Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Officium Lusorum

Mass of the Gamblers


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, April 2014 


"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"

 Luke: 23-34


In ancient times, the last twelve days of the year were considered a period beyond the normal measure of time: they represented the gap between the solar calendar of 365 days (twelve 30-day months and a half) and the lunar calendar of 354 days (twelve months of 29 days and a spaceof arrest). Twelve days and twelve nights which corresponded to a period of vacuum, to a time of uncertainty where humanity could be subject to any danger. The boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became so unstable as to render possible communication with the dead. In Roman times, the festival called the Saturnalia celebrated liberty and a world turned upside down: slaves became masters and masters obeyed their slaves. According to some traditions, still alive today, in these twelve days you can predict the future over time, and the more or less favorable development of the crops.


Among the relics of the ancient ritual of rebirth and renewal that took place at the beginning of the year and which represented the reversal of all the values, the most famous is undoubtedly the Feast of Fools (or of Sub-deacons), which was celebrated during the high and late Middle Ages, in the period from Christmas to Epiphany, especially on the first day of the year. Nothing was too sacred to be spared, in particular the Christian religion that was the force that permeated everything. The main scene of the festival was in the Church itself, but often it was the whole city that participated in the procession and cavalcades.


Only within this framework could the clergy "get rid of the skin" in an exuberant and therapeutic manner. "Sloughing of the skin" (getting free of the skin).


In these terms a certain Gerson, a theologian of Auxerre, still defended these festivals in 1440 at the Faculty of Theology in Paris: "Our ancestors, who were great men, approved of these festivals; So why should they be banned? We’re not intending to be serious, but just for fun joke in the ancient fashion and do the foolishness that is our second nature and that seems to be inherent in us; an opportunity to let off steam once a year. Even the vats of wine would burst if one sometimes did not open the cap to let the air out ... So, for a few days, we play at being fools so that we can then return with greater zeal to our religious duties".


Occasional prohibitions by the ecclesiastical authorities remained empty until the middle of the sixteenth century. In the spirit of a reversal of all the values, these were the feasts of the lower clergy, the sub-deacons.


A Bishop of Fools was elected in the cathedrals. He celebrated a solemn Mass and gave the blessing. Masked clergy danced and pranced in the church singing bawdy songs. On the altar, in front of the priest who was reading the missal, the sub-deacons ate sausages, played cards and dice and put pieces of the soles of old shoes and excrement, instead of incense, on the censer, so that the stinky smell assailed the priest’s nostrils. After Mass, everyone ran, danced and pranced everywhere in the Church, abandoning themselves to the wildest excesses, some even stripping completely. Later they climbed on carts full of excrement that they themselves dragged through the city, hitting with filth the crowd that followed them.


"At Antibes, the lay priests occupied the place of the priests in the choir. They wore ragged priests’ vestments turned inside out, held the books upside down and pretended to read, not singing psalms or hymns, but mumbling incomprehensible discourses and bleating and bellowing like animals" (1).


As a relic of the ancient worship of animals, the main role was assumed by a donkey, a symbol of strength, of festivity, a compendium of stupidity, and the entry of Christ into Jerusalem.


In addition to this festival - called Fête des Fous in Francophone countries, Feast of Fools in England, also known as the Asinaria Festa, Festum Stultorum, Festum Fatuorum, Festum Follorum, Festum Subdiaconorum or Festum Baculi - another event of seemingly irreverent connotations was the Officium Lusorum, i.e. the Mass of the Gamblers. Its verses, accompanied by music, are in the famous manuscript of the Carmina Burana, which came into the possession of the ‘Royal Central Library of the Court' of Monaco in 1803. Librarian J. A. Schmeller, who first published these manuscripts, gave them the name of Carmina Burana (Songs of Benedikbeuren [a town in Germany - tr]) from the Bavarian monastery where they were found. It seems that their first form, dating from the thirteenth century, is to be identified in Carinthia or Styria [regions of southern Austria and northern Slovenia - tr.], done in the court of a Bishop of Seckau (Bishop Karl, 1218-1231, or Bishop Heinrich, 1232-1243).


