I’ve divided this article into two parts.
Part One will give you the background information you’ll need to fully appreciate Part Two. Context is everything! If you already know what a troubadour is, feel free to skip ahead to Part Two.
Part Two is where the really good stuff is. It can be read alone, but I would suggest reading Part One first if you’re not very familiar with medieval or music history.
Part One: The Medieval Musician
Think about everything you know about medieval musicians. Dig deep. Picture it. What image first comes to mind?
Perhaps you’re thinking of a bard or minstrel in a tavern, plucking away on a lute singing songs of love and chivalry? If so, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, though modern depictions of these minstrels in movies, books and video games only capture a tiny (and highly romanticized) piece of the music world of the Middle Ages. The real story is much more complex.
“Medieval people love music. It is – along with a love of good food, good jokes, and good stories – one of those aspects of life which unites everyone, from the most powerful nobleman to the most miserable villein.” – Ian Mortimer
Minstrel? Bard? What’s the difference?
There are a lot of names for musicians of the Middle Ages: bards, minstrels, troubadours, jongleurs, minnesingers, etc. These names are usually used interchangeably, which is probably fine for everyday purposes or in conversation when you don’t want to seem pretentious. But it is important to note that they aren’t actually the same thing. The titles vary by country, social class and musical styles. A joglar or jesteur would hardly be held to the same standard as a troubadour. That’s like comparing your local Off-Off-Broadway dinner theater to actual Broadway in London or New York. Sure, they basically do the same thing but they’re…just not the same.
Unless you’re a hardcore medieval music enthusiast, the best way to remember which is which is simply according to country of origin. Here are some of the most common musician titles:
Minstrel- England, variations of this word were used throughout Europe (ex. ministrello – Italy)
Bard– Ireland, Scotland and Wales
Troubadour– Southern France
Trouvere– Northern France
Jongleur, Joglar– France (lower class)
Gleeman- England (lower class)
Because musicians often traveled throughout Europe you’d find these various performers all over the place, distinctions being made by social class, venues and style of music. There were even ranks within some groups by skill level, but perhaps better described as specialties. For example, a seasoned professional minnesinger considered a master of his craft could achieve the title Meistersinger. A singer specializing in singing chansons (a type of song) would be known as a Chanteur. If this is all still too much to remember, the best word to use in any context is Minstrel. Even in the Middle Ages, the word “minstrel” was often used as a generic term for any traveling musician.
A detailed description of each type of medieval musician is a topic for another day. For now, we focus on just one: the Troubadour.
Occitania is a historical region that once covered what is now the southern half of France, part of Spain and part of Italy. This area was traditionally known for its willingness to take in victims of persecution, thanks to the peaceful leadership of the longtime Counts of Toulouse and their vassals, often considered the most enlightened leaders in Europe’s history. Culturally, Occitania was quite liberal compared to the rest of Medieval Europe and was known for it’s long history of religious, personal and political liberty. Occitania was predominantly Christian like the rest of Western Europe, but was also home to many other religious and ethnic groups seeking refuge over the centuries. It was a peaceful melting pot-esque society that provided a level of equality and opportunity that couldn’t be found in many other places at the time.
Occitania was, and still is, unified by its first language Occitan, also called Languedoc (or langue d’oc). Despite the region now being split by modern political borders, there are still cultural similarities in food, architecture, and more.
By now you might be wondering, Why should I care about all of this?
First of all, the word Occitania is going to be thrown around in the paragraphs to come. Knowing what and where Occitania is might be helpful.
Second, the cultural landscape of Occitania created the perfect environment for a major musical movement to flourish during the Middle Ages. This movement resulted in an entirely new class of musicians called the Troubadours. Troubadours are largely responsible for spreading the popularity of secular love music throughout all of Western Europe, ultimately creating a new genre of music and redefining the concept of love and marriage in the medieval world. Even though troubadours and their music eventually faded away, it can be argued that the musical tradition they left behind eventually evolved into the popular “Western” pop music we hear today.
Simply put, a troubadour is a composer, musician and a poet, typically of noble birth or a member of the upper classes. They were usually professionally trained by clergy (the members of medieval society who developed official musical notation and ran the music schools). They were literate, which means many of their poems and melodies were actually written down and notated rather than passed along orally like traditional peasant folk music. They could sing and often played a variety of instruments. Some may have even been skilled dancers as well, but composing was their main focus. Performing music was usually secondary to writing it, especially for the most famous and accomplished troubadours. The actual performances of their works were often done by hired court minstrels and really good jongleurs.
