shepherds, angel, and devil converse about Jesus’s birth

A Christmas play preserved in the Carmina Burana is no children’s Christmas pageant. This highly sophisticated play, probably composed around 1160, begins with an unusual Order of Prophets {Ordo Prophetarum}: Isaiah, Daniel, a Sibyl, Aaron, and then Balaam sitting on his ass. The play emphasizes that Mary would give birth without the joy and blessing of a mortal man’s seminal gift:

Behold, a virgin will give birth without a man’s seed.
By that she will cleanse the world from the crime of sin.

While retaining the lily of chastity’s flower,
a virgin, blessed with childbirth, gives birth to a king.

This new star brings a new message
that a virgin not knowing any intercourse with a man
and continuing as a virgin after giving birth,
will bear a son bringing salvation to the people.

Just as this branch lacking all nourishment has flourished,
so too a virgin without loss of flesh will give birth.

{ Ecce virgo pariet sine viri semine,
per quod mundum abluet a peccati crimine.

cum retento floridae castitatis lilio,
virgo regem pariet felix puerperio.

Haec stellae novitas fert novum nuntium,
quod virgo nesciens viri commercium
et virgo permanens post puerperium
salutem populo pariet filium.

Ut haec floruit virga omni carens nutrimento,
sic et virgo pariet sine carnis detrimento. }[1]

While emphasizing that the savior of the world came without a woman and man’s sexual intercourse, the play is earthy and includes detailed human characterizations.[2] Moreover, the play’s last verses show a mother’s courageous love for her son:

All hardships I will endure to avoid danger to my son.
As his mother I am ready. I shall go now. Come with me!

{ Omnia dura pati, vitando pericula nati
Mater sum presto. Iam vadam, tu comes esto! }

A closely associated play includes the destruction of idols.[3] The Carmina Burana’s Christmas play isn’t a paean to gynocentrism, even less to gyno-idolatry. A conversation among shepherds, an angel, and the devil emphasizes the play’s celebration of personal encounters.

Prior to the nativity play within this play, Augustine of Hippo and the president of a synagogue debate the credibility of a virgin birth. Their debate occurs in the intellectual style of debates within the church.[4] It concludes with a slightly adapted Christmas sequence from no later than the eleventh century and a slightly adapted Easter liturgical chant. Neither Augustine nor the synagogue president prevails in argument. Augustine then tells his opponent to learn from what he sees. With an angel’s annunciation to Mary, the nativity play within a play begins.

Within the nativity play, three magi, kings of learning from the East, struggle to interpret the Christmas star. One magus declares:

I’m frequently tormented by problems of the quadrivium
and my mind’s reasoning suffers shipwreck
when I consider this star bearing the indication
that its newness bears a new message.

I have studied the courses and natures of the constellations
and I recall investigating their very number.
But when inspect this one, I once again marvel
that nothing appears about it in any of the ancient authorities.

{ Per curarum distrahor frequenter quadruvium
rationis patiens et mentis naufragium,
cum hanc stellam video portantem indicium,
quod ipsius novitas novum portet nuntium.

Cursus ego didici et naturas siderum
et ipsorum memini perscrutari numerum.
sed cum hanc inspicio, ego miror iterum,
quia non comparuit apud quemquam veterum. }

The magus speculates that the star portends the birth of a great king whom the world will obey and revere. The other magi similarly display their learning and struggle to the same extraordinary conclusion.

Meanwhile, an angel appears to unlearned rural folk — shepherds. The angel declares:

Shepherds, I announce to you a message of great joy.
God has clothed himself in a garment of your flesh.
His mother do not give birth to him from fleshly intercourse.
Indeed, a mother continuing as a virgin has had a son.

{ Magnum vobis gaudium, pastores, annuntio:
Deus se circumdedit carnis vestrae pallio,
quem mater non peperit carnali commercio;
immo virgo permanens mater est ex filio. }

But then the devil tells them:

Don’t believe such words, you simpleminded shepherds!
Be assured that what cannot be proved true is nonsense.
As for a divinity being buried in a manger,
it’s disclosed to the eye to be an extreme falsehood.

{ Tu ne credas talibus, pastorum simplicitas!
Scias esse frivola, quae non probat veritas.
Quod sic in praesepio sit sepulta deitas,
nimis est ad oculum reserata falsitas. }

Shepherds commonly see animals having sexual intercourse and subsequently giving birth. Animals, not a god, typically rest in a manger. The shepherds thus decide to continue to graze their animals.

Ignoring the devil’s arguments, the angel urges the shepherds to go quickly to the manger and venerate the mother and child. The shepherds go to do so. Then the devil whispers in their ears:

You simple-minded clump, see how clever
he is. He’s making up such stories contrary to truth,
and also dressing up his lies with baubles,
rendering in rhythmic verse all his pronouncements.

{ Simplex coetus, aspice, qualis astutia
eius, qui sic fabricat vero contraria
utque sua phaleret nugis mendacia,
in rhythmis conciliat, quae profert, omnia. }

The devil’s disparagement that the angel pronounces in Latin poetry is learned humor. The devil and even the ignorant shepherds are also speaking Latin poetry.[5] After more conflicting words from the angel and the devil, one shepherd says to his companions:

Listen again, brothers! What incompatibility!
First I hear something, then something to the contrary.
My simple soul and my confused understanding
is ignorant about which of these wise words is more apt.

{ Audi, frater, iterum! Qualis repugnantia!
Inde quaedam audio, hinc quaedam contraria.
Meus simplex animus, mea mens non sobria
ignorat quae potior sit horum sententia. }

The resolution doesn’t come through more sophisticated reasoning. A chorus of angels gathers and sings:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will. Halleluja! Halleluja!

{ Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Alleluia! Alleluia! }

Upon hearing the angelic chorus, another shepherd says to his companions:

These singing voices make my heart breath.
From this music within myself I have joy.
So let us proceed together to the manger
and on bended knees adore the son!

{ Ad hanc vocem animi produco suspirium.
Ex hac intus habeo citharizans gaudium.
Procedamus igitur simul ad praesepium
et curvatis genibus adoremus filium! }[6]

The shepherds go the manger singing “Gory to God!” and adore the newly born babe. Beautiful singing wins!

May the artist who created the human from mud
and smeared the blind man’s eyes with sacred spit
release you from sin and save your souls.
I greet you, “Peace be with all of you!”

{ Artifex, qui condidit hominem ex luto,
et linivit oculos caeci sacro sputo,
salvet vestras animas crimine soluto:
“Pax vobis omnibus!” ego vos saluto. }[7]

* * * * *

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[1] Carmina Burana 227, “Christmas play {Ludus de Nativitate},” vv. 1-2 (from Isaiah’s prophecy), 9-10 (from Daniel’s prophecy), 16-9 (from the Sibyl’s prophecy), 36-7 (from Aaron’s prophecy), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). For alternate English translations, Bevington (1975) Ch. 7, and Pakenham (1947). Subsequent quotes are similarly from the Ludus de Nativitate, unless otherwise noted.

On the play dating to around 1160, Baumgaertner (1979) p. 13, Bevington (1975) p. 178. The play was copied by the master-scribe of the Codex Buranus, H1-Conrad, probably at Neustift (Novacella) near to Brixen (Bressanone) in South Tyrol about 1230. Godman (2016) p. 107, Godman (2015) pp. 246-9.

Bevington ranked this play as “among the most splendid and elaborate works of dramatic art ever produced by the medieval church.” Bevington (1975) p. 178. In addition to an Order of Prophets {Ordo Prophetarum}, the play includes an Order of the Star / Magi {Ordo Stellae}, an Order of the Shepherds {Ordo Pastorum}, and an Order of Rachel {Ordo Rachelis} / Massacre of the Innocent Boys.

Sibyls were female prophets in ancient Greece. In medieval Europe, Christians regarded Virgil, Eclogues 4 as foretelling the birth of Jesus. This sibyl prophetically uses words from Matthew 1:21. Similar words are included in the communion antiphon for the mass of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

[2] For example, Herod is depicted as a scheming, murderous megalomaniac. In the end, “Herod is consumed by worms {Herodes corrodatur a vermibus}.”

[3] Carmin Burana 228, “Play about the king of Egypt {Ludus de rege Aegypti}.”

[4] The debate between Augustine and the president of the synagogue draws upon the sixth-century pseudo-Augustine Sermon against Jews, Pagans, and Arians concerning the creed {Sermo Contra Judeos, Paganos, et Arianos de Symbolo}. On the debate in Ludus de Nativitate, Lee (2006).

Augustine is characterized as “restrained and discreet {sobrius et discretus} (stage direction preceding v. 90). He nonetheless figures the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary like Jupiter coming to Danae:

Just as a sunbeam comes in through a solid window
and the passage through is completely open to it,
so the Son of the Father on high will slip
into the virgin’s womb and yet do her no harm.

{ Ut specular solidum solis intrat radius,
et sincere transitus servit ei pervius,
sic in aulam virginis summi patris filius
lapsum quidem faciet, et tamen innoxius. }

Here Jesus slips into Mary’s womb like a sunbeam through a solid window. Jupiter slipped into a bronze chamber as “golden rain {pluvium aurum}” to impregnate Danae with Perseus. Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.611.

[5] In the shepherds’ play in N-Town, Wakefield, and Chester cycles (mystery plays), the shepherds puzzle over the Latin words the angels sing. Carlson (2006) pp. 29-32.

[6] Lee noted:

This episode thus does not simply portray “the conflict between rational faithlessness and belief in divine miracle,” as Bevington observes, but more accurately counters logic with an invitation to see for oneself, which will lead to belief and to understanding.

Lee (2006) p. 92.

[7] Carmina Burana 224, stanza 1 (of 3), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018).

[images] (1) Hymn “Let resound in praise {Resonet in laudibus},” from the Gradual of the Augustinian Collegiate Church of St. Castulus in Moosburg, Germany. It was written in 1360. This hymn may date from much earlier, perhaps from about the year 850 in Metz (see descriptive text here). Recording by the Capella Antiqua Munich in 1977. Via YouTube. (2) “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen from his album Various Positions (1984). Via YouTube.


Baumgaertner, Jill P. 1979. “The Benediktbeuern Ludus De Nativitate: Journey to Fulfillment.” Christianity & Literature. 28 (3): 13-30.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carlson, Marvin. 2006. Speaking in Tongues: language at play in the theatre. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Godman, Peter. 2015. “Rethinking the Carmina Burana (I): The Medieval Context and Modern Reception of the Codex Buranus.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 45 (2): 245-286.

Godman, Peter. 2016. “Re-thinking the Carmina Burana II: The Child, the Jew, and the Drama.” Viator. 47 (1): 107-122.

Lee, Christopher A. 2006. “Augustine vs. Archisynagogus: Competing Modes of Christian Instruction in the Benediktbeuern Ludus de nativitate.” Florilegium. 23 (2): 81-97.

Pakenham, Alphonsus L. 1947. Carmina Burana: an annotated English translation of No. CCII of Codex Lat. 4460 of the Staatsbibliothek of Munich. M.A. Thesis, Loyola University of Chicago.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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