The manuscript includes a vast and impressive collection of European lyrics, written mainly in Latin, dating from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century. The themes of the compositions include songs about drinking and eating (Carmina et Gulatorum Potatorum) among which stand out, of course, several poems dedicated to Bacchus; unhappy love songs (Carmina Amoris Infelicis); songs of a moral character (Carmina Moralia); songs dedicated to God and the Virgin (Carmina Divina); songs of a moral character and the divine together (Carmina Moralia et Divina); songs in praise of spring and love (Carmina Veris et Amoris), and finally songs on games and gamblers (Carmina Lusorum).


In this mixture of the sacred and the profane is expressed a world of sinners, thieves, murderers and prostitutes (2) who ask to be heard. Audacious youths and joyful girls freely exchange sensual phrases of love, in spite of what the Church was preaching about the beauty of the body (3), even while God came down from the top of his infinite justice to become the unwitting accomplice of the passions of men. The tone of scathing indictment against the Church, the invocation of divine justice on its misdeeds, the deep need for spiritual and moral renewal, and especially for a renewal of ecclesiastical customs, form the connective to the whole political, cultural and religious becoming of medieval times.


The Officium Lusorum, in Latin with minimal intrusion of High Middle Ages German, is configured as a true parody of the Proper (the set of the parts) of the Mass and fits well with the annual ritual aimed at breaking the rules by inverting customs and symbols. The subject of parody is a dice game that takes place in a tavern around the activities of loan sharks [usurae, userers] and swindlers. The priest's greeting 'The Lord be with you' becomes ‘The swindle be with you '; the Lord God [Dio] becomes the Lord Decius (Dice); the Gospel according to St. Mark becomes the False Gospel according to the Silver Mark, while the closing blessing becomes the curse of closure. The verses bring into parody the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia, the Sequence and the Offertory, as well as the readings and best-known epistles.


This Officium is not an isolated case: in Ratisbon [Regensburg], in Halberstadt, in London, at the Vatican Library in Rome and elsewhere were discovered several manuscripts relating of the Mass of drinkers and gluttons (Missae Potatorum, Missae Gulatorum) and of gamblers (Missae Lusorum).


Since the musical aspect is not of special interest in our discussion, we will remember only that the verses were sung and accompanied by all sorts of instruments, such as the rebec, vielle, flute, oud (ancestor of the lute), bagpipes, percussion of every type, etc., and that the whole thing was accompanied by a terrible racket. The melodies are reproduced faithfully from the traditional repertoire of Gregorian chant and the sequences are modeled on the tones of the famous Easter hymn Victimae pascali laudes.


We provide below the original Latin of the Officium, with its translation following.


INCIPIT OFFICIUM LUSORUM - C.B.  (Carmina Burana)  215


I Introitus

Lugeamus omnes in Decio, diem mestum deplorantes pro dolore omnium lusorum: de quorum nuditate gaudent DEcii et collaudant filium Bacchi.


II Versus

Maledicant Decio in omni tempore; semper fraus eius in ore meo.

Fraus vobis! Tibi leccatori!


III Oratio

Ornemus! Deus, qui nos concedis trium Deciorum maleficia colere: da nobis in eterna tristitia de eorum societate lugere.


IV Epistola

Lectio actuum apopholorum. In diebus illis multitudinis ludentium erat cor unum et tunica nulla, et hiems erat, et iactabant vestimenta secus pedes accomodantis, qui vocabatur Landrus. Landrus autem erat plenus pecunia et fenore et faciebat damna magna in loculis accomodans singulis, prout cuiusque vestimenta valebant.


V Graduale

Iacta cogitatum tuum in Decio, et ipse te destruet.


