• B F Gypsy Scholar

Troubadour Music and Biographies


Introduction: The Vida and Razo


The vidas and razos are commonly referred to jointly as the “biographies of the troubadours.” (A vida was a short Occitan biography and razo was a short Occitan commentary on specific poems.) They are important for two reasons; first, they constitute the richest surviving source of information about the Old Occitan (or Old Provençal) poets; and second, they represent the largest body of prose literature in this lyric-dominated tradition.


The power of the vidas and razos determined a troubadour’s reputation. This was less because of what these troubadours have said about themselves in their verses than because of what the biographer has recounted about in the vidas. It is common to distinguish between two different types of biography: the vida and the razo. The vida is a brief account, rarely more than a few sentences long, typically explaining who the troubadour was, whence he came, where he came from (what provenance), what his status was, what he was like, whom he loved, what kinds of poems he wrote, and where he died. This information is often conveyed by the use of certain formulas that are the hallmark of the genre. Vidas survive for approximately a hundred troubadours. The razo, in contrast, is a little story in prose that attempts to explain a particular troubadour came to compose a specific song and tends to be somewhat longer than a vida. The most common plot deals with a lovers’ quarrel, but there are other subjects. While showing somewhat more freedom than the vidas in their choice of expression, the razos also use various formulas. Fewer than twenty-five troubadours have razo written about them, but a number of these poets inspired more than one such story. Both vidas and razos function as introductions to poems, the former leading into a whole set of songs, the latter into a specific one.


In order to adequately elucidate the nature of the vidas and the razos, the following information is necessary, as there can be some confusion for the layman as to definitions here.


A razo in a troubadour text is not only harder to pin down than a vida but can also be conflated with a vida. A razo (from the Latin ratio or ratione: reason) is generally defined as a “prose introduction” to the poet and poem, but it also could be an anecdote to a poem or a theme of a poem. However, within the larger field of “prose introductions,” there exist two distinct genres, known today as the vidas and the razos (though in the manuscripts both are referred to as razos). (Again, the vidas are principally biographical texts that present a stylized view of an individual author’s career rather than an explanation of any one of his works. The earliest chansonniers, the mid-to-late-thirteenth century Italian manuscripts, are also those that contain the largest number of vidas, numbering eighty-five. Both genres probably existed in some oral form well before that time and critics agree that they may have been gathered and reworked, or even some cases composed on the spot, as early as the 1220s.) The most generalized and reductive definition, the one which came in time to define a literary genre, is this: “introduction, explanation, reasoned commentary, subject matter, background, gloss.” Thus, razos must be seen simultaneously explaining and supplementing the poetic texts (even to the point of providing them with subject matter that is not necessarily present in the original text). Then, to this supplementary gloss is added the intimation of a specific rhetorical task with a clear ideological bent: to defend the song, justify it, provide it with “reason,” and make it comprehensible. Therefore, rhetorically, a “razo” in the original text can be defined as meaning “pretext” or “reason” (i.e., “justification”), as well as being a reference to the prose text itself. The razos, to the extent that they follow any sort of pattern, tend to incorporate some of the following information and stylistic details: a reference to a prior vida, a story-line (beginning with the words: “And so it happened that one day…”), a phrase connecting that story with the song that follows (“And for that reason he composed…”), a citation of between a line and several stanzas from, and a closing formula of the type (“And here you will hear, or find written, the song which you will now hear or read”). Furthermore, some of the texts that are considered vidas by virtue of their adherence to rhetorical patterns outlined above could, however, be considered razos in that they cite lines from specific poetic compositions. Others consist of one single text which contains elements of one genre within the other. Such cases usually involve a razo has been included within the frame of a vida and which can easily be excerpted to function as an independent text.

The Music of the Troubadours


Out of about 460 named troubadours (including trobairitz, the women poet-composers) whose poems survive, the music of only 42 are extant. They include most of the poet-composers whose work is considered significant today.


The thirteenth-century troubadour manuscripts are among the earliest known collections of lyric poetry in a European vernacular and the first in Occitan to treat secular rather than religious works. There are forty chansonniers (medieval songbooks) extant. (About forty manuscripts and fragments transmit Occitanian literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including didactic, epistolary, and epic texts, and over 2,500 lyric poems, most of them in more than one reading. Only two of these manuscripts transmit music. More than half of the surviving manuscripts were produced not in Occitania, but in Italy. The earliest of them are dated from 1254 to 1300.) The chansonniers that transmit the songs are of widely diverse origins. Some are from the south in Languedoc and Provence, some from northern France, some from Catalonia (part of the Kingdom of Aragon in northeastern Iberian Peninsula), and many from Italy. All the manuscripts are relatively late (mid- to late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries), and the contents of each of them span many decades regions; their scribes inevitably reflected aesthetics and practices of eras and places. Only four of the major sources transmit music, and only one of these was produced in Occitania. Moreover, only one manuscript from the time of the early troubadours contains songs in Old Occitan: from Saint Martial of Limoges, part of which can be dated c. 1100. In the oldest section of this manuscript, among Latin songs called versus, are three religious songs in Occitan, or Occitan and Latin, all with music. In contrast, the first chansonniers containing troubadour songs date from the mid thirteenth century—from a time when troubadour song in its classic formulations was drawing to a close. This poses a problem frequently noted: the gap between the creation of troubadour songs and their preservation in writing. It is not known how the songs crossed this gap. Troubadour songs were usually monophonic. Most were composed by the troubadours themselves. Other troubadours set their poems to pre-existing pieces music. As compared to trouvères (northern troubadours writing in Old French) manuscripts, troubadour chansonniers preserve relatively few melodies. While most trouvère manuscripts contain melodies, only two troubadour manuscripts have music, and then not systematically throughout. Fortunately, two trouvère codices have troubadour music. From around around 450 identifiable troubadours, about 10 percent of troubadour poems survive with melodies, roughly about 250 melodies for some 2,500 texts, largely preserved in songbooks (chansonniers) made for wealthy patrons. (Estimates vary on the exact number, with some sources counting 2,600 poems or fragments of poems surviving.) These features intensify the usual problems of manuscript ability and attribution.


