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Mediaeval poetry

A troubadour was a composer and performer of songs during the High Middle Ages in Europe. A rough anglophone equivalent is the minstrel. The tradition began to flourish during the 11th century and was often imitated in the 13th century. Many troubadours traveled for great distances, aiding in the transmission of trade and news.

The texts of troubadour songs deal with lofty themes of chivalry, platonic and courtly love but some troubadours were also author of fabliaux and conte-en-vers. Many songs addressed a married lover, perhaps due to the prevalence of arranged marriages at the time.

Although not a troubadour himself, Petrarch's Canzoniere to Laura de Noves are a good example of the lofty style.

The boundaries between the romance and the chansons de geste of the troubadours were somewhat fluid. In general, the ballads were the property of professional performers, while the romance was associated more with amateurs and private readers. Nevertheless, a professional poet-performer like Chrétien de Troyes could turn his hand to composing romances. The distinction between an early verse romance and a chanson de geste is often difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to make.


Mediaeval poetry

The impious peacelover, the troubadour, who crafted out of the European vernacular its first great literary themes. Their courtly romances and chanson de geste amused and entertained the upper classes who were their patrons. The vernacular court poetry of the romans courtois, or Romances, saw many examples of courtly love. Some of them are set within the cycle of poems celebrating King Arthur's court. This was a literature of leisure, directed to a largely female audience for the first time in European history.

Mediaeval music

Alongside these schools of sacred music a vibrant tradition of secular song developed, as exemplified in the music of the troubadours, trouvères and Minnesänger. Much of the later secular music of the early Renaissance evolved from the forms, ideas, and the musical aesthetic of the troubadours, courtly poets and itinerant musicians, whose culture was largely exterminated during the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century.

Academics and city-dwellers: the Gay Science

Consistori del Gay Saber, Consistori de Barcelona

Similar art forms and artists

A complementary role was filled at the same period by performers known as joglares in Occitan, jongleurs in French (minstrels in English). Jongleurs are often addressed in troubadour lyrics. Their profession was that of popular entertainer; as such jongleurs sometimes performed troubadour compositions but more often other genres, notably chansons de geste (epic narratives).

The German Minnesingers are closely related to, and inspired by, troubadours, but have distinctive features of their own.


The early study of the troubadours focused intensely on their origins. No academic consensus was ever achieved in the area. Today, one can distinguish at least eleven competing theories (the adjectives used below are a blend from the Grove Dictionary of Music and Roger Boase's The Origins and Meaning of Courtly Love):