VI Versus

Dum clamarem ad Decium, exaudivit vocem meam et eripuit vestem meam a lusoribus iniquis.





Mirabilis vita et laudabilis nichil.


VIII Sequentia

1. Victime novali zynke ses

immolent Deciani.

2a. Ses zinke abstraxit vestes,

equum, cappam et pelles

abstraxit confestim

a possessore.

2b. Mors et sortita duello

conflixere mirando,

tandem tres Decii

vicerunt illum.

3a. Nunc clamat: O Fortuna

quid fecisti pessima?

Vestitum cito nudasti

et divitem egeno coequasti.

3b. Per tres falsos testes

abstraxísti vestes.

Ses zinke surgant, spes mea!

Precedant cito in tabulea!

4a. Credendum est

magis soli

ses zinke quatter veraci

quam dri tus es

ictu fallaci.

4b. Scimus istos abstraxisse

vestes lusoribus vere.

Tu nobis victor

ses, miserere!


IX Evangelium

Sequentia falsi evangelii secundum marcam argenti. Fraus tibi Decie! Cum sero esset una gens lusorum, venit Decius in medio eorum et dixit: "Fraus vobis! Nolite cessare ludere. Pro dolore enim vestro missus sum ad vos". Primas autem, qui dicitur Vilissimus, non erat cum eis, quando venit Decius. Dixerunt autem alii discipuli: "Vidimus Decium". Qui dixit eis: "Nisi mittam os meum in locum pec­carii, ut bibam, non credam".  Primas autem, qui dicitur Vilissimus, iactabat dicem, alius duodecim, tertius vero quinque. Et quinque proiecerat, exhausit bursam et nudus ab aliis se abscondit.


X Offertorium

Loculum humilem salvum facies, Decie, et oculos lusorum erue, Decie.

Humiliate vos, avari, ad maledictionem!


XI Oratio

Ornemus! Effunde, domine, iram tuam super avaros et tenaces, qui iuxta culum ferunt sacculum, et cum habuerint denarium, reponunt eum inclusum, donec vertatur in augmentum et germinet centum. Pereat! Hic est frater privi­tatis, filius iniquitatis, fixura scamni, genus nescitandi, visinat amare, quando timet nummum dare. Pereat! Quod ille eis maledictionem prestare dignetur, qui Zacheo bene­dictionem tribuit et diviti avaro guttam aque denegavit. Amen.



Et maledictio dei patris omnipotentis descendat super eos!


XIII Communio

Mirabantur omnes inter se, quod Decius abstraxerat cuili­bet vestes. Amen.


C.B. 215a


XIV Invocatio

Omnipotens sempiterne deus, qui inter rusticos et clericos magnam discordiam seminasti, presta, quesumus, de labo­ribus eorum vivere, de mulieribus ipsorum uti et de morte dictorum semper gaudere.




I Introit

We all mourn for Decius, feeling sorry on this day of mourning and sorrow for all those who dedicate themselves to the game: the dice enjoy their nakedness and honor the son of Bacchus.


II Verse

Cursed be Decius eternally. His falsehood will always be on my lips.

The swindle be with you!

And also with you, good for nothing.


III Prayer

We place our bets! [Also meaning, We are undone!-trans.] God our Lord, who hast given us the power to see the evil of the three dice, May you ensure eternal punishment so as to deplore their combination.


IV Epistle

from the acts of the apostles of theft.

But in those days the multitude of players did not form a single heart without clothes. And it was winter, and they threw their garments at the feet of the usurer called Landrus [play on Latin latrus, Italian ladro = thief - tr.]. He was burdened by wealth and the fruits of usury and attacked every purse, giving to each according to the value of their clothing.


V Gradual

Put your thinking to Decius, and he certainly will destroy you.


VI Verse

Yes, I have invoked Decius, and he has heard my voice and he has stripped my clothes torn from the hands of the wicked players.