FYI: Jongleurs (and joglaresses) were similar to troubadours but they were not nobles and they rarely had actual professional musical training. Jongleurs could move up the social ladder if they were talented enough to be hired into courts as assistants or minstrels-in-training. Few other professions allowed this kind of upward social mobility. Most jongleurs, however, were basically street entertainers with musical and acrobatic skill and of course not all of them were good enough to perform in a court.
Troubadours “invented” and made the rules for popular music and poetry during the 12th and 13th centuries. Many wrote songs with religious references, but since Occitanian culture wasn’t heavily influenced or ruled directly by the Roman Catholic church (unlike the rest of medieval Europe), troubadours had the freedom to write about almost anything they wanted. This was especially true for high ranking nobles. Nobles wrote songs about love, war, politics. Most focused heavily on courtly love though, which was by far the subject matter of choice. A few known troubadours sang about romantic topics that could make even a modern adult blush. Some of the troubadour lyrics and poems were pretty racy, and others were just plain weird, even by their standards.
Troubadours at a Glance
A detailed history of the troubadours could fill entire books. To make it easy on you and save time, here is a quick overview:
- Who: Upper classes, nobles and members of aristocracy. Some very gifted members of lower classes could become troubadours.
- What: Composed and performed music, typically written in Old Occitan.
- Where: Occitania. Some traveled throughout Europe, spreading their musical influence.
- When: High Middle Ages. 12th to 13th centuries, popularity started to wane in the 14th century.
- Why: Because humans like to make music. And Occitania provided a culture in which non-religious love music could flourish.
Other bits of information worth knowing:
- Musical style and genres: Lyrical songs of many different types, the list is long. Some of the more notable genres are canso (love songs with 5 or 6 verses), escondig (lover’s apology), sonnet, and tenso (a debate between two lovers/poets)
- Themes: Courtly love, mostly.
- Instruments: Anything easy to travel with; light and mobile. Lutes, harps, rebecs, etc.
- Venues: Courts, homes and estates belonging to nobility or people of high social rank.
- Performance: The troubadours performed their own works or hired minstrels and jongleurs to perform for them. Troubadour songs and poems were written in songbook collections called chansonniers. In theory, anyone with access to the songbooks who knew how to read the notation could perform the pieces. It was common practice for a troubadour to write poems and set them to pre-existing music or melodies written by other troubadours.
- Known works: There are around 2,500 known troubadour songs in existence. Many were not attributed to anyone in particular (authors “unknown” or “anonymous”), and not many of them include written notated melodies.
- Known Troubadours: There are many! Here is a list.
- Vidas: During the 13th and 14th centuries biographies were written about popular troubadours’ lives (vidas) that were a blend of fact and romantic mythology. Most of the information we have about their personal lives were gleaned from these vidas and it can be assumed at least a few details were embellished for storytelling purposes.
- Medieval grammar guides and dictionaries: The popularity of troubadour music and the desirable lifestyle and celebrity status that came with performing it meant that people outside of Occitania also aspired to become troubadours or their regional equivalent (like the trouveres in Northern France). People who didn’t speak Occitan, Italians and Catalans in particular, wanted to understand and sing the songs too. So grammar guides and dictionaries were written for troubadour wanna-bes and their unofficial imitators. One such manuscript called Donatz proensals, published c. 1243, was a rhymary and Latin-Occitan dictionary written specifically for Italians.
Now that you know the basics of what a troubadour is you’re ready to learn a fascinating piece of music history that is not widely known. Part Two may challenge everything you thought you knew about medieval society and, specifically, a woman’s place in it!
Part Two: The Trobairitz
A Note about Courtly Love
By the 12th century, early troubadour poetry had raised women to a very high ideal, giving them mystical and even goddess-like qualities. Despite the legal and cultural status of women being far below that of men, music and literature were idealizing them to “supernatural heights.” Simultaneously, there was an interesting surge in the idolization of the Virgin Mary in the church. While this might on the surface sound like a nice step forward considering what we know about significant gender inequality during the Middle Ages, it can be reasonably assumed that women probably didn’t enjoy being held to such an impossibly high standard. Being idolized isn’t all that great when it doesn’t come with any actual perks like basic human rights.
Courtly love encompassed all the rules and ideals for romance, and particularly stressed how beautiful, divine and saintly the objects of their desire were. Men sang tales of chivalrous knights proving their love to fair lady. Women, on the other hand, also sang about romance and their too-high expectations of their lovers, but often strived to humanize their own gender and to balance out the idealized versions with lyrics that were very personal and considerably more “down-to-earth.”
