Friday, March 10, 2017


Everyone sort of knows about troubadours, medieval guys who sang love songs.  But there's more to it.  There were gals as well as guys among the troubadours.  And they wrote the songs as well as singing them.  (The word troubadour comes from trobaire, meaning to compose.)  Some became very famous.

To be a troubadour was to be more than the wandering singer that we may now imagine.  Indeed, troubadours looked down on those who just sang other people's songs, the jongleurs, rather than writing their own.  The person usually considered the "first troubadour" was the Duke of Aquitaine.  The female troubadour, the trobairitz, was often a high status woman, whose songs were infused with classical learning as well as the many other influences on troubadour poetry.

Troubadours were part of the culture of what we would now call southern France during the twelfth century.  It was officially part of the French kingdom, but the French king hadn't been there in generations.  But the region had its own language, Occitan, so called because the people used the word oc instead of oui to mean "yes."  The region is therefore sometimes called Occitania.

(Fun fact:  Latin had no word for Yes.  Many Romance languages went for si for Yes, from the Latin "sic," meaning "So it is" or "like this."  Occitan got its oc from  "hoc," meaning "this one."  Modern French oui comes from "hoc-ille," meaning "this one - that one."  You had to be there.)

Troubadours wrote their songs in Occitan, but their language was close enough to Old French that the French could figure it out.  Many of their surviving songs are written as autobiographical, "I knew a woman …"  It is of course unclear whether they were actually relating experiences or, far more likely, using the first-person "I" the way modern song writers do.  ("I saw her standing there."  "I once knew a girl."  "I should be sleeping like a log."  Hum your favorite Beatles tune here.)

A lot of the women in the songs appear to have been powerful, well-known women, referred to under nick-names or teasing sobriquets, which were probably perfectly transparent at the time but are no longer.  The male troubadours acknowledged how powerful these women were, saying they wanted to serve them, urging them to be kind to the lowly singer.  In some cases male troubadours suggested there had been kisses and more, but the women of the songs were just as likely to Just Say No or to turn on their one-time lovers.

Scholars used to assume that these poems about service to women were part of some institution of "courtly love," where men claimed they were serving ladies, putting them on a pedestal, but it was all a game because the women were actually subservient, and if they were put on a pedestal it was just to get them out of the way.  This is now understood to be based on a complete misreading of medieval sources.

Instead, medieval women really did have a lot of very real power, as I have discussed elsewhere.  Ermengard, countess of Narbonne, for example, led her armies into battle and deliberately married someone whose center of power was hundreds of miles away, so that he would stay over there and not bother her, yet no one else could try to marry her himself and take over Narbonne because she wasn't single.  Ermengard shows up a lot in troubadour poems, often with a sword in her fist.

The original troubadour culture was thoroughly messed up when northern France conquered Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century, but the idea of the composer-singer spread to other Mediterranean countries, to northern France, and even Germany.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

For more on medieval entertainment, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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