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"THE Word romantic has been lately introduced in Germany to designate that kind of poetry which is derived from the songs of the Troubadours; that which owes its birth to the union of chivalry and Christianity."--On Germany (1813) by Madame de Staël

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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).


Troubadours, at least after their style became established, usually followed some set of "rules", like those of the Leys d'amors (compiled between 1328 and 1337). Initially all troubadour verses were called simply vers, yet this soon came to be reserved for only love songs and was later replaced by canso, though the term lived on as an antique expression for the troubadours' early works and was even employed with a more technically meaning by the last generation of troubadours (mid-14th century), when it was thought to derive from the Latin word verus (truth) and was thus used to describe moralising or didactic pieces. The early troubadours developed many genres and these only proliferated as rules of composition came to be put in writing. The known genres are:

  • Alba (morning song) – the song of a lover as dawn approaches, often with a watchman warning of the approach of a lady's jealous husband
  • Arlabecca – a song defined by poetic metre, but perhaps once related to the rebec
  • Canso, originally vers, also chanso or canço – the love song, usually consisting of five or six stanzas with an envoi
  • Cobla esparsa – a stand-alone stanza
  • Comiat – a song renouncing a lover
  • Crusade song (canso de crozada) – a song about the Crusades, usually encouraging them
  • Dansa or balada – a lively dance song with a refrain
  • Descort – a song heavily discordant in verse form and/or feeling
  • Desdansa – a dance designed for sad occasions
  • Devinalh – a riddle or cryptogram
  • Ensenhamen – a long didactic poem, usually not divided into stanzas, teaching a moral or practical lesson
  • Enuig – a poem expressing indignation or feelings of insult
  • Escondig – a lover's apology
  • Estampida – a dance-like song
  • Gap – a boasting song, often presented as a challenge, often similar to modern sports chants
  • Maldit – a song complaining about a lady's behaviour and character
  • Partimen – a poetical exchange between two or more poets in which one is presented with a dilemma by another and responds
  • Pastorela – the tale of the love request of a knight to a shepherdess
  • Planh – a lament, especially on the death of some important figure
  • Plazer – a poem expressing pleasure
  • Salut d'amor – a love letter addressed to another, not always one's lover
  • Serena – the song of a lover waiting impatiently for the evening (to consummate his love)
  • Sestina – highly structured verse form
  • Sirventes – a political poem or satire, originally put in the mouth of a paid soldier (sirvens)
  • Sonnet (sonet) – an Italian genre imported into Occitan verse in the 13th century
  • Tenso – a poetical debate which was usually an exchange between two poets, but could be fictional
  • Torneyamen – a poetical debate between three or more persons, often with a judge (like a tournament)
  • Viadeira – a traveller's complaint

All these genres were highly fluid. A cross between a sirventes and a canso was a meg-sirventes (half-sirventes).<ref>Sometimes canso-sirventes or sirventes-canso was used. Bertran de Born uses the term miei sirventes.</ref> A tenso could be "invented" by a single poet; an alba or canso could be written with religious significance, addressed to God or the Virgin; and a sirventes may be nothing more than a political attack. The maldit and the comiat were often connected as a maldit-comiat and they could be used to attack and renounce a figure other than a lady or a lover, like a commanding officer (when combined, in a way, with the sirventes).

Peire Bremon Ricas Novas uses the term mieja chanso (half song) and Cerverí de Girona uses a similar phrase, miga canço, both to refer to a short canso and not a mixture of genres as sometimes supposed. Cerverí's mig (or meig) vers e miga canço was a vers in the new sense (a moralising song) that was also highly critical and thus combined the canso and the sirventes. Among the more than one hundred works of Cerverí de Girona are many songs with unique labels, which may correspond more to "titles" than "genres", but that is debatable: peguesca (nonsense), espingadura (flageolet song), libel (legal petition), esdemessa (leap), somni (dream), acuyndamen (challenge), desirança (nostalgia), aniversari (anniversary), serena (serene).<ref>Frank M. Chambers (1985), An Introduction to Old Provençal Versification, (Darby, PA: Diane Publishing, Template:ISBN.), pp. 195–96.</ref>

Most "Crusading songs" are classified either as cansos or sirventes but sometimes separately. Some styles became popular in other languages and in other literary or musical traditions. In French, the alba became the aubade, the pastorela the pastourelle, and the partimen the jeu parti. The sestina became popular in Italian literature. The troubadours were not averse to borrowing either. The planh developed out of the Latin planctus and the sonnet was stolen from the Sicilian School. The basse danse (bassa dansa) was first mentioned in the troubadour tradition (c. 1324), but only as being performed by jongleurs.

See also

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