Courtly love wasn’t always about two singles falling in love. In fact, most of the time it was more about unrequited love, jealousy, or affairs of the heart. “It was also popular at the time (12th through 14th centuries) to woo the mistress –married or otherwise—of the castle you were visiting, and the vast majority of troubadour songs are about this kind of courtly—and unrequited—love.” (Spiller).
On occasion, married men and women would stray and their spouses were typically expected to look the other way. Many of them hadn’t married for love anyway. Marriages among the aristocracy were almost entirely political or economic arrangements between families.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
The troubadour and secular court music movement really kicked off with Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is unclear whether she was actually a trobairitz (the name given to female troubadours) because she has no original works to her name, but she was definitely responsible for their popularity, and her well-financed patronage of troubadour music spread their cultural influence to England and beyond. She’s the one that really took “courtly love” mainstream.
Music was in Eleanor’s blood. Troubadour music had certainly existed before she was born, but it was still a relatively new genre that hadn’t yet taken hold beyond Occitania. One of the most influential troubadours, and also the author of the earliest known surviving works, was Duke William VII of Aquitaine who was actually Eleanor’s grandfather! Her deep love of music and poetry was instilled in her children, some of whom, such as the famous Richard I (the Lion-Heart), became troubadours themselves. Her daughter Marie de Champagne was a well-known and powerful patron of the arts in her day.
By the time Eleanor married her first husband Louis VII in 1137 at the age of 15, courtly romance rituals were well-established in Occitania. Eleanor, having been raised on troubadour court music and strictly adhering to love rituals and courtly manners, was disappointed with this union despite becoming Queen of France shortly after the wedding. After years of marital problems combined with the stress of serious political issues (most notably an unsuccessful crusade campaign) they eventually separated and the marriage was annulled in 1152. Her second husband, Prince Henry II of England, was much better at the courtly game of love (rumors had it he was TOO good). Shortly after marrying Henry, she became Queen of England and the troubadour and courtly love traditions quickly spread throughout her kingdom. She reigned as queen until 1167 when she and Henry separated. It was then that she ruled her own lands in Poitiers, heavily influencing and forever changing the European cultural landscape with her well-known support of art, literature and music.
A Perfect Storm
In Eleanor’s time, women of noble birth were usually well-educated, particularly in etiquette and the arts. A high-ranking woman was expected to not only be able to sing beautifully and play an instrument, but also write poetry. Oddly though, the church leaders believed it was inappropriate for a woman to use these talents for anything other than pious religious expression. Civic and societal leaders expected women of noble birth to put all their energy into following and maintaining proper cultural roles and class distinctions and representing noble families by doing…very little. Interestingly, “common” working-class women had fewer social restrictions and a lot more to do during the day. Lower class women could pursue a “career” of sorts in music as joglaresses (France) or gleewomen (England), but that sort of thing was definitely not appropriate for a woman of high birth and status.
Secular music was typically frowned upon by clergy, despite it being a significant part of village and urban life. But even worse than a man creating worldly music that draws men’s hearts away from God was a woman creating such music. The Catholic church didn’t have much to do with the counts, dukes and nobles of Occitania, at least not directly. This absence left the door wide open for upper class musicians to write music about racy romance and other worldly subjects without a lot of hassle.
So now we have bunch of very talented and very bored noblewomen. Who do you think had the time to embroider all those beautifully elaborate wall tapestries? Put these women in a culture promoting a fairly equal status between the genders, particularly when it comes to land ownership. The majority of the powerful and traditional older men most likely to object to women’s music and progressive ideas are off fighting the crusades. The person with the most cultural power is now a queen who was raised in a troubadour court and has the intelligence, talent, money and influence to support a very progressive musical and social movement. It’s a perfect storm.
By 1170, an era of free-thinking, self-proclaimed “emancipated” women had begun.
The Trobairitz: Lady Composers of Occitania
Women now had a place to compose and perform their poetry and love songs openly. They felt free to express themselves and how they really felt about things and what they were really like, not the divine, mysterious and submissive goddesses the men were proclaiming them to be. The trobairitz expressed their feelings in their own words proving they had opinions of their own and weren’t afraid to share them. They would do what they wanted, despite what any man had to say about it. Women like Lady Castelloza acknowledged that sometimes she wasn’t very polite or even socially appropriate, but she didn’t care.
Unlike what history tells us medieval women were like, these trobairitz openly criticized men and even made fun of their romantic advances. They felt no need to submit or be meek simply because society expected it of them. Some of them, such as Comtessa de Dia (known also as Beatriz de Dia), openly sang about sexual exploits and infidelity. On at least one occasion, a trobairitz song was written specifically from a woman’s point of view addressing another woman!
