Troubadours and fin’amor

Miniature, Herr Konrad von Altstetten, 249v, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, c. 1300-1340, University Library Heidelberg
Herr Konrad von Altstetten, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, University Library Heidelberg, c. 1300-1340.

Who were the troubadours? Many people have heard of them, but a popular misconception is that the troubadour was a wandering minstrel who sang for his supper.

Far from it! The troubadour was a medieval rock star. From approximately 1100 to 1300, there were troubadour kings and dukes, many were nobles, some wealthy and some not, but some rose from the ranks to achieve fame and fortune. At the end of the meal the lord or lady of the castle would coax the troubadour to honor the company with a song. He never sang before or during the meal, that was left to jongleurs, who juggled, conjured, danced, or played music. A good definition of what a troubadour wasn’t is by one who was, Jaufre Rudel, who lived in the early to middle 12th century:

No sap chantar qui so non di       He who cannot make a sound doesn’t know how to sing
I vers trobar qui motz no fa          He who has no words cannot compose verses
I conois de rima co’s va               He cannot fashion a rhyme
Si razo no enten en si.                 If he doesn’t understand the reason behind it.

Why don’t people know more about them? They wrote in Occitan, as you can see above, a language that is too infrequently taught at colleges and universities. Even the best translations cannot capture the beauty of the original poetry, and much of their music has been lost. Occitan is a romance language, and it was the first language of lyric poetry in Western Europe. It sounds similar to Catalan, more Spanish than French.

Where did the troubadours come from? Occitania—the region below the river Loire in what is today southern France. Occitania was an open, sophisticated and tolerant society, a society of convivencia, where, Jews and Muslims lived peaceably together with Christians of different ideas and sects.

What did the troubadours sing about? Fin’Amor—At the heart of most troubadour poetry lays the theme of transcendence, the transformative power of love that enabled man to transcend to a higher moral and spiritual level, as Arnaut Daniel, living in the middle to late 13th century, wrote:

Tot iorn melhur e esmeri              Every day I become better and more perfect
quar la gensor am e coli               For I love and worship the kindest lady
del mon, so’us dic en apert.         In the world: I say this openly.

Facsimile of the Chansonnier Cordiforme, original dates to c. 1470s, Stanford University Music Library

Facsimile of the Chansonnier Cordiforme, Stanford University Music Library, original dates to c. 1470s.

Fin’Amor is a love refined by alchemy where words are put to music to form an organic whole that touches both heart and mind simultaneously: it is the perfect love of a lover for his lady, who represents the feminine ideal. This love could also be erotic and encompass carnal desire.

Women in the Middle Ages. Considering the fact that Odilo of Cluny (862-1048) was made a saint after writing “Feminine grace is nothing but blood, humors and bile. . . the very sack of excrement itself,” clearly the status of women in most parts of Europe was not high. Occitania was a far more enlightened society where a woman had the right of inheritance, the right to an education, and even the right to govern her own lands.

Female troubadours were called trobairitz. The most famous, Beatritz, Countess of Dia, wrote a passionate song to her lover. The group Hespèrion XX, including Jordi Savall and his wife the magnificent Catalan singer Montserrat Figueras, perform “Estat ai en greu cossirier” on the second track of Cansons de Trobairitz.

What was the importance of the troubadours? They invented the concept of modern romantic love. A beautiful example is “Can vei la lauzeta mover” by Bernart de Ventadorn.

Bogin, Meg. The Women Troubadours. New York and London: Norton paperback, 1980.

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Paterson, Linda. The World of the Troubadours: Medieval Occitan Society c. 1100-c.1250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rai d'Honoré

Rai d'Honoré, Ph.D. is a faculty member of East Carolina University's medieval and renaissance studies program. She recently recorded a CD, Pretz e Paratge: A Troubadour’s Song of Love, War and Transformation. Find out more about Rai d'Honoré.

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