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Recent Reads: Troubadour Verse Edition

Though I was inspired to return to Provençal verse by a game—one run by the inimitable Jeremy Tolbert—I’ve been interested in Occitan culture and literature for a long time. Honestly, it was kind of dumb luck, because reading Pound had reawakened in my a craving to return to old Occitanian song and verse, and when I realized I hadn’t read any a decade or so, I decided to get my hands on some. Fortunately for my bank account, a request for a branch loan at school worked out and I got both of the books I asked for: Meg Bogin’s collection of translations of work by trobaritz (female troubadours), and Robert Kehew’s well-reviewed general anthology of troubadour songs. This means that I’ve been reading the books discussed below over a period of a few months—I started in on the former in late 2018, in fact.  

But first, some listening for this post. My favorite CD of troubadour music is definitely the one by the Clemencic Consort. I still remember buying it, brand new, from an HMV Music store in Montreal years ago as part of a double-CD set, with the other disc containing the (equally fascinating) northern Spanish Cantigas de Santa Maria… and if the point of packaging the pair of discs together was to drive home the point that the Occitanians shared as much (linguistically and musically) in common with their neighbors south of the Pyrenees as they did with the northern French, it was an excellent decision.

That said, I think that there’s also some benefit to be gotten from listening to this second video—especially the first track, which absolutely sounds like something Spanish, and with clearly unmistakeable Moorish influence.

My reason for highlighting that will be clearer in my comments to the first book.

The Woman Troubadours by Meg Bogin

This book is valuable not only because of the translations it includes, and for the insight into what made the trobaritz (the female troubadours of Occitania) different, and indeed possible in a Europe where female poets were otherwise uncommon to the point of being essentially unheard of; the other value is Bogin’s overview of Occitanian culture. She mentions the “Cathar heresy” briefly, but perhaps because this book was first published in 1980, Bogin doesn’t really the tackle the evident chicken-and-egg question of where the greater inclusion of women began, which we can see in the poetry and the religious movement, as well as in the laws of the region at that time.  

That said, the overview is fascinating. One tantalizing detail I’d not seen mentioned anywhere else in my readings about Occitania, chosen at random: the courts of Languedoc tended, by the time of the troubadours, to have a contingent of Moorish singers as part of their official retinue.

It’s not that I was unaware of the Islamic influence on Medieval Western European culture: hell, one of my favorite books is Lovesickness in the Middle Ages by Mary Frances Wack, which explores how a passage in a North African book of travel medicine reintroduced the ancient Greco-Roman idea of lovesickness into European culture and launched a familiar set of literary tropes, as well as a bizarre subdomain of European psychological medicine. But there’s always been something in the surviving melodies of the troubadours, and in the instrumentation used to perform them today, that has struck me as… well, vaguely “oriental” in the traditional sense, that is, having some features of the music of the Near East.

I’d long wondered whether this was historical inaccuracy, or perhaps an affectation of modern performers, though I know the bigger names (Clemencic and Binchois, above) take performance practice of the time seriously. I also wondered whether it perhaps had to do with the prolonged cultural exposure of the Crusades, though it didn’t seem likely to me that much would have been transmitted back to Western Europe in terms of melodies from the Holy Land. But with Moorish singers in Occitanian courts, well… transmission becomes much more immediate: the troubadours heard these singers, presumably singing their exotic-sounding melodies, firsthand! Even so, the question of how much influence their lyric tradition had on the Occitanian one is apparently considered rather fraught

This is, of course, something mentioned only briefly in Bogin’s book, as part of a more thorough overview of the culture and setting in which the trobairitz—the female troubadours—operated. Still, it should give you some indication as to the richness of the historical background she provides, while trying to answer the question why Occitania was so unusual in its flowering of songwriting women, compared to its neighboring cultures. (It seems to come down to a combination of local customary laws, oddities of culture, perhaps the heretical faith that existed in the region, and the privileges that pretty much all trobairitz enjoyed as noblewomen.)

