English words that end in -en, whether verbs like “betoken,” past-tense forms like “spoken,” or adjectives like “oaken.” It was pure serendipity to find those -en English equivalents for that Latin suffix -amen.

  7. Brian A. Yapko

    What a fascinating and – dare I say? – entertaining poem this is, Joe. I have just enough Latin to see how you’ve followed the original in spirit as well as with a strong approximation of literal meaning. Thank you for the explanatory note as well. It’s interesting that the anonymous lecturer/cleric or student who wrote this would invoke Elysium rather than Heaven. More on that in a moment. What’s also interesting to see linguistically is the extent to which the Latin is very concentrated and efficient in conveying meaning, while the English necessarily requires more words. “Let the thief who stole my cap feel death’s coils quicken” is eleven English words versus the original Latin which is only six words : “Raptor mei pilei saeva morte cadat.” I’m used to thinking of Romance languages as being less efficient than English (albeit easier to rhyme.) But Latin, with all of its declensions, cases and conjugations, is special and highly economical.

    The other thing that makes Latin special is its sheer venerability – especially when it comes to Church matters. Here we have a curse (a mock curse, really) which condemns to death and anathemizes the petty thief of what we assume is a humble cap. That makes the utter seriousness of the curse almost funny. Forgive me if I’ve found humor here inappropriately, but this makes me think of a Medieval version of mock epic, like The Rape of the Lock. Death and excommunication for a cap is a tad excessive. And the seriousness of the curse is heightened by the four rhymes in each quatrain, which gives the poem the sense of a dark incantation. The rhymes also reinforce the gravity of the classical allusions (I notice that Tartarus — whether the place or the god — is also invoked in the Latin original along with Cerberus who you mention.) And yet the classical allusions are oddly yoked to images of traditional Catholic gravity. We get a double curse here — religious and pagan! I get the feeling that the original of this poem was written as something of a highly-educated but irreverent student lark. It’s nice to know our Medieval predecessors had a sense of humor!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you , Brian. I always look forward to your comments because they are so perceptive and detailed.

      The Romance languages all developed from Vulgar Latin via Proto-Romance, both of which were in the process of dropping the complex noun declensions of Classical Latin. And English lost its complex Anglo-Saxon declensions after the Norman Conquest. So when Classical Latin is translated into a modern European language, the translator must make use of various prepositions, articles, and periphrastic phrases that now take the place of the old inflected endings. The only exception is German, which still preserves many inflections (along with Rumanian, Lithuanian, and Sardinian).

      The medievals were still very aware of their classical heritage from Rome. Everyone who went to school learned Latin, and read the available texts of Ovid, Vergil, Horace, and many others. At the University of Paris, all lectures were in Latin, since the student body came from every nation in Europe. Even the least-lettered parish priest had to know enough Latin to say Mass, and pray his daily breviary office.

      This is why the classical gods and their stories, and all the various names of pagan places or ideas, were still common knowledge to the literate. The Carmina are filled with these references.

  8. ABB

    Love this. Don’t suppose this is one of the poems attributed to the mysterious Archpoet? I’m given to understand he has several in this collection.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Could be — the Archpoet wrote a great deal, but this one isn’t listed as among the ten or so in the Carmina that are traditionally ascribed to him. But he certainly composed in the Goliard tradition.

  9. Bruce Phenix

    Joseph, Many congratulations on this very skilful and enjoyable version! I feel you’ve made great choices for the multiple rhymes in each verse – so difficult to achieve successfully – and the use of feminine rhyme has helped you to stick admirably closely to the rhythm of the original. Could I ask whether the ‘praesul’ was something like the head of a committee that decided on excommunications?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The word praesul, praesulis (third declension) originally meant “one who dances before others,” but by later transference came to mean “one who directs, or one who presides.” I assume that the writer of the poem meant it to be a synonym for a bishop, or (as you suggest) the cleric in charge of an inquiry (“examen”) into someone’s crime. He had to use “praesulis” because the genitive “episcopi” has too many syllables.

      • Bruce Phenix

        Joseph, Thank you for your reply – that’s really interesting, and now I can properly appreciate ‘episcopally spoken’ in your version.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, this translation is an absolute treat to read. The skill is evident, but more than that, reading it makes me smile in this dark age where good is evil and evil is good… stealing a cap?! Today children are neutered and mutilated, and lives are stolen on a regular basis, and no one bats an eyelid. This medieval marvel has a cathartic appeal. Thank you!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Susan. The crime does seem a petty one, and the curse out of all proportion. But many of these Carmina Burana pieces are deliberately exaggerated and hyperbolic, for comic effect.

  11. Margaret Coats

    Joe, yours is a fine translation of a poem that requires well-framed words as well as strong ones to achieve a desired effect. We know that charms, spells, curses, blessings, and other such utterances are often some of the earliest recorded verses in any literature, preserved perhaps as models of performance speech. If blessings seem too mild for that in general, we should think of early blessings of fields, intended to insure a good harvest. A curse, even as an outburst of aggrieved speech, contains some of those strong words not in common use–but rhythm, meter, rhyme, and order make it yet more powerful. As you say, this piece is like others in the Carmina Burana in its use of hyperbole partly for comic effect, but the speaker needed to sound like he was actually imposing a baleful judgment (just as show magicians typically use rhyme or strange vocabulary when performing an impressive act).

    When we think of the Goliards as poor young clerics, theft of a cap may be more important than it would ordinarily seem to us. In the Middle Ages, headgear was much more costly, and difficult to replace. I can think of more than one poem in which the author makes a big fuss simply over loss of a hat.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for this perceptive comment, Margaret. Yes, curses and magical spells were some of the earliest examples of verse form (the Latin “carmen” can mean either a song or a charm). I’m reminded of the frightening “tablets of defixion” that are found by archaeologists in Graeco-Roman territories. They are small metal sheets on which the most horrendous and malicious Latin or Greek curses against a personal enemy are engraved, then folded up and transfixed by a nail, and then hidden in sewers or graveyards. Some are versified.

      There is a natural human tendency to view versified or poetically arranged speech as magical, potent, and dangerous. It can be used for good, or for ill.

    • Linda Marie Hilton

      yes, students were even poorer then than they are today,
      there were no dollar stores in which to find a cheap cap,
      perhaps the cap was made by the man’s fiancee and meant a
      lot to him. a student’s complete possessions would have easily
      fit into what we now call a carpet bag.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        That’s certainly possible. The poem may be about a real theft. But it might also be a work of pure fictive mimesis, dreamt up by the author as a scenario for dramatic speech and outrage.

      • Linda Marie Hilton

        perhaps the poem was sarcasm,
        a social comment on how starving people
        were often hanged for stealing
        bread because they were hungry.

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