As a sidenote, it’s assumed that these women were writing about themselves, but you never know. It is impossible to know for sure how many of their poems were embellished or fabricated for artistic purposes or exactly how much of their poetry was based on personal experiences.
Trobairitz wrote and performed in the same accepted styles of their male counterparts (the troubadours). Themes were similar of course, as was poem structure. Singing or writing about politics or other “masculine” topics was still off limits to women, so the trobairitz stuck with love and romance, which was a bit less offensive to the more traditional members of medieval society. There were certainly “rules” that dictated how music and lyrics should flow and the professional musical world was still a male-dominated one. The trobairitz did follow the established troubadour musical traditions, but they weren’t slaves to them. “In fact, these trobairitz manipulated the male-dominated system to invent their distinctive and unique female voice.” (Kenderdine)
“As in later centuries, women who were restricted by the official order of things found unofficial alternatives. Aristocratic women, denied a role in government, manipulated the terms of their society by setting the tone of the aristocracy’s cultural life.” – Jeffrey L. Kingman
Typically, the trobairitz wrote two styles of song: canso and tenso, but there are examples of other styles being written by the ladies. Canso were love songs from the poet’s point of view addressing a lover who doesn’t answer back. Tenso were debate poems featuring two poet-singers (a man and a woman) going back and forth.
The Music and Attribution
Sadly, not many trobairitz songs have survived. Due to issues with attribution that applied to all music of the era regardless of gender, there are possibly poems and songs thought to be written by troubadours that may have actually been written by a trobairitz. Approximately 1,000 surviving poems/songs are thought by some to be written by women. Around 40 (give or take) are actually attributed directly to specific women and most of these remain generally undisputed by scholars. Sadly, among the attributed works there is only one with the original music intact: A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no voldria by Comtessa de Dia.
There is some debate among musicologists regarding the tensos (debate poems) in particular. The tradition was for the man’s part to come first, so unfortunately the attribution generally was given to the troubadour performing rather than the trobairitz who actually wrote it. We will never know for sure how many 12th and 13th century female composers were actually out there.
Here is a list of known trobairitz based on the surviving songs that were properly attributed.
Below are two pretty tame songs that have been translated from Old Occitan to English. Translations and lyrics are from an album by Analekta called Trobairitz: Poems of Women Troubadours.
Na Carenza (Lady Carenza), Unknown.
This is a two part conversation between two women. Lady Alais and her sister Iselda are worried about getting pregnant so they seek advice from a friend.
Lady Carenza, with the lovely, charming body, give us, two sisters, advice, for you know what is best; with your knowledge advise me:
Should I take a husband of our acquaintance or remain a virgin? That appeals to me because I don’t think having children is good; and being married seems far too distressing.
Lady Alais and Lady Iselda, education,
excellence and beauty, youth, fresh colour,
I know you have; courtesy and valour,
wisdom beyond all others;
so I advise you, if you would sow good see,
to take as husband the Crown of Learning,
by whom you will bear fruit of glorious offspring; who marries him remains a virgin.
Lady Carenza, taking a husband suits me,
but having children is, I think, great punishment; for the breast hang far down,
and the womb is laden and heavy.
Lady Alais and Lady Iselda, remember me,
and be the light of my salvation;
when you are there, pray to the glorious one that at my departure he will keep me near you.
A married woman sings about her secret lover.
for other women in love
it’s mostly the man who sends a message in picked and chosen words
but I can imagine I’m cured,
lover, courting you with words.
It pleases me
a better woman would turn to water
if she had from you a kiss or two
or an embrace.
was never fickle, I was never unfaithful. I never wanted any other lover
no matter how fine. Oh no,
I’m pensive and bitter
that you forget my loving.
If I don’t have some joy from you
you’ll find me dead someday.
A tiny wound can kill a lady
if there’s no man to heal her.
my family thanks you
especially my husband.
For every time you’ve failed me I forgive you freely.
I beg you, just come back to me once you’ve heard my song
I promise you’ll find
a warm welcome here.
- Everist, Mark. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Print. 2011. Print.
- Kenderdine, Janis. The Role of Female Troubadours and Trobairitz in the Middle Ages. Fifer’s Website.
- Lord, Suzanne. Music in the Middle Ages: A Reference Guide. London: Greenwood Publishing Group. 2008. Digital.
- Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. USA: Touchstone, 2008. Print.
- Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. USA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1999. Print.
- Singman, Jeffrey L. The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe. New York: Sterling Publishing. 2013. Print.
- The Troubadours. http://www.midi-france.info.