The Troubadours—More Than Singers of Love Songs
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE
TROUBADOURS and wandering minstrels—what do those words bring to your mind? Perhaps songs of courtly love and chivalry. You are not wrong, but there was much more to the troubadours than that. While they are possibly best known for the canso d’amor, or love song—and thus are most often portrayed lute in hand, serenading some lady—love was not their only concern. The troubadours were involved in many of the social, political, and religious issues of their day.
The troubadours flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries, throughout what is now southern France. They were poet-musicians who wrote in what was the most refined of all the vernacular Romance languages. It was called langue d’oc*—the common tongue of roughly all of France south of the Loire River and of the bordering regions of Italy and Spain.
The origin of the word “troubadour” is much debated, but it appears to derive from the Occitan verb trobar, meaning “to compose, invent, or find.” Thus, troubadours could find the right word or rhyme to fit their elegant verse. Their poetry was set to music and sung. Traveling from town to town, often accompanied by professional minstrels called jongleurs, the troubadours performed their songs with harp, fiddle, flute, lute, or guitar. In the halls of the rich as well as in marketplaces or at tournaments, fairs, festivals, or feasts, a musical performance was usually a part of any formal entertainment.
Troubadours were from various backgrounds. Some were born to prominent families; a few were kings; and others were of more humble birth and rose to the rank of troubadour. Some attained great status. Many were highly educated and widely traveled. All received extensive training in the rules of gallantry, polite decorum, poetry, and music. One source says that a good troubadour was expected “to know perfectly all the current tales, to repeat all the noteworthy theses from the universities, to be well informed on court scandal, . . . to be able to compose verses to a lord or lady at a moment’s notice, and to play on at least two of the instruments then in favor at court.”
The development of commerce in the 12th century brought great wealth to the southern regions of France. With prosperity came leisure, education, and cultivated tastes for the arts and elegant living. The great lords and ladies of Languedoc and Provence were the troubadours’ most devoted patrons. The poets were highly regarded and came to have great influence over aristocratic taste, fashion, and manners. They became the fathers of Europe’s ballroom dance. The New Encyclopædia Britannica says, however, that “their great achievement was to create around the ladies of the court an aura of cultivation and amenity that nothing had hitherto approached.”
A New Respect for Women
When a man opens a door for a woman, helps her on with her coat, or performs any of the many forms of “ladies-first” courtesies that have been observed for centuries in Western Europe, he is carrying on a custom that likely began with the troubadours.
Medieval attitudes toward womankind were greatly influenced by the teachings of the church, which viewed woman as responsible for man’s fall into sin and his expulsion from Paradise. She was seen as a temptress, an instrument of the Devil, a necessary evil. Marriage was often considered a debased condition of life. Church law allowed wife-beating and repudiation, contributing to woman’s humiliation and subjugation. In nearly all respects, woman was regarded as inferior to man. But with the coming of the troubadours, the minds of men began to change.
The first known troubadour was William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. His poetry was the first to contain the elements that characterized the troubadour’s unique conception of love, which came to be called courtly love. Provençal poets themselves called it verai’amors (true love) or fin’amors (fine love). It was revolutionary, in that the woman was now no longer placed in a position of abject inferiority to the man.
Troubadour poetry bestowed upon the woman great dignity, honor, and respect. She became the embodiment of noble and virtuous qualities. Some songs lamented the lady’s cold indifference toward the admiring bard. At least in theory, the troubadour’s love was to remain chaste. His primary goal was not possession of the lady but, rather, the moral refinement that his love for her inspired within him. To make himself worthy, the aspiring poet was compelled to cultivate humility, self-control, patience, loyalty, and all the noble qualities that she possessed. Thus, even the most uncouth of men could be transformed by love.
The troubadours believed that courtly love was the source of social and moral refinement, that courteous acts and noble deeds had their origin in love. As this idea was expanded upon, it became the basis for a whole code of conduct, which was, in time, absorbed into the common classes of society. In contrast with feudal society, which was gross and brutal, a new way of life had begun. Women now expected their men to be self-sacrificing, considerate, and kind—to be gentlemen.
Soon, much of Europe was taking up the troubadours’ art. Spain and Portugal embraced their themes. Northern France had its trouvères; Germany, its minnesingers; Italy, its trovatori. The troubadours’ theme of courtly love, fused with the ideals of chivalry, gave birth to a style of literature known as romance.* For example, mixing the courtly love ideal with legends of Celtic Brittany, the trouvère Chrétien de Troyes epitomized the virtues of generosity and protection of the weak in tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Their Social Impact
While most troubadour songs praised the virtues of courtly love, others dealt with the social and political issues of the day. Martin Aurell, French author of La vielle et l’épée (The Fiddle and the Sword), explained that the troubadours ‘actively participated in the struggles separating their contemporaries and that through their compositions, the troubadours even contributed to the success of this or that faction.’
