Nearly a thousand years ago, the poets of southern France and nearby areas of Spain and Italy (including a surprising number of women) led a poetic revolution that transformed literary practice and produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work in world literature. For most general readers the troubadour is a major type of the poet, visualized perhaps with a lute beneath a lady’s window. While this image has its own Romantic integrity, it provides little clue to the actual nature of the troubadours’ poetry. Few educated people (including English majors) could even name a single troubadour poet, allowing exceptions for those who are fond of Dante or Pound.
Long before Freud the troubadours placed eros properly in the center of human concerns. Through the centuries, of course, sex and violence, which is to say love and death, are, along with god, the most perennial of themes, but the reader of the troubadours does feel intimate sympathy, from the inside as it were. Oral cultures tend to celebrate the mystery of fertility and to present sex with the clear and concrete immediacy of dream images like the Winnebago trickster sending his penis across the stream in search of a mate. True heroic poetry usually sidelines the feminine, while the poets of the Greek Anthology were grand versifiers of polymorphously perverse lust. In Heian Japan Lady Murasaki refined love very nearly beyond recognition.
But the troubadours limn desire through the range from lascivious self-interested physicality to sublime idealization in a way that is wholly recognizable at every point. For most lovers who urgently grab after orgasms, who may even deceive or betray or otherwise act the fool, are the very same who caress with hand and word, whose time with the beloved is illuminated with mutual joy, and they are also the same who sacrifice self either in part or altogether. The tumescent ego and the extinguished ego are sides of the same coin. We honor the troubadours as poets who admitted that, though they might be Christians and warriors as well, they were most essentially lovers.
Furthermore, as the first vernacular poets of the Middle Ages, they ended the dualism between ephemeral popular culture, songs and stories, and stage shows forever lost because unrecorded, and courtly or learned or pious works in which the emotional juice and melodic swing is often indiscernible beneath the heavy latticework of artifice. It is true that the troubadours gloried in conventions, obscurity, and stylized language, but their poetry used the words they actually spoke, often they mention people and places with the most casual and natural air, and they performed (or their joglars did) out loud, in real social settings, for the sheer delight of singing.
Finally, like the T’ang Chinese and the Elizabethans, they deserve close attention for their excellence. Though literary value is virtually impossible to prove, their virtuoso versification, their monumental influence, and the opinion of nearly all who know them from Dante on down, give them a solid claim. Since the 18th century, though, craftsmanship has rarely been the most highly regarded quality in poetry. While the Romantics and many since aimed at inspiration and the sublime, many early twentieth century practitioners focused on the level of the image, and contemporary work in general values colloquialism, the great eras of the past – Chinese, Greek, and Elizabethan – were obsessed by technique. Craft has two goals: absolute beauty and concision. The first is self-explanatory. Of the second, I will say here only that if readers are familiar with conventions, they have expectations that may be either fulfilled of frustrated. The more dense and efficient the conventional codes, the more the author may express in the fewer words.
The verdict can, of course, only rest in the end on one’s own reading. Those with French will be able to read quite a bit of Old Occitanian (which scholars prefer to Old Provençal as the language much exceeded the boundaries of Provençe). The pronunciation is as easy to acquire as Chaucer’s, and the poets’ lexicons are limited and repetitive. While images may be enigmatic indeed, the words only rarely are.
A brief survey may be useful. The earliest in most accounts of troubadours is Guilhelm IX, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, one of the greatest noblemen of his day (with realms greater than those of the King of France) and an immediate ancestor of Eleanor of Aquitaine (she of the Courts of Love), Richard Coeur de Lion (no mean poet himself) and thus Henry VIII and Elizabeth. For all this worldly importance, he was regarded in his own day as rather wild. His daring brought him more than one excommunication, and he may sound rather outré even today with his announcement of his theme “dirai vos de con, cals es sa leis” (“I shall sing about cunt, what its law is.”)
