The Women Troubadours

On My Bookshelf I find a volume perfect for Women’s History Month, the story of medieval women songwriters whose words sound as fresh as if they were written today.

The troubadour is a familiar figure in Medieval history, a singer of songs of unrequited love for a beautiful and virtuous lady. But women troubadours? They were virtually forgotten until Meg Bogin published this study in 1976, the first since a German monograph in 1888. The book includes translations of the 23 songs that survive by 20 women. These voices from almost a thousand years ago are remarkably fresh and intimate, giving us a rare window into the lives of women in an age dominated by men.

The women trobairitz, as they were called, flourished from about 1150 to 1250 in Occitania, a region of southern France with its own distinctive culture. They spoke and wrote in lenga d’oc, a language closer to Spanish and Portuguese than French. They were aristocratic women who lived and performed at court, not traveling the byways like some of the troubadours.

Beatritz the Countess of Dia, born c.1140, is the best known of the trobairitz, with four surviving poems. Several of the women, like Maria de Ventadorn and Almucs de Castelnau, had fathers or husbands who were patrons of troubadours. Garsenda de Forcalquier was the highest in rank; she married Alphonse II, lord of Provence and brother of the King of Aragon. After her husband’s death she ruled Provence herself. Little or nothing is known about most of the women, just their surviving songs. All would have grown up familiar with troubadour performances at court inspiring their own very different compositions.

La Comtesa de Dia
Bibliothèque National de France

Occitania was the birthplace of the troubadour tradition which then spread throughout medieval Europe. But it was the only region known for trobairitz. Bogin devotes a chapter to the courtly love conventions of the male troubadours the better to understand how the women’s compositions broke from that convention. Courtly love was known as fin amors, fine love as opposed to lust. The troubadours pledged allegiance to a lady, usually married and of a higher rank, just as a vassal did to his feudal lord in the code of chivalry. They paid deference to women as the weaker, purer, more virtuous sex. This chaste love for an idealized woman would bring a man closer to God.

To be in love is to stretch towards heaven through a woman.

Troubadour Uc de St. Circ

In all this the woman was a passive figure, closer to the venerated Virgin Mary than a real woman with her own emotions and desires. Not so the trobairitz. Their songs speak of the joys and sorrows of real relationships. Some excerpts sound like tweets or texts to a friend, or letters to an advice columnist. Some are addressed to the man himself, part of a chanson form called a tenson, a dialogue between a man and a woman.

if you had shown consideration,
meekness, candor and humanity,
I’d have loved you without hesitation;
but you were mean and sly and villainous.

Castelloza

Elias Cairel, you’re a phony
if ever I saw one,
like a man who says he’s sick
when he hasn’t got the slightest pain.

Isabella
Castelloza
Bibliothèque National de France

Of things I’d rather keep in silence I must sing:
so bitter do I feel toward him
whom I love more than anything…

Countess of Dia

Handsome friend, as a lover true
I loved you, for you pleased me,
But now I see I was a fool,
For I’ve barely seen you since.

Castelloza

Lady Carenza…
give some advice to us two sisters,
counsel me according to your own experience
shall I marry someone we both know?
Lady Carenza, I’d like to have a husband,
but making babies I think is a huge penitence:
your breasts hang way down
and it’s too anguishing to be a wife.

Alais and Iselda

I’ve lately been in great distress
over a knight who once was mine,
and I want it known for all eternity
how I loved him to excess.
Now I see I’ve been betrayed
because I wouldn’t sleep with him…

Countess of Dia

Seigneur Guiraut, I didn’t want your love to end,
but she says she has a right to be enraged,
because you’re courting someone else in front of everyone…

Alamanda

Friend, because of you I’m filled
with grievous sorrow and despair,
but I doubt you feel a trace
of my affliction.
Why did you become a lover,
since you leave the suffering to me?
Why don’t we split it evenly?

Anonymous

We’ve all been there! These women are pouring out their hearts to us across the centuries.

Only one piece of music survives for the songs of the trobairitz. It is for the Countess of Dia’s A chanter m’er de so qu’ieu non volria, Of things I’d rather keep in silence I must sing.

The musical reign of the trobiaritz came to an end with the Albigensian Crusade in Occitania, the first military crusade waged against a group of fellow Christians. Pope Innocent III (1198 – 1216) ruled that the Cathar sect popular in the region was heretical. The violent crusade, revolts, and repression that followed destroyed Occitanian culture. The Church developed the methods of rooting out heresy that would later be used in the Inquisition and many atrocities were committed. By 1244 the Cathars were driven underground and Occitania was gradually subsumed into northern French culture.

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne

This connection reminds me of another book on my shelf, one of the most memorable history books I’ve ever read, Montaillou, The Promised Land of Error by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Based on a trove of records preserved in this small village in the Pyrenees, it tells the story of the Albigensian Crusade as it was experienced by the Catholics and Cathars who lived there. A story of faith, fortitude, and terrible suffering.

And that reminds me… yes the chain of books can go on ad infinitum!

3 thoughts on “The Women Troubadours

  1. Thank you for your story and history of the women troubadours. I loved reading it as well as the verses of the love songs. Just as I was wishing I could find a recording of the music, you included one! Lovely.

    Like

  2. Thanks for sharing this trove of troubadourian tales. I just loved the verses you selected. Enjoyed the history lesson, too. They really do sound very contemporary in translation.

    Like

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