Commenting on the troubadours’ unique position in medieval society, Robert Sabatier states: “Never before had poets been given such great prestige; never before did anyone have so much freedom of speech. They praised and rebuked, they made themselves the voice of the people, they influenced political policy, and they became the vehicle of new ideas.”—La Poésie du Moyen Age.
News Media of Their Day
It can well be said that long before the invention of the printing press, the troubadours and other wandering minstrels served as the news media of their day. Medieval minstrels were international travelers. Throughout the courts of Europe—from Cyprus to Scotland and from Portugal to Eastern Europe, wherever they went—they gathered news and exchanged stories, melodies, and songs. Spreading rapidly by word of mouth from jongleur to jongleur, the catchy tunes of the troubadours’ songs were picked up by the people, greatly influencing public opinion and rallying the populace to one cause or another.
One of the many poetic forms used by the troubadours is called the sirvente, literally meaning “servant’s song.” Some exposed the injustice of rulers. Others celebrated deeds of valor, self-sacrifice, generosity, and mercy, while they criticized barbaric cruelty, cowardice, hypocrisy, and self-interest. The sirventes of the early 13th century give historians a window into the political and religious climate of Languedoc at a time of great upheaval.
Criticism of the Church
With the failure of the Crusades, many people began to doubt the spiritual and temporal authority of the Catholic Church. The clergy claimed to represent Christ, but their actions were far from Christlike. Their hypocrisy, greed, and corruption became common knowledge. Always seeking more wealth and political power, the church’s bishops and priests catered to the rich. Their neglect of the spiritual needs of the poor and middle classes inevitably fomented dissent.
In Languedoc many people of the middle classes as well as the nobility were educated. Historian H. R. Trevor-Roper observed that a more literate laity was discovering that the 12th-century church “was very different from the ancient models which it professed to imitate.” He adds that many men were beginning to think: “How even more different . . . was the unestablished Church before Constantine, the Church of the Apostles, . . . of the persecutions: a Church without pope or feudal bishops or rich endowments or pagan doctrines or new articles calculated to increase its wealth and power!”
Languedoc was a land of tolerance. The counts of Toulouse and other southern rulers allowed the people religious freedom. The Waldenses* had translated the Bible into langue d’oc and were zealously preaching it, two by two, throughout the region. The Cathari (also called Albigenses) too were spreading their doctrine and gaining many converts from among the nobility.
Many of the troubadours’ sirventes mirrored the people’s disappointment in as well as disrespect and disgust for the Catholic clergy. One by Gui de Cavaillon condemns the clergy for having “abandoned their primary vocation” for more worldly interests. The troubadours’ lyrics ridiculed hellfire, the cross, confession, and “holy water.” They mocked indulgences and relics and lampooned immoral priests and corrupt bishops as being “traitors, liars, and hypocrites.”
The Church’s Fight Against Freedom
The Roman Church, though, considered itself supreme over every empire and kingdom. War became its instrument of power. Pope Innocent III promised the wealth of all of Languedoc to any army that could subdue the princes and crush out all dissent in France’s southern domains. What followed was one of the bloodiest periods of torture and murder in French history. It became known as the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29).*
The troubadours called it the False Crusade. Their songs expressed outrage at the church’s cruel treatment of dissenters and the pope’s offering the same indulgences for killing French dissenters as it offered for killing Muslims, considered infidels. The church enriched itself greatly during the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition that followed. Families were disinherited, their land and homes confiscated.
Accused of being Cathari heretics, most troubadours fled to less hostile lands. This Crusade marked the end of the Occitan civilization, its way of life, its poetry. Inquisition law made it illegal to sing, or even to hum, a troubadour song. But their legacy lived on. Indeed, their anticlerical songs set the mood for what would become the Reformation. Truly, the troubadours can be remembered for more than their love songs.
The Latin inherited from the Roman legions, called Roman, had by that time developed into two vernacular languages in France: Southern France spoke the langue d’oc (also known as Occitan, or Provençal), while northern France spoke the langue d’oïl (an early form of French sometimes called Old French). These two languages were distinguished, one from the other, by the word they used for yes. In the south it was oc (from Latin hoc); in the north, oïl (from Latin hoc ille), which became the modern French oui.
Any work written in either the northern or southern vernacular was called a roman. Because many of these chivalric tales dealt with the sentiment of courtly love, they became the standard for all that is considered romance or romantic.
See The Watchtower, August 1, 1981, pages 12-15, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Picture Credit Line on page 18]
Printer’s Ornaments/by Carol Belanger Grafton/Dover Publications, Inc.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
[Picture on page 19]
Miniature from a 12th-century manuscript
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris