Provencal is the loving tongue.Some aspects of the scene may seem vaguely familiar; scores of long haired young men roaming the country with stringed instruments under their arms, singing songs against authority and proclaiming liberty in its many facets. Urbane, immensely influential songs that catapult some of their authors into the ranks of the rich and famous. But,…the time is the twelfth century, the place is southern France, and the young men in question are known as troubadors, which is to say ”composers”, since the verb ”trobar”, which means to find or invent, covers all manner of poetic and musical invention.

''Musicians with their instruments. Miniature from a song book of the 13th century.''

''Musicians with their instruments. Miniature from a song book of the 13th century.''

If the word troubador has a faintly off putting sound to the twenty-first century ear, that is because it was so heavily abused previously; somehow it is hard to rid ourselves of the tedious image of the fat tenore ”trovatore” in tights and tassels, inditing love songs to a lute while a chaste lady listens at a tower window. Nothing could be further from the true troubadors, who were more like Radio Head and U2 than grand opera in their methods of operation and their way of looking at the world. Singing of love, sex and politics they were the underground press of their day, and the overground press, too, since there was no other way of disseminating news.

thirteenth-century French manuscript

thirteenth-century French manuscript

On the literary landscape they appear like crocuses in the snow after the long hard winter of the Middle Ages; if the troubadors are here can Dante and the Renaissance be far behind? They come, too,as apostles of an epicurian style of love that brings new depth and balance to the relationship between the sexes. Sometimes, by writers like C.S. Lewis, they are given credit for having invented romantic love, though that seems to be stretching the point. What they did discover, certainly, is the idea of love as an art to be cultivated , and intensified by, among other things, music and poetry, just as bearnaise sauce prolongs and inrensifies one’s perception of a filet mignon.

The philosophers of classical antiquity had maintained that love is a sort of madness to be got over as quickly as possible, the higher forms of it, in any case, being reserved for men only. The fathers of the Christian church equated physical love with mortal sin and indicted women as the great corrupter. It was the troubadours of Mediterranean France who first introduced an air of elegance, into the rather brutish mating habits of the Middle Ages. They made love a condition of civilization, and vice-versa.troubadour3Above image created by Cait Webb from the following web site: http://gaita.co.uk/cd.html

Along with their southern neighbors, the sensualist love poets of Moorish Spain, they came to see women not as ”the gate of hell” but as the great provider of pleasure and inspiration. Since the things they had to say were too intimate, too passionate, to be expressed in Monkish Latin, they became the first poets in history to create a literature in a modern European language, and thus, almost incidental to their sexual revolution, they launched the great women centered lyrical tradition that still dominates our poetry. Their language was that form of medieval romance late known as Provencal, though it extended far beyond the boundaries of present day Provence. In its halycon days it was spoken in fully a third of the territory comprising modern France; its influence extended north as far as Britain and south as far as Sicily, Majorca and Spain, for next to Arabic it was the literary language par excellence.troubadour4

Provencal is not a dialect but an independent language, supple in its vowels and yet hard edged in its consonants. Its lithe, melodic lilt is both stronger and more fervent than the French. Maurice Valency, a Columbia professor who wrote a book on the psychology of the troubadours, ” In Praise of Love”, was fascinated by the unity of sound and idea in their poetry. ” When the mood is smooth , the verse is smooth; grief, anger, despair are matched with corresponding sounds, rough, sharp, grave,dark, shrill. In the instrumentation of the mood, every sort of rhetorical device was pressed into service; internal rhymes, displaced rhymes, broken stanzas, puns and alliterative tricks, sound-effects of all sorts, sometimes amazing in their virtuosity, sometimes annoying, but seldom boring.”

Ezra Pound was a big admirer of the troubadours; perhaps the only one who came within hailing distance of rendering into English the snap-crackle-pop of Provencal, and even in his most successful efforts, he could conjure up only a shadow of the original; its sonic luxuriance that could only be unlocked by almost insurmountable problems of translation.



”Ezra Pound, often hailed as the father of modernism in American poetry, made his acquaintance with the troubadours as a teenager around 1900, and this encounter had an enduring impact on his output. As a precocious undergraduate at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, he majored in romance philology under the tutelage of the Germa

ained William Shepard. Although not destined for the dry duties of the philological calling, Pound the poet nevertheless made the art de trobar his own, translating many of poems of the troubadours and weaving the Southern songmakers into his own works, such as the evocation of Sordel in the opening of the second of the Cantos. His predilection for the troubadours is best remembered from his Spirit of Romance (1910).”

The greatest of the Provencal love poets was Bernart de Ventadorn, who appears above.

The greatest of the Provencal love poets was Bernart de Ventadorn, who appears above.

Pound loved the troubadours for their fireworks and recklessness; they are great takers of chances, verbal or otherwise, and like himself were totally committed to a life of provocation.Their pursuit of fine love, ”fin amour” is an elusive concept that has provoked a lot of rather unloving scholarly arguments. It entails a mixture of practical sex and poetic aspiration that bears little resemblance, at any rate, to medieval chivalry as we know it.  The gist of it, in fact, is usually ”silh platz, m’en lais jauzir”, which freely translated means ”please let me jazz her”, or let me have joy of her.

The message of love is usually expressed as a declaration of intent and anticipation not unlike the Beatle song, ”I want to Hold Your Hand”.  Count Guilhem of Poitiers , who reigned from about 1086 to 1127 and ranks as the first of the troubadours , expresses the hope that God will let him ‘, live long enough to have my hands beneath her cloak”, and he boasted in verse that he can make love eighty-eight times in a week. As a matter of good form, the troubadour usually addressed his love songs to another man’s wife, and the husband was supposed to regard this as an honor to his house. Unmarried women were out of it altogether, and no one sang of love to his own wife. It was taken for granted that marriages were contracted for practical reasons, such as real estate mergers, and one had best look for love outside the home, preferably at the feet of some high spirited and well connected lady with a taste for poetry, like Eleanor of Aquitaine.

If, as in Eleanors, the lady herself was skilled at composition, she could reply in kind with cansos of her own.  Beatrice,  Countess od Die, the most gifted poetess of the epoch, wrote her love songs not, of course, for her husband but it is said, for the troubadour knight Raimbault d’Orange.

”How I would like to hold him/ one night in my naked arms/and see him joyfully use my body/as a pillow…/My handsome friend, gracious and charming,/when will I hold you in my power?/Oh that I might lie with you/one night and kiss you lovingly!”

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