The troubadours were virtuosic versifiers. The chief elements of versification are meter (defined for this repertory as number of syllables per line) and rhyme. Although these elements may seem conventional to us, possibilities of combination and recombination served as a powerful stimulus to troubadour invention of new patterns of verbal sound. Moreover, it is useful to historicize versification, to realize that practices we tend to consider stable developed over time.


Troubadour song brings music and poetry together. As song lives in the act of singing, this brings up our of the knottiest issues in performance for scholars. Owing to the ambiguity of the medieval musical notation, no modern theory of troubadour music definitively account for rhythm nor for the use of instruments in troubadour performance. (Most of the time, but not always, the troubadour wrote the songs and they were performed by a class of minstrel known as a joglar, or jongleur.)


Before the terms come into use, a central division between the love song (canto) and the social comment song (sirventes) takes shape, and troubadours tended to specialize in one type or the other. In form the canso had to have a rhyme and/or metrical scheme different from all other poems that had preceded it; in content was concerned with the many twists and turns of courtly love. Its form was therefore continually varied and its content conventional and stereotyped. Among the earlier troubadours this type of poem seems to have called a vers (Old French for Latin versus: “a verse or a lyric in poetry;” “a line of verse or an early type of lyric composition that is said to have been replaced by the canso”), because in the very early days of the troubadours there was no such thing as a canso, for any poem set to music was called a vers. In form the sirventes had to copy the rhyme and metrical scheme of some pre-existing canso; in content it could take up any topic but courtly love—war, politics, morality, satire, humor, invective. It was therefore the exact opposite of the canso; its form was conventional and its content varied. Between these two forms, canso and sirventes, one can account for the vast majority of troubadour verse. The remaining forms have a more peripheral interest.


Again, the content of the canso was conventional. It was only concerned with courtly love—the poet complains of his lady’s harshness, pleads for mercy, rejoices in expectation of the pleasure he will receive, etc. And to express himself, he uses many of the conventional terms of courtly love: joi (joy, pleasure, and more specifically that found in love), joven (youth, or the qualities of youth essential to courtly love), pretz (worth, merit, distinction), and, on the other side of the ledger, gilos (the jealous husband, the villain of the piece). However, the content of the sirventes was unconventional. It was with the sirventes that the troubadours could express social commentary, show their anger, stir up trouble (it was often used as an instrument of propaganda), or make their audiences laugh through their satire. Because its form was conventional and its content free, it was therefore the sirventes that brought to Provençal literature its rich variety of subject matter, from high moral courage to backroom humor.


The troubadours were engaged in a very pragmatic occupation; that of producing songs for an audience. But while they were not theoreticians, they were learned and familiar with many of the texts of their contemporaries and predecessors, and often with a wide range of literature, including epic narratives and Classical Latin works. Even if an individual troubadour did not study poetics systematically, much of the poetry appears to have been shaped at least indirectly by the late medieval arts of poetry and prose, whose roots lay in the classical disciplines of grammar and rhetoric developed during the first centuries BCE and CE.


As far as how troubadours composed (their art de trobar, or “art of composition”) experts in the field tell us that they almost certainly did not learn their craft by studying these pedagogical tracts; they were more likely to have learned by hearing, memorizing, perhaps reading, and imitating poetry—the ancient ones, as well as more recent Latin hymns and versus. (And probably from other established troubadours). It is conceivable that some chansonniers were intended as pedagogical aids, repositories of exempt a for instruction in the Occitanian art de trobar, not only for the patrons and amateurs who would never excel beyond an elementary level of composing but perhaps also for some (late) troubadours.


As far as how the troubadours saw words and music, the question for the experts has been whether these were equal partners when they composed their songs. Given the common practice of sharing melodies among poems, as well as the presence of phrase repetition within a song and the reuse of the melody for several stanzas, we are told that it is obvious that the words of a particular text and the notes of a particular melody were not inextricably and exclusively linked. However, in a larger sense, the troubadours seemed to see their task as forging a song out of words and music (motz e son) in a formula commonly found in the poems. This indicates that both the lyrics and the music had equal value in composing a song. There are many troubadour texts that describe the words and the melody in terms that place them on a par, and also declare that the performance itself—the singing, the learning, and the hearing—is critical to an appreciation of the song. Together the words and the melody convey the song’s theme, its razo. Thus the troubadours imagined their texts and melodies as cohesive parts of a whole, and they understood the peculiar capacity of each to convey what they intended. They also imply that the troubadours assumed that the fullest realization of a song could come about only through performance. As the troubadour de Saint Circ describes it, the kind of song that pleases him most is one in which words and music fulfill their proper roles in expressing a razo (theme).


The structure, style, and delivery of both text and melody were governed to some degree by the song’s subject matter. Several genres were associated with a particular broad subject (materia), including the love song (canso), dawn song (alba), lament (planh), moral or socio-political commentary (sirventes), debate (tenso), and pastoral scene (pastorela). However, within a genre the subject matter could vary widely. During the process by which the words and notes actually took shape and style, the troubadour to some extent had to deal with poem and music separately, since each followed different rules. But even though poetic and musical style and structure were devised according to the tools particular to each art, they have interacted to some degree because the troubadours composed with the delivery of a song very much in mind. For the troubadours there was no sharp dividing line separating the mental conceptualization and the actualization of a song. Although it is difficult to say to what extent the troubadour was conscious of following any particular steps while composing, what does seem certain is that while melody and poem were separate in following their own rules, two elements must be understood as equal parts of a whole, and that to understand fully a troubadour’s melody we must examine its pitches, its structure, and its style along with the words and style of its text, and both within the context of the song’s performance.


Concerning the poetry and language of the troubadours—the art de trobar—several treatises were written in the langue d’oc (Occitan Romance language) during the late twelfth through the mid-fourteenth centuries, all modeled to some degree on classical and medieval Latin grammar, rhetoric, and poetics. Most of them were written by and for Catalan patrons, amateurs, and beginners in the art of poetry, not for native speakers of the langue d’oc or for professional composers. One of the most influential was Raimon Vidal’s Las Razos de trobar (Catalonia, c.1190 - 1213). Raimon follows the tradition in rhetoric and grammar of encouraging the emulation of great poets, quoting from troubadours, such as Bernart de Ventadorn, Guiraut de Bornelh, Arnaut de Maruelh, Bertran de Born, Peire Vidal, and etc. Several decades later, after the “classical” period of the troubadours past, two more Catalan treatises appeared, one definitely by Jofre de Foixa, the Regies de trobar (c. 1286-91), and the other probably by Jofre, the Doctrina de compondre dictats. Jofre relied somewhat on Raimon Vidal’s treatise in producing elementary Occitan grammar for his lay Catalan audience. The Doctrina de compondre dictats is a short exposition on the versification and subject matter of the different genres of troubadour poetry; it is the earliest thorough description of these poetic genres and represents a crystallization that was not as strict in the earlier period. It also mentions the poems melodies, relating them to the song’s theme, structure, function, or performance. It echoes Raimon’s comments about the unity of a song’s theme and further implies that the razo (or rayso) is important in the concept of genre. The theorist, Jofre, differentiates among some genres according to their razos (e.g., love or grief) or their functions (e.g., debate), but he mentions other details that help elucidate the way music played a role. He also alludes to the musical style and structure of the music suited to the various genres, which seem tied to the poem’s material or content.


The majority of extant troubadour songs are classified today as cansos, and the styles and contents of their melodies and texts cover a broad range, making generalizations impossible. This variety suggests that it is more than the general theme that helps determine the character of the melody, but perhaps something about the arrangement of the specific music materials. The melody of a canso, according to the Occitan theorists of troubadour song is supposed to be “as beautiful as possible,” musical qualities that reflect an aesthetic that is only dimly evident to us today. This Occitan theorizing suggests that this beauty in the melody is in keeping with the instructions that the poem should “speak pleasingly of love.” In general, what Occitanian theorists say on the subject of troubadour genre is within the prevailing rhetorical tradition. Although these poetic theorists gave little attention to music, their remarks and their treatment of song in general suggest that they were aware on some level of how critical music was to the essence of the songs. They certainly knew that the texts were sung; indeed their own acquaintance with particular songs may have been through the medium of music (as opposed to written texts). They seemed to assume that a “song” was words and music together, and that text and melody were in a certain sense both together, and that text and melody were in a certain sense both products of a common purpose. At the very least, the theorists knew that musical and textual structures must match numerically—verse and stanza lengths must coincide. Although they did not have the vocabulary to express it, one senses that these theorists knew that the melodies of the best songs were as much a feature of their essence as were the rhyme schemes and stanza structures, and that in some way the poet-composers conceived the poems and melodies together.


The melodies of the troubadours constitute one of the earliest repertoires of vernacular music to be preserved, and in terms of qualify it is one of the most significant. Some 315 discrete musical settings for poems survive. There is no preceding body of comparable music that anticipates the sudden, appearance of so large a corpus. The survival of these songs with their music is astounding in view of the fact that the extant chansonniers all were produced after the terrible devastation of the Albigensian Crusade and during a period of great social and political unrest punctuated by repeated inquisitions. How the poetry and music of such an oppressed culture survived, thrived, and found their way to scriptoria is evidence of the vitality of and widespread acclaim for the works. Although few concordant readings of these melodies have reached us (only 51 of the 246 poems have more than one melodic reading), the paucity of multiple readings can be seen as a clue to the nature of the repertoire itself.


By the early thirteenth century the center of new musical developments had taken root in Paris and its environs. But the music of the troubadours appears to have had little direct connection with these northern innovations, especially those in polyphonic sacred music. Although many practitioners of the art de trobar (“art of composition”) had ecclesiastical ties, they created their songs within traditions quite different from the liturgical and theoretical ones that gave rise and justification to the new musical practices in the Church. Radically different states of survival of the troubadour and the trouvère melodies are a dear indication of differences between the northern and the southern repertoires. The northern political and economic climate was comparatively stable, making production and conservation of music manuscripts much easier. Something about the aesthetic in which the production of the songs of the trouvères was valued seems to have fostered their dissemination and preservation in form that ensured their stability; this aesthetic ultimately diverged rather significantly from the one in which the songs of the troubadours were created. Furthermore, the close relationship of trouvère music with emerging polyphony, which also helped ensure the preservation of many songs within that tradition, was not enjoyed by the troubadour melodies.

The language of the troubadour poems/songs was langue doc, often called Old Provençal but now more commonly referred to as Old Occitan. It was one of the Romance languages, a sister tongue to Old French (langue d’oïl), Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese. The langue d’oc as it appears in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts is not necessarily a simple, easily identifiable koine (common language). Linguistic studies of the last several decades have localized many dialects, ranging from Limousinin fluenced northern strains, to Catalan- and Gascon-tinged southern varieties, to Italianate southeastern dialects; these differences are even detectable in manuscripts, whose scribes’ own dialects colored the texts. The troubadours did not comprise a single national group but reflected the variety of this large and linguistically disparate area. But as koine, Old Occitan became the vehicle for the development of the earliest significant vernacular lyric poetry in Western Europe. Over 2,500 poems are extant, and they are extraordinarily diverse in content, structure, and style.


Contemporary musicologists see the melodies of the troubadours as autonomous entities: “They are in a sense mobile, most obviously in the existence of what’s known as contrafacta—different texts that use the same melody. But even internally they are mobile—one tune serves five, six, or more discrete stanzas of a poem. At the very least this suggests that specific notes are not wedded to specific words, and that the collections of pitches that constitute a melody are governed by cohering principles a purely musical nature. Thus, while a basic tenet here is the music of the troubadours cannot be fully understood apart from the poetry, and indeed that the poetry cannot be fully understood apart the music, some musicologists insist that their inseparability cannot necessarily recognized word by word and note by note, but rather through larger instructs of theme, structure, and style. The interaction between poetry and music is said to be most effective when the poem achieves excellence in disposition of its poetic materials, and when the melody achieves similar excellence in its disposition of musical materials. The poem is heard once during a performance, while the melody is repeated five or times, both together creating a multi-layered texture of meaning.”


Contemporary theorists describe the poetry of the troubadours, the art de trobar, in the context of the art of rhetoric, one of the language arts of the medieval trivium (the lower division of the seven liberal arts and comprises grammar, logic, and rhetoric), whose concern was to teach how to move an audience, by means of the most eloquent expression, to a specific response, such as joy, pathos, sympathy, or anger. In lyric poetry, different genres were developed to embody specific themes, such as love of a lady in the canso, lament over loss in the planh, satire or complaint in the sirventes, a love dialogue in a rural context in the pastorela, and philosophical dialogue in the tenso. Medieval theorists discussed how poets should craft their poems to express these themes, and they appear to have assumed that music worked along with the text to convey the message of the song.


The versification schemes of the troubadours’ poems were nearly as numerous as the songs themselves. The poets devised limitless ways of combining rhyme schemes, verse and stanza structures, and strophic interrelationships. The style of language, too, enjoyed great creativity. Some early troubadours, the most famous being Arnaut Daniel, composed very obscure poetry, known as either trobar clus (hermetic style), or trobar ric (articulate style), using esoteric rhymes, made-up words, and inscrutable imagery. Other troubadours, like Bernart de Ventadorn, excelled in writing clear but elegant poetry in the more accessible trobar leu (light style). Partly because of the great sophistication and wide stylistic variety among the poems of the troubadours, it has been easy to believe that in way or another the tunes were, if not inferior, at least subordinate to texts. This view was common until recently, when various authors suggested a more equitable view. The medieval monophony of the troubadour songs have demonstrated (a) the specific ways in which the melodies are more than just vehicles for their texts, revealing the autonomy both melody and text and (b) demonstrated how the texts and music interact, sometimes on the level of structure, sometimes of sense. Such new insights into the compositions of the troubadours go a long way toward according to the music greater respect. That said, it is still too often the case that such new was of understanding the music do not appreciate the integrity of a melody as melody, apart from its text.


However, there is still one big problem in the musicology of troubadour compositions. As with the poems, describing the style and structure of music of the troubadours in general terms is nearly impossible. Numerous melodies are through-composed. It is widely believed that many melodies adhere to some kind of ABABx—or even simpler, AAB—structure. A majority of trouvère melodies have this form, but fewer than half of extant troubadour melodies do, and even they exhibit astonishing variations of the structure, made even more numerous by differences among variant versions of the same tune. An analysis of the repetition schemes of the extant melodies, reveals that no two melodies among the 315 extant have precisely the same melodic form—even among supposed concordant readings of the melody. But structure encompasses more than simple repetition schemes. It can include the uses of phrase incipits and cadential figures, pitch goals the contour of phrases, and tonal centers. Poetic structure can interact in subtle and complex ways when articulated through these elements of musical structure. Even more variety emerges upon an examination of stylistic features in the music, such as range, texture (between notes and syllables), interval content, and motivic repetition and manipulation. Some melodies are quite free and unpredictable in their use of these elements, while others are marked by more regularity or simplicity.


Musicological discussions of transmission, style, structure, and interaction between the poetry and the music include one of the most controversial issues in the study of troubadour songs—those having to do with their performance. Musicologists of troubadour songs have been working to clarify some of the problems concerning rhythm, instrumental accompaniment, and the extent to which performers altered the melodies. As a result, a fuller appreciation has been given to the exigencies of the melodies’ transmission and of the ways in which the composers, singers, and scribes way they may have sounded. Performance, after all, is the actualization of the song itself, the final realization of an idea born in the imagination of the composer.

Troubadour Biographies


Many of the biographies probably originated with the jongleurs, who devised them to enliven their performance and to prepare their audience for the song or songs that were to come. It is surmised that it was common practice for a jongleur to recite a razo before he began to sing. (The joglar was was a performer of the songs of the troubadour. And those troubadours who could afford it traveled with one or more jongleurs who sang or recited their verses for them. Some troubadours were amateurs, while others made their sole living as composers. Some were better regarded as poets, some as musicians, as singers, some as composers. However, there is some confusion of terms here, as we often find known troubadours biographically described as “jongleur.” Evidently the functions of composer [trobador] and performer [joglar] were not sharply delineated, and both functions were important in medieval society. For instance, the division between “amateur” troubadours and lowly “professional” jongleurs is not clear-cut. The term “trobador” had a fairly specialized sense of a man who composed lyric poetry. “Joglar,” however, covered a vast range of performers, from minstrels to acrobats to jugglers. Yet, other artists, or lyricists, described as joglars were clearly poets in their own right. Thus, we can conclude that “joglar” was a general term for all kinds of entertainer, and it may be that it was used for individual troubadours when, for one reason or another, they were envisaged primarily as performers.) The wealth of geographical detail in the vidas strengthens the argument that it was traveling performers or jongleurs, who invented the oral version of the genre. In their written form, the vidas and razos occur in approximately twenty manuscripts, most of which were compiled in northern Italy. Five of these manuscripts date from the thirteenth century, and virtually all the rest of them from the fourteenth. The major source for the stories told in the vidas and razos is, of course, the troubadour poem.


Much information can be gleaned from historical allusions to places, persons and events in the literary works, and from the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century biographies and anecdotes (vidas and razos). These prose works were derived largely from details in poems, and they are not always reliable as histories, since their purpose, like that of the poems, was to entertain. But, while some of the biographical information presented by them has been found to be apocryphal, in many cases their testimony has proven to be valid. Thus, the value of the biographies lies not so much in their faithful reconstruction of history, though occasionally they provide that as well, but much more in their transformation of lyric experience into prose, through process that has aptly been described as “metaphor giving rise lo anecdote.”


The following list (for the purposes of the GS’ musical essays) consists in sixteen biographical sketches of major troubadours. (The total number of known troubadours and trobairitz whose poems survive is 460. Of this number, there are only 42 in which the music survives.) Scholars have divided the lives of the troubadours into three major periods: Early, Classical, and Late. These periods cover five generations of troubadours. These are roughly, (1)1071—1150, (2) 1140—1175, (3) 1160—121210, (4) 1180—1240, (5) second half of the thirteenth century. (The third generation saw an explosion of troubadour poetry, and thus is seen as the “golden age” for the troubadours.) This list of troubadours tries to follow this dating sequence. However, it should be pointed out that the dating of the lives of the troubadours is in many cases only approximate. This is why the dates of birth and death are put in terms of circa (c.) and, where these dates are especially uncertain, only the dates when these troubadours flourished (fl.) are given.


Concerning the homelands of the troubadours given in their biographies, a word of clarification should be given. Even though geographically and historically it is safe to call the Languedoc (the former province of southern France, a coastal region extending from Provence to the Pyrenees Mountains and the border with Spain, whose capital was Toulouse), the heart of Occitania, and even though today the troubadours are known (for convenience sake) as “the Troubadours of the Provence,” we must not forget that many of the greatest troubadours came from Aquitaine, and specifically from the Limousin (Arnaut Daniel, Giraut de Bornelh, Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and others).

William IX (Old Occitan: Guilhèm de Peitieu,1071 – 1127), called “The Troubadour,” was the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony and Count of Poitou between 1086 and his death. He was also one of the leaders of the Crusade of 1101. Though his political and military achievements have a certain historical importance, he is best known as the “first troubadour,” that is, the first recorded vernacular lyric poet in the Occitan language. Threatened with excommunication several times for his dissolute life and challenges to Church authority, he was later reconciled. William's greatest legacy to history was not as a warrior but as a troubadour (a lyric poet employing the Romance vernacular language called Occitan or Provençal). He was the earliest troubadour whose work survives. Eleven of his songs survive. The topics vary, treating sex, love, women, his own sexual and literary prowess, and feudal politics. He was also the grandfather of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Cercamon (c. 1137 – 1145) was one of the earliest troubadours. Cercamon means “world searcher” in medieval Occitan. His true name and other biographical data are unknown. He was apparently a Gascony-born jongleur of sorts who spent most of his career in the courts of William X of Aquitaine and perhaps of Eble III of Ventadorn. He was the inventor of the planh (the Provençal dirge), of the tenso (a sort of rhymed debate in which two poets write one stanza each) and perhaps of the sirventes (the socio-political poem). Most of the information about Cercamon's life is nothing but rumor and conjecture; some of his contemporaries credit him as Marcabru's mentor, and some circumstantial evidence points to his dying on crusade as a follower of Louis VII of France. About seven of his lyrics survive, but not a single melody; the works that most contributed to his fame among his contemporaries, his pastorelas (pastoral poems) are lost.


Marcabru (fl. 1129 – 1149) is one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known. There is no certain information about him; the two vidas attached to his poems tell different stories, and both are evidently built on hints in the poems; not on independent information. Marcabru was from Gascony and abandoned at a rich man's door, and no one knew his origin. He learned to make poetry from Cercamon, was nicknamed Marcabru. He became famous, and the lords of Gascony, about whom he had said many bad things, eventually put him to death. Forty-four poems are attributed to Marcabru, learned, often difficult, sometimes obscene, relentlessly critical of the morality of lords and ladies. He experimented with the pastorela, which he uses to point out the futility of lust. Marcabru was a powerful influence on later poets who adopted the obscure trobar clus style. Among his patrons were William X of Aquitaine and, probably, Alfonso VII of León. Marcabru may have travelled to Spain in the entourage of Alfonso Jordan, Count of Toulouse, in the 1130s. Four monophonic melodies to accompany Marcabru's poetry survive; additionally, three melodies of poems that may be contrafacta (different texts that use the same melody) of Marcabru's work may be attributed to him.


Jaufre Rudel (fl. 1125 - 1148) was the Prince of Blaye and a troubadour of the early–mid 12th century, who probably died during the Second Crusade, in or after 1147. He is particularly famous for developing the theme of “love from afar” (amor de lonh or amour de loin) in his songs. Very little is known about his life. According to his legendary vida (thirteenth century), he was inspired to go on Crusade upon hearing from returning pilgrims of the beauty of Countess Hodierna of Tripoli, and that she was his “far-off love.” The legend claims that he fell sick on the journey and was brought ashore in Tripoli a dying man. Countess Hodierna is said to have come down from her castle on hearing the news, and Rudel died in her arms. This romantic but unlikely story seems to have been derived from the enigmatic nature of Rudel's verse and his presumed death on the Crusade. Seven of Rudel's poems have survived to the present day, four of them with music. Nineteenth-century Romanticism found his legend irresistible. It was the subject of poems by Ludwig Uhland, Heinrich Heine, Robert Browning, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.


Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1135 – 1194) was a prominent troubadour of the classical age of troubadour poetry and among the most celebrated troubadours of his day. Bernart was possibly the son of a servant family (possibly bakers) at the castle of Ventadour. His first patron was Viscount Eble III of Ventadorn. He composed his first poems for his patron’s wife, Marguerite de Turenne. Uc de Saint Circ has him ultimately withdrawing to the Cistercian abbey of Dalon and dying there. Now thought of as “the Master Singer” he developed the canso (the love song) into a more formalized style which allowed for sudden turns. He is remembered for his mastery as well as popularization of the trobar leu style (the light style), and for his prolific cansos, which helped define the genre and establish the “classical” form of courtly love poetry, to be imitated and reproduced throughout the remaining century and a half of troubadour activity. Bernart is unique among secular composers of the twelfth century in the amount of music which has survived: of his forty-five poems, eighteen have music intact, an unusual circumstance for a troubadour composer (music of the trouvères has a higher survival rate, usually attributed to them surviving the Albigensian Crusade, which scattered the troubadours and destroyed many sources). His work probably dates between 1147 and 1180. Bernart is often credited with being the most important influence on the development of the trouvère tradition in northern France, since he was well known there, his melodies were widely circulated, and the early composers of trouvère music seem to have imitated him.


