By Danièle Cybulskie
Like many people – if not most – I had heard about the troubadours, but I had no idea that the tradition included women. Imagine, then, my delight in discovering that not only were there women who were creating and singing love poems for court, but also that some of their work has survived.
Female troubadours, or trobairitz, wrote lyrics that followed the courtly love tradition of the troubadours in that they involved themes of adulterous love, the elevation of the lady over the man who loves her, and the torturous nature of romantic love, itself. An interesting point made in Songs of the Women Troubadours (all of the quotes I’m using here come from this book) is that perhaps it was the elevation of the woman, and her feelings of love, brought about by the troubadours that “invite[d] real women poets to compose troubadour songs, to speak out in their medium” (p. xl). It’s important to take a moment to point out that the placement of women on a pedestal in the courtly love tradition did not do much to dispel the misogyny in society or in art, however. Some of the troubadour lyrics are viciously misogynistic.
It may not be surprising, then, that many of the trobairitz’ lyrics cover “safe” ground, rather than straying into commentary on politics or religion, as their male counterparts did. It is likely that it was far more acceptable for them to speak of matters of love and appearance than those matters that belonged to the “male domain”. One trobairitz, outraged, declares she’d been treated as badly “as I’d deserve to be if I were ugly” (p.7), and another repeats the refrain “I am lovely” (p.131). Yet another complains about fearing pregnancy, “for the breasts droop way down / the belly stretches and gets ugly” (p.97). Clearly, these lyrics are not meant to challenge the status quo.
Reading the lyrics I found in The Women Troubadours and Songs of the Women Troubadours, I noticed that much of the trobairitz’ work involved dispensing advice to lovers in dialogues called tensons about what to do to win the love of a lady, and hypothetical situations about which choice a lover should make. For example, Domna H. asks about two lovers whose lady requires them to make a promise:
She wants them both to swear and pledge
(before she lets them lie beside her)
that they’ll embrace and kiss her
and do no more than that; one makes short work
of it, for oaths mean nothing
to him; the other simply doesn’t dare. (p.79)
Which lover did the right thing? (The women and the man in this tenson can’t agree.) Women are called upon to decide what the best course of action for a lover should be in these situations, although they are also insulted by the men in the dialogues if they disagree with the verdict. Interestingly, women are frequently called upon to advocate on behalf of the tormented lover in a behind-the-scenes role which women would have often found themselves playing within the politics of the court, promising to patch things up between people. Women at the time would have frequently been looked to as intercessors, a role that was exemplified in the place of the Virgin Mary in medieval Christian tradition, so it makes sense that this was a comfortable place for women to situate themselves in their poetry.
While the trobairitz emphasize their unwavering loyalty as one of their best features as courtly lovers, what were they looking for from their men? Not knightly deeds, but rather kindness and discretion:
Maiden, if he wants me to give my love,
he will have to be cheerful, worthy
open and humble; let him argue with no one,
and respond to every person kindly;
because what suits me is not a mean or prideful man
who would harm and diminish my worth,
but a free and true, discreet and amorous man
if he wants me to let him be in love with me. (p.95)
While the women definitely follow the convention in which they are meant to be in complete control, commanding their lovers in all things, what they ask for is a lover who is nice to them and shows affection.
In the midst of the playful lyrics which follow courtly love conventions, there are women’s startlingly honest voices, too, including a heart-rending song about grieving a lover, and the powerful song I will leave you with today. It’s called “No puesc mudra no digua mon vejaire”, which Bruckner, Shepard and White have translated as “I can’t help it: I must speak my mind”. Enjoy this snippet of a modern-sounding song of exasperation, written by an anonymous trobairitz hundreds of years ago:
I can’t help it: I must speak my mind
about the thing that is confounding my heart,
and it will give me pain and grief to tell,
for I say those old-time troubadours,
who are dead now, gravely sinned,
putting the world in confusion,
when they openly spoke ill of women;
and all who hear their speech believe them
and grant that such things seem true;
thus they have plunged the world in error.
… I tell you there’s no great honor
in maligning that from which a child is born.
Let no one be amazed
if I speak this way, and even wish to prove
that every man should argue for his brother,
and every woman for her sister,
because Adam was our first father,
and we all have the Lord God as creator;
if, therefore, I wish to make an argument
for ladies, don’t carp at me about it;
one lady should do honor to another,
and that’s why I have given my opinion. (p.99, 101)
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist