At the end of the eleventh century, when we should have expected all European letters to be colored by the religious enthusiasm of the Crusades, there developed in southern France a school of lyric poetry aristocratic, pagan, anticlerical, bearing the marks of Arab influence, and signalizing the triumph of woman over the chastisement laid upon her by the theory of the Fall. This style of verse moved from Toulouse to Paris to London with Eleanor of Aquitaine, captured the lion heart of her son Richard I, created the minnesingers of Germany, and molded the Italian dolce stil nuovo that led to Dante.

At the origin of the style stands Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine. This reckless blade found himself at eleven (1087) the practically independent ruler of southwestern France. He joined the First Crusade and sang its victory; but, like so many nobles in his heresy-infected lands, he had scant respect for the Church, and made gay mockery of her priests. An old Provençal biography describes him as “one of the most courteous men in the world, and a great deceiver of ladies; and he was a brave knight and had much to do with love affairs; and he knew well how to sing and make verses; and for a long time he roamed all through the land to deceive the ladies.”23 Though married, he carried off the beautiful viscountess of Châtellerault, and lived with her in open scandal. When the bold bald bishop of Angoulême bade him end his wicked ways he replied, “I will repudiate the viscountess as soon as your hair requires a comb.” Excommunicated, he one day met the bishop of Poitiers. “Absolve me,” he said, “or I will kill you.” “Strike,” answered the bishop, offering his neck. “No,” said William; “I do not love you well enough to send you to paradise.”24 The Duke set a style of writing amorous poetry to noble dames. He suited the action to the word, led a short life and a merry one, and died at fifty-six (1137). He left to Eleanor his immense domain, and his taste for poetry and love.

She gathered poets about her at Toulouse, and willingly they sang for her and her court the beauty of women and the fever engendered by their charms. Bernard de Ventadour, whose poems seemed to Petrarch only slightly inferior to his own, began by praising the loveliness of the viscountess of Ventadour; she took him so seriously that her husband had to shut her up in his castle tower. Bernard, encouraged, turned to chant the splendor of Eleanor herself, and followed her to Rouen; when she preferred the love of two kings he emptied out his soul in a famous dirge. A generation later the troubadour Bertrand de Born became the bosom friend of Richard I, and his successful rival for the love of the most beautiful woman of her time, Dame Maenz of Martignac. Another troubadour, Peire Vidal (1167?-1215), accompanied Richard on crusade, returned intact, lived and rhymed in amours and poverty, and received at last an estate from Count Raymond VI of Toulouse.25 We know the names of 446 other troubadours; but from these four we may judge their loose melodious tribe.

Some were musical vagabonds; most were minor nobles with a flair for song; four were kings—Richard I, Frederick II, Alfonso II, and Pedro III of Aragon. For a century (1150–1250) they dominated the literature of southern France, and molded the manners of an aristocracy emerging from rustic brutality into a chivalry that almost redeemed war with courtesy, and adultery with grace. The language of the troubadours was the langue d’oc or roman of southern France and northeastern Spain. Their name is a puzzle;troubadour is probably from the roman word trobar, to find or invent, as obviously the Italian trovatore is from trovare; but some would take it from the Arabic tarraba, to sing.26 They called their art gai saber or gaya ciencia, “gay wisdom”; but they took it seriously enough to undergo a long period of training in poetry, music, and the forms and speech of gallantry; they dressed like the nobility, flaunted a mantle trimmed with gold embroidery and costly furs, rode often in knightly armor, entered the lists at tournaments, and fought with lance as well as pen for the ladies to whom they had pledged their lines, if not their lives. They wrote only for the aristocracy. Usually they composed music for their own lyrics, and hired minstrels to sing them at banquets or tournaments; but often they themselves would strum the lute and wring a passion through a song.

Probably the passion was a literary form; the burning longing, the celestial fulfillments, the tragic despair of the troubadours were poetic license and machinery; apparently the husbands took these ardors so, and had less sense of property than most males. Since marriage among the aristocracy was normally an incident in a transfer of property, romance had to come after marriage, as in French fiction; the amours of medieval literature are, with a few exceptions, tales of illicit love, from Francesca and Beatrice in the South to Isolde and Guinevere in the North. The general inaccessibility of the married lady generated the poetry of the troubadours; it is hard to romanticize desire fulfilled, and where there are no impediments there is no poetry. We hear of a few troubadours who received the ultimate favor from the ladies whom they had chosen for their lays, but this was a breach of literary etiquette; usually the poet had to sate his thirst with a kiss or a touch of the hand. Such restraint made for refinement; and in the thirteenth century the poetry of the troubadours—perhaps influenced by the worship of Mary—graduated from sensualism to an almost spiritual delicacy.

But they were seldom pious. Their resentment of chastity set them at odds with the Church. Several of them lampooned prelates, ridiculed hell,27 defended the Albigensian heretics, and celebrated the victorious crusade of the impious Frederick where the saintly Louis had failed. Guillem Adémar approved one crusade, but only because it removed a husband from his path. Raimon Jorden preferred a night with his beloved to any promised trans-mundane paradise.28

Forms of composition seemed more important to the troubadours than commandments of morality. The canzo was a song of love; the plante was a dirge for a friend or lover lost to death; the tenson was a rhymed debate on a question of love, morality, or chivalry; the sirvente was a song of war, feud, or political attack; the stxtine was a complicated rhyme sequence of six stanzas, each of six lines, invented by Arnaud Daniel and much admired by Dante; the pastourelle was a dialogue between a troubadour and a shepherdess; the aubade or alba, a song of the dawn, usually warned lovers that the day would soon reveal them; the serena or serenade was an evening song; the balada was a narrative in verse. Here is an anonymous aubade partly spoken by a twelfth-century Juliet.

In a garden where the white thorn spreads her leaves,

My lady hath her love lain close beside her,

Till the warden cries the dawn—ah, dawn that grieves!

Ah God! ah God! that dawn should come so soon!

“Please God that night, dear night, should never cease,

Nor that my Love should parted be from me,

Nor watch cry ‘Dawn’—ah, dawn that slayeth peace!

Ah God! ah God! that dawn should come so soon!

“Fair friend and sweet, thy lips! Our lips again!

Lo, in the meadow there the birds give song.

Ours be the love, and jealousy’s the pain!

Ah God! ah God! that dawn should come so soon!

“Of that sweet wind that comes from Far-Away

Have I drunk deep of my Beloved’s breath,

Yea, of my Love’s that is so dear and gay.

Ah God! ah God! that dawn should come so soon!”

Fair is this damsel and right courteous,

And many watch her beauty’s gracious way.

Her heart toward love is nowise traitorous.

Ah God! ah God! that dawn should come so soon!29

The troubadour movement in France came to an end amid the thirteenth century, partly through the increasing artificiality of its forms and sentiments, partly through the ruin of south France by the Albigensian Crusades. For in that troubled time many castles fell that had harbored troubadours; and when Toulouse itself suffered a double siege the knightly order in Aquitaine collapsed. Some singers fled to Spain, some to Italy. There in the second half of the thirteenth century the art of the love lyric was reborn, and Dante and Petrarch were scions of the troubadours. The gay science of their gallantry helped to mold the code of chivalry, and to turn the barbarians of northern Europe into gentlemen. Literature ever since has felt the influence of those subtle songs; and perhaps love now bears a finer fragrance from the incense of their praise.

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