Peire d'Alvernhe (fl. 1149 – 1170) was an a townsman’s son from the Bishopric of Clermont-Ferrand and an Auvergnat troubadour with twenty-one or twenty-four surviving works. He composed in a “hermetic” or “formally complex” style known as the trobar clus. Evidently well educated, he composed about twenty-four poems, of which only two of his melodies survive. He stands out as the earliest troubadour mentioned by name in Dante's Divine Comedy. As testified to by his vida, his popularity was great within his lifetime and afterwards. Said to be handsome, charming, wise, and learned, he was “the first good inventor of poetry to go beyond the mountains” (i.e. the Pyrenees) and travel in Spain. He passed his time in Spain at the court of Alfonso VII of Castile. Peire entered upon a religious life early, but quit Holy Orders for a life of itinerant minstrelsy. Peire wrote mostly cansos, which, as his vida points out, were called vers in his day. He also invented the “pious song” and wrote six such poems dealing with serious themes of religion, piety, and spirituality. Even in his more profane works, however, one can detect the moralizing influence of Marcabru, with whom in whose old age he was possibly acquainted. On the topic of courtly love, Peire, who had abandoned the religious life early, came to abandon the claims of fin'amor (“refined love”) later. When Peire espouses love of the Holy Ghost over cortez' amors de bon aire (“well-spirited courtly love”) he is the only troubadour to ever use the term "courtly love".


Raimbaut of Orange (c. 1147 – 1173) was the lord of Orange (or Aurenga) and Aumelas. He was a major troubadour and one of the best-documented. He contributed to the creation of trobar ric (the articulate style) in troubadour poetry. His poetry contains allusions to French literature, Ovid, rhetoric, and other learned matters, using recondite versification schemes of the trobar ric. He left behind at least forty lyric poems, but surprisingly only one canso melody and one in a northern French source. These poems display a gusto for rare rhymes and intricate poetic form. His death in 1173 is mourned in a planh (lament) by Giraut de Bornelh, and also in the only surviving poem of the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues, who was the lover of Raimbaut's cousin.


Giraut de Bornelh (c. 1138 – 1215) was a troubadour connected to the castle of the viscount of Limoges. He is credited with the formalization, if not the invention, of the “light” style, or trobar leu. Giraut was born to a lower-class family in the Limousin. Guiraut might have accompanied Richard I of England on the Third Crusade. He certainly made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but perhaps before the Crusade. He also probably spent time in Spain at the court of Alfonso of Aragon. About ninety of Giraut’s poems and four of his melodies survive; these were held in high esteem in the thirteenth century. He is considered by many in his own time and in ours to be the most accomplished of the troubadours. His vida calls him “maestro dels troubadours” (indicating that he was a teacher of the arts of rhetoric and poetry), which is why later Italian poets, such as Petrarch called him “master of the troubadours,” while Dante, who preferred Arnaut Daniel, mentions that many considered him superior. Giraut demonstrated his mastery of a wide range of topics, techniques, and styles, Only four songs—a sirventes, a canso, an alba, and a tenso—survive with music.


Arnaut de Maruelh (fl. 1171 – 1195) was a troubadour without independent means and was forced to seek patronage. He is said to have been a clerk from a poor family who eventually became a jongleur. He settled at the courts of Toulouse and then Béziers. His poetry suggests that he had connections with Alfonso II of Aragon and with Seigneur Guilhem VIII of Montpellier. Most of his love songs are addressed to Countess Azalais of Burlatz, daughter of Count Raimon V of Toulouse and wife of Viscount Rogier II Taillefer of Beziers and Carcassonne. Arnaut's surviving poems may be seen as a sequence (lyric cycle) telling of his love. Twenty-five (perhaps twenty-nine) of his songs, all cansos, survive, six with music.


Bertran de Born (c. 1140 – 1215) was a baron from the Limousin in France, and one of the major Occitan troubadours of the twelfth century. According to the feudal custom of his region, he was not the only lord of Hautefort, but held it jointly with his brothers. Bertran's struggle, especially with his brother Constantine, is at the heart of his poetry, which is dominated by political topics. Most of his life was spent in political intrigue in one form or another. His warlike nature and love of political intrigue, particularly his espousing the divisive cause of Henry, the Young English King, caused Dante to place him in the Inferno as a stirrer-up of strife. His first datable work is a sirventes (political or satirical song) of 1181, but it is clear from this he already had a reputation as a poet. In 1182, he was present at his overlord Henry II of England’s court at Argentan. Although he composed a few cansos, he was predominantly a master of the sirventes, many of them revel in warfare and strife, which is why biographers have called Bertran a “warmonger.” In his later life, Bertran became a monk and entered a Cistercian abbey (c. 1196). His extant output includes at least thirty-nine songs, many ringing with military language and with references to political events of his day. Only one of his works, a sirventes, survives music.