  1. Arabic (also Arabist or Hispano-Arabic)
    Ezra Pound, in his Canto VIII, famously declared that William of Aquitaine "had brought the song up out of Spain / with the singers and veils..." referring to the troubadour song. In his study, Lévi-Provençal is said to have found four Arabo-Hispanic verses nearly or completely recopied in William's manuscript. According to historic sources, William VIII, the father of William, brought to Poitiers hundreds of Muslim prisoners. Trend admitted that the troubadours derived their sense of form and even the subject matter of their poetry from the Andalusian Muslims. The hypothesis that the troubadour tradition was created, more or less, by William after his experience of Moorish arts while fighting with the Reconquista in Spain was also championed by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in the early twentieth-century, but its origins go back to the Cinquecento and Giammaria Barbieri (died 1575) and Juan Andrés (died 1822). Meg Bogin, English translator of the trobairitz, held this hypothesis.
  2. Bernardine-Marianist or Christian
    According to this theory, it was the theology espoused by Bernard of Clairvaux and the increasingly important Mariology that most strongly influenced the development of the troubadour genre. Specifically, the emphasis on religious and spiritual love, disinterestedness, mysticism, and devotion to Mary would explain "courtly love". The emphasis of the reforming Robert of Arbrissel on "matronage" to achieve his ends can explain the troubadour attitude towards women. Chronologically, however, this hypothesis is hard to sustain (the forces believed to have given rise to the phenomenon arrived later than it). But the influence of Bernardine and Marian theology can be retained without the origins theory. This theory was advanced early by Eduard Wechssler and further by Dmitri Scheludko (who emphasises the Cluniac Reform) and Guido Errante. Mario Casella and Leo Spitzer have added "Augustinian" influence to it.
  3. Celtic or Chivalric-Matriarchal
    The survival of pre-Christian sexual mores and warrior codes from matriarchal societes, be they Celtic, Germanic, or Pictish, among the aristocracy of Europe can account for the idea (fusion) of "courtly love". The existence of pre-Christian matriarchy has usually been treated with scepticism as has the persistence of underlying paganism in high medieval Europe.
  4. Classical Latin
    The classical Latin theory emphasises parallels between Ovid, especially his Amores and Ars amatoria, and the lyric of courtly love. The aetas ovidiana that predominated in the eleventh century in and around Orléans, the quasi-Ciceronian ideology that held sway in the Imperial court, and the scraps of Plato then available to scholars have all been cited as classical influences on troubadour poetry.
  1. (Crypto-)Cathar
    According to this thesis, troubadour poetry is a reflection of Cathar religious doctrine. While the theory is supported by the traditional and near-universal account of the decline of the troubadours coinciding with the suppression of Catharism during the Albigensian Crusade (first half of the thirteenth century), support for it has come in waves. The explicitly Catholic meaning of many early troubadour works also works against the theory.
  2. Liturgical
    The troubadour lyric may be a development of the Christian liturgy and hymnody. The influence of the Song of Songs has even been suggested. There is no preceding Latin poetry resembling that of the troubadours. On those grounds, no theory of the latter's origins in classical or post-classical Latin can be constructed, but that has not deterred some, who believe that a pre-existing Latin corpus must merely be lost to us. That many troubadours received their grammatical training in Latin through the Church (from clerici, clerics) and that many were trained musically by the Church is well-attested. The musical school of Saint Martial's at Limoges has been singled out in this regard. "Para-liturgical" tropes were in use there in the era preceding the troubadours' appearance.
  3. Feudal-social or -sociological
    This theory or set of related theories has gained ground in the twentieth century. It is more a methodological approach to the question than a theory; it asks not from where the content or form of the lyric came but rather in what situation/circumstances did it arise. Under Marxist influence, Erich Köhler, Marc Bloch, and Georges Duby have suggested that the "essential hegemony" in the castle of the lord's wife during his absence was a driving force. The use of feudal terminology in troubadour poems is seen as evidence. This theory has been developed away from sociological towards psychological explanation.
  4. Folklore or Spring Folk Ritual
    According to María Rosa Menocal, Alfred Jeanroy first suggested that folklore and oral tradition gave rise to troubadour poetry in 1883. According to F. M. Warren, it was Gaston Paris, Jeanroy's reviewer, in 1891 who first located troubadour origins in the festive dances of women hearkening the spring in the Loire Valley. This theory has since been widely discredited, but the discovery of the jarchas raises the question of the extent of literature (oral or written) in the eleventh century and earlier.
  5. Medieval Latin or Mediolatin (Goliardic)
    Hans Spanke analysed the intertextual connexion between vernacular and medieval Latin (such as Goliardic) songs. This theory is supported by Reto Bezzola, Peter Dronke, and musicologist J. Chailley. According to them, trobar means "inventing a trope", the trope being a poem where the words are used with a meaning different from their common signification, i.e. metaphor and metonymy. This poem was originally inserted in a serial of modulations ending a liturgic song. Then the trope became an autonomous piece organized in stanza form. The influence of late eleventh-century poets of the "Loire school", such as Marbod of Rennes and Hildebert of Lavardin, is stressed in this connexion by Brinkmann.
  1. Neoplatonic
    This theory is one of the more intellectualising. The "ennobling effects of love" in specific have been identified as Neoplatonic. It is viewed either as a strength or weakness that this theory requires a second theory about how the Neoplatonism was transmitted to the troubadours; perhaps it can be coupled with one of the other origins stories or perhaps it is just peripheral. Käte Axhausen has "exploited" this theory and A. J. Denomy has linked it with the Arabist (through Avicenna) and the Cathar (through John Scotus Eriugena).

See also

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