The poem can seem like a timeless art form. When we talk about the poetry of nature or dance, we’re referring to a primeval form of language – it’s as if verse existed before other words even made it on the scene.
But, in reality, the European poem as we know it was invented, and fairly recently, too. What we in the West think of as poetry is largely the result of 12th-century troubadours and their controversial insistence on singing about the profane.
The troubadours introduced the concept of courtly love and invented poetic forms still in use today; the songbooks in which their lyrics were compiled defined the template for the poetry anthology. In her forthcoming book, Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe, Marisa Galvez, an assistant professor of French at Stanford, traces the growth of this literary culture through a few surviving songbooks, or chansonniers. “Songbooks were poetry before we had poets,” Galvez said.
In the early middle ages, formal musical culture was devoted to religious hymns. The majority of songs were written in Latin and meant to be performed by sacred choirs.
But medieval aristocrats were looking for lighter courtly entertainment. Into this void stepped William IX, duke of Aquitaine – an important lord in his own right, and the first attested troubadour.
“This is a man who wrote romantic love songs, boasting songs, and very bawdy songs involving erotic scenes with cats,” said Galvez. And, rather than singing in the “universal” language of Latin, William IX wrote his songs in Old Occitan – a vernacular local to southern France, Spain, Portugal and northern Italy. “It went against everything that they learned in church.”
Many disapproved of the frequently vulgar new genre. One cleric from the time period referred to troubadours as “long-haired and skinny” young men who “laze around” uselessly – descriptions that linger still.
The comparison isn’t entirely inaccurate. These courtly singer-songwriters tended to write on one topic: chivalrous, illicit love. In doing so, they made forbidden romance a safe topic for literature and inspired legends of their own promiscuity.
To protect the identity of the women in question, “they always addressed their lovers with code names,” said Galvez. The objects of the singers’ affection would be given titles like Belz Vezers (“Lovely View”) or Miels Domna (“Better than Woman.”)
The troubadours also used pseudonyms to refer to each other, engaging in extended insult wars. Boasting about their rhyming skill, the value of their possessions and their sexual prowess, “troubadours used many of the same codes as rap songs do today,” said Galvez.
Early troubadours were also highly respected performers among the aristocracy. Musicians made appearances at courts across Europe. Evidence suggests William IX was known to Arab princes in southern Spain.
And the art’s increasing technical refinement soon overshadowed claims of vulgarity. By the late 12th century, the troubadour Arnaut Daniel had invented the sestina – one of the most complex verse forms still in use today.
With so many layers of hidden meaning, a full understanding of these songs would only have been possible for the troubadours’ contemporary audience. The lyrics contain references to people who were presumably known to the listeners, or even present at the performances themselves.
These elements that are only understandable in the context of the original performance – known as “deixis” – highlight a major difficulty in studying the medieval art form.
Galvez and other medievalists owe their knowledge of troubadour music to chansonniers – anthologies of songs, some illustrated, often accompanied by brief biographies of each of the authors. But, by experiencing a musical performance through a written description, scholars lose important aspects of the story.
For one thing, most songbooks don’t contain musical notation, meaning the tunes themselves have been lost.
Little is known even about the instruments troubadours played. Musical accompaniment may have been as simple as a single citole (a kind of lute) or organistrum (a hurdy-gurdy operated by two musicians) or as complex as a small band, complete with woodwinds, strings and percussion.
And simply by writing the songs down, scribes significantly altered the troubadour tradition. Songs that may have once been communally written – with a series of troubadours adding their own verses and edits – were now credited to a single author.
“We think about this literature as fixed, just because it’s in a book,” said Galvez. “But that’s not the way it was. What we’re reading in a songbook is someone’s version after reading five different versions of the song in other people’s songbooks.”
Because chansonniers represent the stamp of musical authority, inclusion in songbooks became an end in itself. By the 13th century, young musicians were publishing their own anthologies, with their new songs slipped between classic works.
At the end of the 13th century, the poet Guiraut Riquier was already calling himself “The Last Troubadour” and singing about the death of the classic songwriting style. As Galvez said, “You start to write traditions down because they’re already lost.”
One way to look at the songbooks is as merely a springboard to the canonical works of medieval and early renaissance literature. Dante and Petrarch both pointed to troubadours as important influences.
But Galvez believes that’s only part of the story. “We don’t think of the English language as being a straight shot from Chaucer to Auden anymore.”
Although the songbooks did inspire classic verse, they also gave rise to communally edited folk music traditions that are still seen today. Galvez points to the cancioneros of Texan-Mexican folksongs and the traveling cordel poets of northeastern Brazil, who keep the original troubadour poetry-as-community sentiment alive. Even putting together your own mixtape has something of the chansonnier spirit to it.
“The middle ages were kind of messy and modular,” Galvez said. “It links well with postmodernism, and the idea that I can curate my own playlist.”
Galvez has been keeping the tradition alive herself. For her “Performing Trobar” project last year, she brought the Troubadours Art Ensemble – a group devoted to recreating troubadour songs with period instruments – to Stanford.
“Medieval literature is a lot of work, in terms of contextualization, translation and reconstruction,” said Galvez. “Parts of it are scientific, but a full understanding requires creative translation.”
My heart takes root in her and grips with its nail,
holds on like bark on the rod,
to me she is joy’s tower and palace and chamber,
and I do not love brother as much, or father, or uncle;
and there’ll be double joy in Paradise for my soul,
if a man is blessed for loving well there, and enters.
– Arnaut Daniel, 12th century
Source: University of Stanford