Arnaut Daniel (fl. 1180 – 1200) was an Occitan troubadour of the twelfth century. According to one biography, Daniel was born in a castle of a noble family. However, the scant contemporary sources point to his having pernicious economic troubles. It is probable that he became friends with another troubadour named Bertran de Born. The two likely met in the court of Richard Cœur de Lion which Daniel frequented. With the previously mentioned court, Daniel traveled to Paris, Spain, and perhaps Italy. The dominant characteristic of Daniel's poetry is an extreme obscurity of thought and expression, a style called trobar clus (“hermetic verse”). He belonged to one school of troubadour poets that sought to make their meanings difficult to understand through the use of unfamiliar words and expressions, enigmatical allusions, complicated meters and uncommon rhyme schemes. Daniel further invented a form of stanza in which no lines rhymed with each other, finding their rhymes only in the corresponding line of the next stanza. Daniel was the inventor of the sestina, a song of six stanzas of six lines each, with the same end words repeated in every stanza, though arranged in a different and intricate order. There are sixteen extant lyrics of Arnaut Daniel only one of which can be accurately dated, to 1181. Of the sixteen there is music for at least one of them, but it was composed at least a century after the poet's death by an anonymous author. No original melody has survived. Arnaut's fourth canso contains the lines that poet Ezra Pound claimed were the three lines by which Daniel is most commonly known: “I am Arnaut who gathers up the wind, / And chases the hare with the ox, / And swims against the torrent.” Arnaut was praised by Dante as “the best wordsmith” and called a “grand master of love” by Petrarch. In the twentieth century, he was lauded by Ezra Pound as the greatest poet to have ever lived.


Peire Vidal (c. 1183 – 1205) was an Occitan troubadour born in Le Puy-en-Velay. He was educated as a canon, but abandoned his career in the church for “the vanity of this world,” according to his vida. His vida was composed about fifty years after his death, and two razos are probably fictionalized works built on episodes from his poems. Only the opening line of the vida is probably reliable. It says that he “was from Toulouse, the son of a furrier.” The rest of the vida is mostly invention based on Peire's poems, but it does contain the only reference to Peire having a wife. Peire started his career, along with the troubadour Bernart Durfort, at the court of Count Raymond V of Toulouse around 1176. He continued there until 1190, when he left to seek another patron after quarreling with the count. Many of his early poems were addressed to Vierna de Porcellet, a relative of the count's. In some poems Peire, Vierna and Raymond form a love triangle. Apparently made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land shortly before the Third Crusade (c. 1187) and he worked briefly in Lombardy at the Monferrato court. From Toulouse, Peire went to the court of King Alfonso II of Aragon, where he remained in good favor until the king's death in 1196. His poems are full of allusions to people, places, and events. Forty-five of his songs are extant. The twelve that still have melodies bear testament to the deserved nature of his musical reputation.


The Comtessa de Dia, or Beatriz de Dia (fl. end of the twelfth century or beginning the thirteenth) was an Occitan trobairitz. She is a mysterious figure historically. Scholars have disagreed on her identity, since the details given in her vida do not neatly match historical data known from other sources; none of the chansonniers gives this “countess” a first name. The vida says she was wife of “Guillem de Poitiers” and was in love with Raimbaut d’Aurenga. (But no documents record any such person who was married to a woman who held the title of “countess” of Dia, a city on the Drome north-northeast of Aurenga in marquisate of Provence.) Many scholars believe that she may have Beatriz, daughter of the dauphin of Viennois and wife of a Guillem de Poitiers, count of Valentinois. This Guilhem controlled properties in the area of Dia, but he never held the title of count of Dia. A more likely theory is that she was another Beatriz, daughter of Count Isoard II of Dia, cited as “Beatrix comitissa” in a document of 1212 from Chatillon. She may have become the second wife Guilhem de Poitiers, count of Viennois, but retained her title as countess of Dia. This second Beatriz, however, would have been rather young in 1173, when the troubadour Raimbaut d’Aurenga died, so the declarations of the vida remain problematic, and the “comtessa’s” identity still uncertain. In any case, the vida describes this trobairitz as “both beautiful and gracious.” It also states that “she fell in love with Raimbaut d’Orange and wrote many fine poems for him.” Singing in the feminine voice of courtly love, she composed one tenso and four cansos, one of which survives with music. The Countess de Dia is a figure unique in the Middle Ages. As one scholar of troubadour lyric has described her: “This is not only because she was woman poet—there were several others among the troubadours, although none of them as good as she—but also because of an almost startling directness in her verse. First of all, there is a stylistic directness, with simple forms and unadorned language; but mainly one is struck by an emotional directness, in which she lays bare the feelings of her obviously passionate and sensual nature. So for a brief moment we get a glimpse, not of the idealized woman sung by male troubadours, but of a specific woman whose emotions can still touch us even though the intervening eight hundred years have obliterated her own figure from history.” Her famous song, “A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria,” is the only canso by a trobairitz to survive with its music intact.


Raimon de Miraval (c. 1160 – 1229) was an Occtain troubadour and, according to his vida, “a poor knight from Carcassonne who owned less than a quarter of the castle of Miraval.” Raimon enjoyed the sponsorship of Raimon VI of Toulouse, to whom he addressed at least seventeen songs. He was also later associated with Peter II of Aragon and Alfonso VIII of Castile. That Raimon owned only a quarter of his family's ancestral castle is an indication either of partible inheritance or clan structure. The Miraval castle, which Raimon bemoaned in song, fell to crusaders in the earliest stage of the Albigensian campaign. Miraval was captured by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade. After the Battle of Muret in 1213 Raimon probably fled to Spain, swearing never to sing again until he had regained his castle. At some point he separated from his wife, Gaudairença (or Caudairenga), herself the author of the (now lost) song for uncourtly behavior. Raimon was admired by contemporaries and by most poets of later generations and he is famous for his handling of the subject of courtly love. He also represents a move away from the traditional cansos celebrating the jois d'amor (“joys of love”) or amor de lonh (“love from afar”), but rather emphasizing courtliness, honor, and reputation. The highest virtue is faithfulness, but this hinges on courtliness (pretz e valor). His vida reports that he died at Cistercian monastery of Sancta Clara in Lerida, Catalonia. Raimon’s works include at least forty-four poems; twenty-two of the cansos have melodies, one of the highest survival rates among troubadours. Most of these works are of the trobar leu style.