In any case, Bogin’s introductory essay is almost 80 pages, and definitely not to be skipped. But the poems were what I came looking for, and I wasn’t disappointed by them, though I was surprised. As Bogin notes, the things that the troubadours were famous for—intricate (if also fundamentally misogynistic) woman-worship, and the treatment of fin’ amors (courtly love) as some kind of metaphor for spiritual transcendence—are not mirrored in the songs of the trobairitz: the women troubadours seemed to eschew the extravagancies of their male peers, to exult in love itself rather than in love-as-metaphor, and neither to worship men, nor to desire to be worshipped by them.

Whenever I read work this old, it’s always a bit humbling: many of the troubadours and trobairitz lived and worked in a world that was overwhelmingly oral, a world where songs were composed the way many songs in popular music still are today—without a pen and paper involved in the process. The challenges of thwarting mouvance—the natural, inevitable shifts and alterations that text undergo when transmitted orally—or the grace to accept and invite it of others, means that what survives today may not be quite what the composer intended or created… but some impetus of that original creation survives, almost a thousand years later, preserved like ancient flowers pressed between pages and somehow kept from falling apart over the centuries.

As for the verse itself: Bogin makes an argument that the women troubadours’ work is an instance of resistance to the work of their male contemporaries. That is, she argues that its comparative straightforwardness and relatively prosaic approach is purposive, rather than just a symptom of different circumstances under which the trobairitz labored. I’m willing to buy that, though I’d be more convinced if she’d put some effort into demonstrating that. I don’t know enough about medieval verse across Europe to know how to take her claim that the trobairitz were unique in expressing an authentic, particularized first-person voice. (She argues that the first-person voice employed by the male troubadours was only nominally first person, not conceived of as an expression of the “self” so much as an expression of the male collective, and while that’s probably true for a lot of it, I would have to be convinced that it’s universally true of male troubadours’ verse: Can vei la lauzeta mover, for example, feels pretty particularized-first-person to me, albeit probably employing a fictionalized first-person. So maybe what Bogin’s really talking about is the advent of creative nonfiction—the beginnings of creative, literary life-writing, of autobiographical verse? Not that I want to assume the trobairitz never used fictionalized personae, or assume “authenticity” where perhaps there is fiction, but… well, anyway, whatever interpretation we follow, it’s obvious that the trobairitz were working in a form connected to, but distinct from, that of the male troubadours.      

One thing that I appreciated was the “Biographies” that close the book. Following the tradition of the “Vidas” and “Razos” of the troubadours—life-stories composed years after the poets’ deaths—it’s hard to know what’s authentic and what isn’t. Bogin spent many, many hours in research, looking at “charters, deeds, wills, and insurance policies” to glean individual facts about the women she discusses, and compares these facts to the biographies composed about these women after the fact. Definitely worth a look. 

As for the poems themselves, I’ll say this: the trobairitz were skilled both at “banter” and “burns”—things we like to pretend were invented in our time. Their culture was alien to ours today, but their concerns were evergreen, and that makes for a fascinating tension. Take this unusual tenson—a kind of “dialogue” verse—that Bogin titles after the three women involved in the exchange, “Alais, Iselda, and Carenza”:

Lady Carenza of the lovely, gracious body
give some advice to us two sisters,
and since you know best how to tell what’s best,
counsel me according to your experience:
shall I marry someone we both know?
or shall I stay unwed ? that would please me,
for making babies doesn’t seem so good,
and it’s too anguishing to be a wife.

Lady Carenza, I’d like to have a husband,
but making babies is a huge penitence:
your breasts hang way down
and it’s too anguishing to be a wife.

Lady Alais and Lady Iselda,
you have learning, merit, beauty, youth, fresh
colour, courtly manners and distinction
more than all the other women I know;
I therefore advise you, if you want to plant good seed,
to take as a husband Coronat de Scienza,
from whom you shall bear as fruit glorious sons:
saved is the chastity of her who marries him.

Lady Alais and Lady Iselda, may memory
of me shine as your protection:
and when you get there, pray the King of Glory
that when I leave he place me by your side.

We’ve all heard 21st century women express the same misgivings about having kids—right down to complaints about the long-term effects on one’s body, and what a pain it is to make babies, both figuratively (parenthood was no easier then than now, and cramped a lady’s style even with plenty of help) and literally (because all childbirth was “natural” in this era, and death in childbirth was not terribly unusual). Hell, even the idea of foregoing marriage because having kids doesn’t appeal is something we run into in the 21st century, in more conservative places where procreation is a default expected part of (or, even, purpose of) marriage. I have heard countless young South Koreans, especially women, predicate their rejection of the idea of marriage on their disinclination to have children, and I’ve heard at least a few North American women say the same. 

But there’s also some truly alien stuff: if Alais and Iseult’s question could (character length aside) be ripped straight from Twitter, Lady Carenza’s solution is both alien and somewhat mysterious. Coronat de Scienza, after all, means “Crowned with Knowledge,” and as Bogin points out, it’s probably a reference to Jesus. In other words, this sounds like a married woman telling two unmarried, younger women to seek refuge in a religious role rather than marry as they were conventionally expected to do. This is echoed, later on, by things written and reportedly said by other religious women in other periods of the Middle Ages—Julian of Norwich, Margery of Kempe, and Christine da Pizan all come to mind. Funny thing, for a world where church doesn’t necessarily provide such a refuge… though I’ve heard foreign women here in Korea say that they’ve met female Buddhist monks here who explicitly told them the monastery was a refuge from the obligation of marriage and childbirth, so… maybe not so alien to the 21st century, then?

Even more mysterious, Bogin speculates about whether Coronat de Scienza might be a some sort of half-veiled reference to (or in-group title for) Jesus as used by the followers of the Cathar “heresy” (more about which I’ve written here). That makes sense, given the Gnostic undercurrent of a lot of Cathar beliefs” “Crowned With Knowledge” is about as Gnostic a name for Jesus as one could devise, really. Then there’s the stuff at the end: why does Lady Carenza imply she will die after these younger women? If the King of Glory is God, why will they be visiting him, rather than just hunkering down in roles as (celibate) Cathar Perfecti? Was there, in the time when this poem was composed, already some mortal risk to Cathars? Or is it just euphemism, likening life in the arms of the church to the afterlife in heaven? 

Whatever the case, it’s easy to relate to these women, easy to imagine them composing these works and even singing them, but that tension is what makes the poems fascinating. Look closely enough, and you see someone you know… at least, as she might have been had she lived in Medieval Occitania. 


Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours (A Bilingual Edition), edited by Robert Kehew, translated by Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass & Robert Kehew

This was a book I obtained through a branch loan from the library where I work.1

It’s a nice-looking book and it doesn’t hurt that, though I’ve never heard of Kehew, I do like Pound’s work (even as tendentious as it sometimes can be, especially when he’s translating) and Snodgrass is a familiar name, as well as someone whose musical training seems to have come into play in his translations (as Kehew notes in his introduction). That said, I wish the library system I’m dealing with had a copy of Paul Blackburn’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Verse (edited by George Economou), as I think that (at the very least) the contrast would be interesting, and because I’m slightly  dubious about some of the translations. 

Still, that’s not to complain: Lark in the Morning is an interesting read. The big surprise for me was how modern some of the lyrics feel. Consider Raimbaut d’Aurenga, during his lifetime the so-called “Master of Troubadours.” His “Escotatz, mas no say que s’es”—a song title that contains the name he ultimately gives the song form, no-say-que-s’es, or what I’d translate as the “whatchamacallit”gets compared to a talking blues, because it has a verse of metered rhyme, followed by this weird tailpiece of “talky” prose at end the of each verse, like this (the second verse, as translated by W. D. Snodgrass):

Sitot m’o tenetz a foles
Per tan no•m poira layssar
Que ieu mon talan non disses:
No m’en cujes hom castiar;
Tot cant es non pres un pojes
Vas so c’ades vey et esgar,
E dir vos ay per que. Car si ieu vos o  avia mogut, e no•us o trazia a cap, tenriatz m’en per fol. Car mais amaria seis deniers en mon punh que mil sols el cel.
You’ll try to tell me I’m insane
But that won’t make me break my vow
To speak my feelings clear and plain. 
Don’t blame me if I can’t see how
This wide world could be worth one grain
Compared to things I see right now.
I’ll tell you why, too: if I started this thing and couldn’t bring it off, you’d think I’m an idiot. I’d rather have six cents in hand than a thousand suns in the sky. 

I mean, that last line feels absolutely modern, even if you are reading the Occitan original, and note that the name of the currency deniers (the “cents” in the Snodgrass translation) are etymologically linked to the ancient currency of the “denari.” I mean, “a thousand suns in the sky”? 

That’s not the only verse by d’Aurenga that seized my attention, either: “Er resplan la flors enversa” (“Splendid Are the Flowers Reversed,” translated by Kehew himself) has a fascinating song form a bit like a proto-sestina, except each verse has 8 lines, and the formulaic end-words of each line don’t rotate but rather remain consistent throughout. (In other words, the first line of each verse ends with “enversa” (“reversed”), the second line of each verse ends with “tertres” (“hills”), and so on. Here’s a chunk that really got my attention as I read it, starting with the end of the second stanza and proceeding throughout the third:

Aissi•m suy ferms lassatz en joy
Que re no vey que•m sia croy.

Mas una gen fada enversa, 
Cum s’eron noirit en tertres,
Que•m fan pro piegz que conglapis
Qu’us quecx ab sa lengua trenca
E•n parla bas et ab siscles; 
E no y val bastos ni giscles
Ni menassas, ans lur es joys, 
Quan fan so don hom los clam croys. 

So firmly am I bound to glad-
ness, no one seems to me that bad… 

. . . Save for those foolish folk reversed
Who act like they were raised in hills.
They do more harm than any hoarfrost
When with their sharp tongues they cut:
Murmuring words, sibiliant chips—
Against these neither rod nor stick
Avail—nor threat—it makes them glad
To do what men consider bad. 

The translation is, of course, necessary if you don’t speak Occitan, but just pause and go back and read the last line of the Occitan original:

“Quan fan so don hom los clam croys.” 

That line alone boggles my mind: do you hear it, the way he sets up a kind of forward propelling rhythm by the repeating vowels, by the almost sculptural shift of the shape of your mouth’s position as you (reading it aloud) work your way through the line, from a sustained “ah” of “Quan fan” through “don” to “hom” to “los” to “cram”, and then the little surprise at the end, where he half-alliterates “cram” with “cloys”? This is spectacular stuff… if you pause to read the Occitan version aloud, anyway. 

So, ultimately, this book drove home something I’d already known since first encountering Bernart da Ventadorn’s “Can vei la lauzeta mover” as a music undergraduate: that the Occitan lyrics are a massively important part of why this verse matters, why these songs deserve a place in our cultural memory. 

Other highlights included, of course, Bernart da Ventadorn (I’m a longtime fan of one or two of his songs), as well as:

Toward the end of the book, the samplings of work got much shorter, often including only one lyric per figure, which left me wanting more, because especially Peire Cardenal’s and Sordel’s verses—especially the sirventes or “protest songs”—were so fascinating:

Having finished the book, I now want to get my hands on the New York Review of Books reprint of Paul Blackburn’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, to see how a contemporary of Pound did with Provencal verse. (By all the accounts I’ve read, Blackburn’s reading and treatment of this material was infinitely more natural and musical than Pound’s.) 

Also, this song is the subject of a really great post exploring the difficulties of resurrecting troubadour melodic rhythm from historical manuscripts


  1. I finally figured out why I couldn’t get a book set to my campus: there’s a whole different library website for our campus if you want to do stuff like that, but it’s not advertised anywhere else, and otherwise the other campus’ library website is fully functional. I didn’t even know the second website existed. Go figure.

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