Troubadors: The Soul of Occitania in the C12th and C13th

courtly music

Courtly love and the culture of the Troubadors go hand-in-hand. Listening to the music of the troubadors is like opening a window on a lost world which is by turns haunting and evocative, sensual and refined. There are Iberian and Moorish influences as the music and presence of the troubadors in the Pays D’Oc may have originated in Moorish Spain and been brought back by crusading knights like William IX, Duke of Aquitaine who was one of the best known and most influential troubadors or even by Muslim captives who were brought to the area as prisoners of war. The sound is unmistakably ‘Southern’ in flavour; full of soft breezes and sultry nights, languid fountains and dusty earth.

muslim troubadors

Musical collaboration between Muslim and Christian Troubadors


The word troubadour comes from the Occitanian trobar, “to invent.” A troubadour was an inventor of new poetry, and constructing musical forms around this. Some of the troubadours’ work has survived, preserved in manuscripts known as chansonniers or ‘songbooks’, and there were rules written down in a work called Leys d’amors (1340) about  how their works were composed.

They may well have also adapted the work of other troubadors to increase their repetoire. Some melodies derive from folk tunes or even religious pieces and some troubadors were even priests and bishops, the most famous being Folquet de Marselha, later the Bishop of Toulouse, though the church generally frowned on secular music being written and performed by the clergy.

It is also possible that the creative process was a collaborative one, between a lyricist and a musical composer though there seems to be more weight on the former than the later in terms of recording the name of the composers.

troubadors two



‘The verse form they used most frequently was the canso, consisting of five or six stanzas with an envoy. They also used the dansa, or balada, a dance song with a refrain; the pastorela, telling the tale of the love request by a knight to a shepherdess; the jeu parti, or débat, a debate on love between two poets and the alba, or morning song, in which lovers are warned by a night watchman that day approaches and that the jealous husband may at any time surprise them.’ (

Phebi Claro Nondum Orto Iubare’

With pale Phoebus, in the clear east, not yet bright,

Aurora sheds, on earth, ethereal light:

While the watchman, to the idle, cries: ‘Arise!’

Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he! See there, the shadows pass!

Behold, the heedless, torpid, yearn to try

And block the insidious entry, there they lie,

Whom the herald summons urging them to rise.

Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he! See there, the shadows pass!

From Arcturus, the North Wind soon separates.
The star about the Pole conceals its bright rays.
Towards the east the Plough its brief journey makes.

 Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Now, alas! It is he! 


The ‘alba’ would find expression later in Shakespeare’s famous lines in Romeo and Juliet where the lovers debate whether it is yet dawn during their discussion over of the nightingale and the lark’s song.

One of the famous aristocratic troubadors, Bertrand de Born, a contemporary of Henry, the Young king and Richard Coeur de Lion was known for his sirventes or serventes.The name comes from sirvent “serviceman”, and conveys the sentiments of the soldier . Sirventes usually took the form of parodies, borrowing the melody, metrical structure and often even the rhymes of a well-known piece to address a controversial subject, often a current event and could be subversive or carry an overt political message. Bertrand became involved in the rebellion of Henry, The young King an his work reflects his views on contemporary politics.

About 300 troubador texts survive and demonstrate the variety of styles and subject matter covered by these artists within the general conventions of courtly love and codes of chivalric behaviour.

bertrand de Born

Bertrand de Born as a knight from a C13th chansonnier


Here are the opening lines of Bernart de Venadorn’s song:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
When I see the lark display

His wings with joy against the day,

Forgetting, fold then fall away,

As sweetness to his heart makes way,

Such great envy then invades

My mind: I see the rest take fire,

And marvel at it, for no way

Can my heart turn from its desire.


Ah, I so dearly wished to know

Of love, yet so little learn,

For I cannot keep from loving her

Who will not have me, though I burn.

She stole my heart, and all of me,

And she herself, and worlds apart;

Lacking herself, now nothing’s left

But longing and the willing heart.


Bernart de Ventadorn


Beyond the poetic conventions of courtly love, the cultural changes which took place in Occitania had a profound effect on the status of high born ladies at the courts where this music was sung and composed. Not only were women courted and sighed over, they were also projected to a higher level than they had previously enjoyed in Christian culture. Bernart de Ventadorn’s work shows the duality of male attitudes to women at this time. His female characters are elevated to the status of divine agents at one moment and then compared to Eve and reduced to temptresses the next. (Wilhelm, James J. “Lyrics of the Middle Ages” (46).)

St Bernard of Clairvaux was a passionate advocate for the particular veneration of the Virgin Mary and this emphasis on her role as mother and divine intercessor combined with the conventions of the troubadors allowed women to be ‘adored’ and valued in a new way but also elevated to an almost ‘mystical’ level. This seems at odds with the real power and authority which the vast majority of women enjoyed in their own lives yet there are many notable examples of women during this period who exercised considerable influence over their lands and husband’s domains, administered estates, engaged in diplomacy and acted as ambassadors and intercessors and even led the defence of castles and strongholds like Sybilla of Jerusalem against Saladin’s forces. Their abilities and competence were less open to question if they exercised or held power in the name of a male relative, whether that be a husband or son until he reached manhood, the real problem seeming to be any attempt to hold power in their own right and it was a constant battle for these women to receive acknowledgement of their achievements but they were there as players in the game of international politics and diplomacy as well as running religious foundations and acting as patrons to the arts in all forms.

B de Dia

Beatriz de Dia


Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most notorious and powerful women of her age and she was also a patron of troubador culture at her courts across Aquitaine and also in France and England during her marriages to Louis VII and Henry II. As the grand-daughter of William IX of Aquitaine she grew up emmersed in the culture of the troubadors and her eldest dauighter Marie of Champagne also became a particular patron of troubadour culture.

Aristocratic ladies were not only patrons but also might become Troubairitz themselves. The most famous of these was Beatriz de Dia, Countess of Dia and married to Guillem de Poitiers, Count of Viennois. She made little secret of her illicit passion for Raimbaut d’ Orange and her song ‘A Chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria‘ is the only surviving score for a troubairitz though some of their lyrics have survived. The score is found in Le manuscript di roi, a collection of songs copied circa 1270 for Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX.

Estat ai en greu cossirier

I’ve been in great distress of mind,

About a knight whom I possessed,

How I’ve loved him to excess

I want known, throughout all time;

Now I feel myself betrayed

Because I did not tell my love,

In great torment so I prove,

In bed or in my clothes arrayed.


Would that I might hold my knight

Till morning naked in my arms,

Intoxicated by my charms

He’d think himself in paradise;

For more pleased with him am I

Than Floris was with Blancheflor:

I grant him my heart, my amour,

My eyes, my mind, and my life.


Sweet friend, so good so gracious

When shall I have you in my power,

And lie with you at midnight hour,

And grant you kisses amorous?

Know, great desire I nurture too

To have you in my husband’s place,

As soon as you grant me, with grace,

To do all that I’d have you do.

I wonder what her husband made of this?!


The Troubairitz Castelloza


Castelloza was another high-ranking lady who wrote her own compositions. She was married to Turc of Mairona, Lord of Meyronne and was reputed to have been in love with Arman de Brion, a member of the house of Bréon and of greater social rank than her, about whom she wrote several songs. Her ‘vida’ or biography records her to have been “very gay”, “very learned”, and “very beautiful”. About three or four pieces have been attributed to her and survived.

The information we get from these ‘vidas’ is highly subjective but full of the flavour of the age and provides evidence of the ‘legendary’ qualities which grew up around the troubadors and troubairitz and their place in society, not only in Occitania itself but also in Spain and Italy.

The vehicle provided by poetry and song allowed a few women a voice which has come down to us and would otherwise have been lost to history. Indeed the songs of the troubairitz were the first non-religious compositions by medieval women to have survived to the modern day and stand as a fascinating contrast to the sublime music of Hildegaarde von Bingen which transports you to the gates of heaven by virtue of its clear beauty and ecstatic qualities. Secular love and sacred love as expressed by women in their own voices which are full of passion and longing and feels as fresh to the ear as the day it was composed.

The actual land of Occitania pervades so much of this poetry; The birds in flight and the stars fading in the morning sky are beautifully expressed by these poets.  The natural world is a source of metaphor but also the landscape around them which they observed on their travels and which becomes a part of the experience of listening to their songs.

The Pay D’Oc is a land of rivers and meadows, dramatic mountains to the South and close to the wide, untamed sea. It is rich and fertile, dotted with castles and churches and settlements, with grazing livestock and the hum of bees.

We glimpse the passing of the seasons and the great events of the wider world through the lyrics. Beyond the known landscape there is the distant dream world of Outremer and the Holy places. The troubadors mourn the loss of good men in the crusades and struggle to understand the losses of loved ones to disease and decay at home. They understand that life is precarious, often unjust and corrupt and that youth and beauty will soon decay and therefore they live in the moment, for the length of a song or the consideration of a single line or phrase and so their whole world is encapsulated, like a precious jewel, in their work.

There is also a stillness and measured quality to their songs. Time was understood in a wholly different way in C12th, regulated by the religious services and bells, lived in rhythm with the turning seasons and the agricultural calendar and the pace of life allowed for time to stop and observe the little details. The songs are not only windows into their world but also the spaces between breaths, the pauses between the sounds are as filled with the life and culture of Occitania as the sounds which separate them and to be treasured for all time.








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