Peire Cardenal (c. 1180 – 1278) was an Occitan troubadour known for his satirical sirventes and his dislike of the clergy. He was born in Le Puy-en-Velay, apparently of a noble family and was educated as a canon, but this clerical education directed him to vernacular lyric poetry instead. His vida states that Peire abandoned his career in the church for “the vanity of this world.” Ninety-six poems of his remain, a number rarely matched by other poets of the age. The meagre number of surviving tunes (attributable to him) relative to his output of poetry is surprising considering his vida states that “he invented poetry about many beautiful subjects with beautiful tunes.” Peire began his career at the court of Raymond VI of Toulouse, from whom he sought patronage. Peire subsequently travelled widely, visiting the courts of Occitania. He may have even ventured into Spain and met Alfonso X of Castile, and James I of Aragon. During his travels, Peire was accompanied by a suite of jongleurs, some of whom receive mention by name in his poetry. In his early poetry, he was a vehement opponent of the French, the clergy and the Albigensian Crusade. (He was extremely anti-clerical, although he was not an opponent of Christianity or even the Crusades.) In one of his sirventes, dated around 1229 (when the tribunal of the Inquisition was established at Toulouse by the Dominican Order, “the hounds of the Lord”), Peire enjoins those who seek God to follow the example of those who “drink beer” and “eat bread of gruel and bran,” rather than argue over “which wine is the best.” (This is a reference to the Dominican Order. The Dominican Order was appointed by Pope Gregory IX the duty to carry out the Inquisition. The first Grand Inquistor of Spain, Tomás de Torquemada, would be drawn from the order. In his Papal Bull of 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the Dominicans’ use of torture under prescribed circumstances.) He evidently died in Montpellier, at age well beyond the average. Most of his surviving ninety-six songs are satirical, moralizing sirventes. Three of his songs survive with music. Two of them, a canso and a sirventes, are on borrowed melodies (from Guiraut de Bornelh and Raimon Jordan respectively); the third melody, another sirventes, does not have an extant model, and perhaps is in fact by Peire.


Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, or Riambaut de Vaqueyras, (fl. 1180 - 1207) came from Vacqueyras near Orange, Vaucluse. He was Provençal knight who worked for his living at a variety of courts in Provence and Italy. He spent most of his career as court poet and close friend of Boniface I of Montferrat. He joined the Fourth Crusade in 1203 and was present at the siege of Constantinople in 1204. He is presumed to have died in an ambush by Bulgarian forces. Raimbaut is justifiably one of the most popular of the over 360 known Provençal troubadours. For one, he has the distinction of being the only troubadour who was raised to noble status during his lifetime, thanks to his knighting by the Marquis of Montferrat in recognition of his military service in the latter's Sicilian campaign. He is also one of the few to have participated in the crusades, the fourth, led by his patron the same Marquis. His twenty-six poems include cansos, of which eight melodies survive. Raimbaut is known best by scholars for the song “Eras quan vey verdeyar,” a descort, or discordant song, he wrote using five different languages: Provençal, Genoese, French, Gascon. The work may be as much an exhibition of linguistic virtuosity as anything else, and is unique in the literature. This would appear to give Raimbaut a key role in the literary development of southern Europe, even beyond his important place in the spread of the troubadour movement to northern Italy. However, Raimbaut is perhaps best known by the general public for his song “Kalenda Maya,” or “Kalenda Maia” ( “The Calends of May,” meaning May Day, from the Latin, calenda maia). It is the only surviving troubadour song based on a dance melody, which happens to be the earliest known example of an estampida (a dance form, played by French jongleurs), and a remarkably clever piece of poetry.


Sordello da Goito or Sordel de Goit, sometimes Sordell (fl. 1220 - 1265), was born in the municipality of Goito in the province of Mantua. Praised by Dante in the De vulgari eloquentia, he is, in the Purgatorio, made the type of patriotic pride, bemoaning the state of Italy (because of his famous planh). In 1226, while at the court of Richard of Bonifazio in Verona, he abducted his master’s wife, Cunizza, at the instigation of her brother, Ezzelino da Romano. The scandal resulted in his flight (1229) to Provençe. He entered the service of Charles of Anjou, and probably accompanied him (1265) on his Naples expedition; in 1266 he was a prisoner in Naples. The last documentary mention of him is in 1269, and he is supposed to have died in Provençe.


Guiraut Riquier (c. 1230 - 1292), born in Narbonne, was the last of the great Occitan troubadours. He is well known because of his great care in writing out his works and keeping them together. His songs express nostalgia for a bygone era of troubadour poetry. He matured in the wake of the Albigensian Crusade (1209 to 1255), a series of wars and inquisitions waged by the Pope and the Northern French crown against “heretical” elements (the Cathars) in his native Languedoc. Guiraut survived the Albigensian Crusade and the wars that effectively destroyed the cultured society of tolerant Southern nobility that had supported the troubadours, effectively killing off the troubadour tradition. Riquier must have experienced this firsthand in his initial wanderings, finding that few noble courts were still accepting troubadours. He served under Aimery IV, Viscount of Narbonne, as well as Alfonso el Sabio, King of Castile. He is also believed to have worked under Henry II, Count of Rodez. From 1254 to 1270 he stayed close to home in the service of Almarich IV, Viscount of Narbonne; after his patron's death he went to Spain, appearing at the court of Alfonso X of Castile (1271 to 1279). An exchange of letters between Riquier and Alfonso show that the poet grew disenchanted with what he felt was the corruption of his art there. By 1280 he was back in Southern France under the sponsorship of Henry II, Count of Rodez, before returning to an aimless existence in Narbonne. Riquier's final song, “It Would Be Best if I Refrained from Singing” (1292), offers a bitter epitaph for himself and the dead culture he represented: “I came into the world too late...For now no art is less admired than the worthy craft of song.” He then vanishes from history. Because he meticulously preserved his work, over a hundred of his songs survive, forty-eight with their music, the largest single collection from any troubadour. He made this somewhat ironic alba (dawn song) in 1257, a fitting coda to the troubadour era.


Related Posts

See All

The Origin of the Easter Egg & Bunny

I mentioned the “World Egg.” Few Christian historians seem to have any clear ideas about the origin of the Easter egg. Some say that it was traditional to bless and eat eggs at Easter because they wer