We might more decorously describe his theme as an investigation of the other in the form of woman. The small corpus of cansos by William IX Duke of Aquitaine and VII Count of Poitiers has confounded readers seeking consistency. Jeanroy arranged them in a spectrum from “les pièces badines” to “la pièce du ton le plus grave.” In fact these texts are arch-poetic in their representation of contraries, tensions, and ambiguities with precision. William seems sometimes lascivious and wholly physical, consistent with William of Malmesbury’s description of him as “fatuus” and lubricious,” yet is capable of crusading piety as well.
One method for examining this puzzling complex of attitudes on a small scale is to follow the implications of an image like that of the horse in “Companho, faray un vers covinen” (“Comrades, I’ll make you a proper verse”). Women’s association with animals may be honorific as in the Homeric “Hymn to Aphrodite” with its beasts fawning on the goddess (or di Prima’s Loba) or pejorative as in Semonides, Juvenal, or everyday vulgarity. William’s particular image of lovers as horses whom he rides appears in blues like Charlie Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues,” Son House’s “Pony Blues,” and the widespread “Easy Rider.” Considering the erotic properties of horses, their rhythmic ride, the rider’s position astride, and the like, this is doubtless natural. In the poem William asserts his right to the horses as feudal property, parallel to his possession of citadels. Thus would seem straightforward, a brag or gab like much of today’s rap, were it not for the fact that the image continues to develop.
In “Compaigno, non puosc mudar qu’eo no m’effrei” (“Comrades, he reverses the image, telling the husband who tries to limit his beloved that “si non pot aver caval . . . compra palafrei” (“If she can’t get a thoroughbred, she’ll purchase a nag”). In other words, if she is prevented from pursuing a worthy noble lover, she will seek one where she can, perhaps among the lower orders. It is the male who is now the horse, and the man who attempts to control his woman is an inevitable failure, less than a nag.
Other animal images complicate the picture further. In “Tant ai agutz d’avois conres” the “cons gardatz” (“guarded cunts”) are equivalent to a “gorc ses peis” (“pond without fish”). Though hints of the hunt and the social power of wealth still cling to the image, its new aspect is recalled, intensified, and elaborated: “per un albre c’om hi tailla n’I naison [ho] dos ho treis/ E quam lo bocx es taillatz nais plus espes.” Here, on the deeper level of vegetable nature, the female’s magic fecundity becomes a reward for participation in life. The reader finds himself in the realm of the neolithic Venuses rather than a medieval court.
William’s vocabulary for describing his vision arose from gender, sexuality, and love, through feudal privilege and the complex weave of mundane reality, yet rested at last in vatic formulae. Jaufré Rudel, on the other hand, used love as a means to express something quite close to what the Bauls of Bengal mean when they sing about Krishna, what John of the Cross approximated in his verse, and what the medieval Arabic poets such as : the approach to ultimate reality, to what the thirteenth century called “the cloud of unknowing.”
Bernart seems to me one of those who provides a classic statement of the conventions. Without particular innovation or emphasis, he covers the ideas, the verse-forms, the rhetoric of other with eloquence and grace. Bertrand de Born wrote about love, but more notoriously about war. The works of the Comtessa de Dia interrogate troubadour notions of gender from a female perspective. Arnaut Daniel, with his trobar clus,” plumbed the farther reaches of poetic technique and strained the readers of even his own era.
Lovers of troubadour verse may well go on to survey the trouvères of northern France, the Minnesingers of Germany, the stilnovisti of Italy. Though in Germany some texts indicate a certain movement into folk settings and forms, the more dominant theme over time is toward greater spiritualization. I resist any further generalizations about any of these groups as reductive. The field branches in all directions: toward Sappho and Ovid and the Sufis, toward an aesthetics of the lyrics of the American blues, or the relation between the rhetoric of mortal love and that of mystic religion with subsections on the Song of Songs and the performances of the Bauls of Bengal. And then there is the question of the aesthetics of pornography, which is surely either the most or the least spontaneous of tastes.
But enough – as Guilhelm says with his marvelous habit of bipolar opposition:
gu’eu sai de paraulas com van
ab on breu sermon que s’espel,
que tal se van d’amor gaban
nos n’avem la pessa e•l coutel.
From “ab la dolchor del temps novel”
[I know how words go on
from a little speech comes more and more,
some talk and talk then more of love,
while we, we have a piece of its bread, and a knife.]