His life is admirable, and nothing in it is worthy of praise.


VIII Sequence

1. Consecrate to the victim, or to the friends of the dice, the offering of a five or a six.

2a. The five and the six take off the clothes, and even the horse, hood and cloak of the owner.

3a. Then he exclaimed: O Fortune, what have you done? Thou hast deprived me of my clothes and have made the poor equal to the rich.

3b. With three wrong throws of the dice I have deprived myself of my attire: six and five now: hope is reborn. All around the world it unfolds before me.

4a. We must believe only in six, in five, and in four; but three, two and the ace are evil.

4b. We know that in truth those three numbers rob players of their clothes. Have mercy or six, our winner.


IX Gospel

Taken from the false gospel according to the Silver Mark.

The swindle be with Decius! When evening fell, a group of players met; Decius arrived, sat in their midst and said, "The swindle be with you. Do not stop playing. Because I have been sent among you for your suffering." But Primas, who was also called the most abject, was not among them when Decius spoke. The other disciples told him, "We have seen Decius." But he replied: "Until I have brought to my lips the cup from which I drink, I will not believe him" [i.e. “Only if I am drunk will I believe it”—tr.]. But Primas, also known as the most abject, threw ten, another twelve and again a third, five. And the one who had thrown a five emptied his purse and walked away from them naked.


X Offertory

Decius, heal the wretched purse of the poor and tear out the eyes of the players.

Bend over, o covetous ones, in order to receive the curse.


 XI. Prayer

We place our bets! O Lord, pour out your wrath upon the greedy and on hoarders who bring their small purse hanging on their backsides, and when they have a dime, throw it so that it can multiply and produce a hundred. Cursed be he! It is fitting and just to hurl curses on those who have blessed Zacchaeus and refused the rich miser a drop of water. Amen!



And may the curse of Almighty God descend upon you.


XIII Communion

And among them, all were surprised that Decius had taken from each his own clothing.


 C.B. 215a


XIV Invocation

Almighty and eternal God, who hast cast discord between the clergy and the peasants, grant, we beseech thee, the power to live on their shoulders, the power to enjoy their women and to enjoy in eternity their death.




1 - K. F. Flögel, Geschichte des Grotesk - Komischen, Munchen, G. Müller, 1914.

2 - In regard to prostitutes, so expressed the English bishop Thomas of Cobham (ca. 1278 - ?), in his Manual of Confession: "Prostitutes are to be counted among the mercenaries. In fact, they rent out their body and provide work ... Hence this principle of secular justice: in as much as she is a prostitute she does evil, but she does not do evil in obtaining money from her work, being acknowledged that she is a prostitute. Therefore, one can repent of prostitution and nonetheless retain the earnings of prostitution in order to give alms with it. But if she is a prostitute for pleasure and if rents out her own body because she knows enjoyment, then she does not rent out her work, and the gain is as shameful as the act. Similarly, if the prostitute is perfumed and adorned in such a way as to attract with false attractions and making a semblance of beauty and flattery that she does not possess, since the customer buys what he sees, and in this case, it is a lie, the prostitute thereby commits a sin, and should not keep the gain from her display. In fact, if the customer saw her as she really is, he would not give a donation, but because she appears nice and bright, he gives her the money. In this case, she should retain only a bit, and return the rest to the customer whom she cheated or to the Church or to the poor".

3 - This teaching of the holy Abbot Odon of Cluny (ca. 878-942) in this regard: “The beauty of the body is confined to the skin. If men could see what is under the skin, as it is said the lynx of Boeotia could see, shudder at the sight of women. All that grace consists of mucus and blood, humours and bile. If you think of what is hidden in the nostrils, throat and belly, you will find only filth, and if you repudiate touching the mucus and the dung with your fingertip, how we might we ever want to embrace the sack that contains the dung?”. Collationum Libri Tres, Liber II, in Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. CXXXIII, col. 556.