Beyond Love Songs: Troubadours and Cathars

By Sonja Maurer-Dass

One of the most prominent topics to appear within musicological scholarship is that which concerns the relationship between music and politics. The thought of music in connection with such issues likely recalls certain twentieth-century popular musicians who have held up the metaphorical mirror to society while advocating for political change (such as the protest songs composed by Bob Dylan). While popular music has certainly addressed and brought attention to various social and political concerns, for centuries, Western art music was also used as a tool to express sociopolitical ideals and condemn injustices. This is evident as we travel back through the history of Western art music to the Middle Ages.

From the early seventeenth century, music and theatre were combined to form opera which was often allegorical and was used to emphasize the majesty of reigning monarchs. This was exemplified in the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose works contained many references to Louis XIV’s splendour, power, and martial prowess. As we travel farther back to the fifteenth century, we see that Henry V employed his Chapel Royal to highlight the glory of England. Journeying even farther back to the early Middle Ages, a time when religion and politics were strongly enmeshed, Charlemagne used Frankish (Gregorian) chant to unify his territories’ liturgical practices and thereby amalgamated them under one faith.


It is perhaps not surprising that music has been deployed by powerful rulers like Louis XIV, Henry V, and Charlemagne to further their political and religious ambitions; however, we also see numerous examples of poets and musicians who composed works that commented on the contemporaneous political climates that were influenced by both Church and State. Among these artists were the troubadours, the poet-musicians of medieval Southern France.

Musicological analyses and discussions of the troubadours tend to focus on their poetry and songs related to courtly love. Indeed, while the topic of love certainly occupied a significant place in these musicians’ works, the troubadours were also known to compose pieces that expressed their political and religious views. This is exemplified in the genre of the crusade song. Crusade songs were often written to encourage fellow citizens to support the crusades in the Holy Land; however, from 1209-1229, the troubadours witnessed another crusade closer to home in Southern France – the Albigensian Crusade.


There exists a number of troubadour compositions related to the crusades in Jerusalem, but did the troubadours also compose songs that reflected their opinions on the Albigensian Crusade which was unfolding in their own region? To date, there have been several theories that conjecture on the presence of Cathar influences in troubadour (and some trouvères) poetry and songs; however, today, most scholars assert that there is evidence which points to the contrary. Essentially, the troubadours’ verses do not explicitly indicate Cathar sympathies (and are ambiguous on the subject, at best). This article will present thoughts on both points of view. First, the Cathars’ beliefs and the history of the Albigensian Crusade will be briefly explained. This will be followed by an exploration of select theories that support and deny Cathar influence within the troubadours’ compositions.

The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade

From the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, a heretical sect of Christianity flourished in Southern France and Northern Italy – the Cathars. The earliest record of the Cathars can be traced back to 1143 in Cologne, to a religious group who observed an ancient doctrine that was believed to have originated in Greece. By the 1160s, this belief system – whose adherents were recognized by several names including “Albigensian” – had spread across Northern Europe but flourished in Lombardy and Languedoc.

Fundamentally, Catharism differed from the beliefs of Catholicism and, in some ways, was reminiscent of the beliefs associated with Manichaeism. For the Cathars, the material world was fundamentally evil and was seen as a creation of Satan and the institutionalized structure of the Catholic church was vehemently rejected. While the physical world was perceived as negative, the spiritual world was believed to be God’s creation and was accepted as inherently good. Because the physical world was evil, the Cathars did not believe that the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ were possible. Additionally, the Cathars were forbidden from engaging in some activities which included sexual intercourse and anything that would result from such unions. This meant that eating eggs, meat, and milk were also prohibited since they were seen as products of sexual activity.

Detail of a miniature of the Pope excommunicating the Albigensians, while on the right, the Albigensian Crusade is launched – British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 374v

In 1209, Pope Innocent III instigated the Albigensian Crusade in response to the Cathars’ heretical beliefs. The military campaign involved the Catholics of Northern France who were strongly opposed to the prevalence of Catharism in Southern France. In fact, a number of Southern nobles condoned the Cathars’ beliefs. At the time of the crusade, the troubadours were actively composing poetry and music in Southern France which has led to disagreement among authors and scholars concerning their potential affiliation with the Cathars.


Cathar Influence on Troubadour Compositions?

The troubadours (and their Northern French counterparts, the trouvères), were renowned poet-musicians throughout Southern France in the twelfth to late thirteenth centuries. Their social statuses were varied, and several troubadours belonged to nobility (female troubadours also existed and were called “trobairitz”). As previously mentioned, much of the troubadours’ songs speak of love in various forms; however, a number of their songs were notably inspired by politics and religion, and the crusades in Jerusalem occupied a special place in their poetry. That being said, were any of the troubadours associated with the Cathars, and did the Albigensian Crusade influence the content of their songs?

A few authors – particularly those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – were confident in their beliefs that Cathar heresy was hidden within troubadour verses. Specifically, the authors Eugène Aroux, Joséphin Péladan, and Otto Rahn contended that the language used in the troubadours’ poetry (and the poetry of the trouvère, Chrétien de Troyes) expressed esoteric knowledge of the Cathars. According to these authors, it was inconceivable that the troubadours could live within the vicinity of the Cathars without being influenced by their belief system, especially since some of the troubadours’ patrons are suspected to have supported the Cathars.

Although the troubadours’ poetry does not explicitly indicate a connection to Cathar beliefs, Aroux, Péladan, and Rahn postulated that the troubadours intentionally wrote in an ambiguous style called trobar clus (“closed style”) so that their affiliation to the Cathars would be disguised, lest they be persecuted for associating with a heretical sect. According to Aroux, the troubadours’ jongleurs travelled around France while singing their songs, and along their travels, revealed the lyrics’ secret messages to select listeners. While certainly interesting, these authors’ theories are highly speculative and suspect, and as stated by Karen Sullivan in her book Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature:


…in more recent years, critics have tended to dismiss the possibility of a link between Catharism and troubadour verse, to the point where two new surveys of medieval Occitan poetry do not even bother to refute this notion.

Despite the consensus among most scholars that the troubadours’ poetry does not indicate signs of Cathar influence, there is still contention among some who insist that certain troubadours harboured an affinity for the heretical sect, especially Peire Cardenal. Select verses from Cardenal’s works denounce and admonish the Catholic clergy – who he thought to be hypocritical – which has led some authors to believe that he was a Cathar sympathizer (since Cathars were very much opposed to the Catholic church). Cardenal’s disdain for the clergy is exemplified in his poem “Clergues se fan pastors.” The poem reads as follows: “Clergue se fan pastors, et son aucizedor, e par de gran sanctor, qui los vei revestir” which translates to “churchmen pass for shepherds, but they’re murderers. Dressed in their robes, they seem so saintly.”

Peire Cardenal from a 13th-century Lombard chansonnier. – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 12473

While Cardenal’s words emphatically express his disapproval of the clergy, they do not necessarily imply that he despised Catholicism as a religion in its entirety. In the book Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehe, the author observes that Cardenal’s poetry –   although clearly anticlerical – does, at times, “appear more Christian than Cathar.” The author supports this notion by drawing attention to the fact that Cardenal wrote a poem dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom the Cathars did not assign the same theological importance as did the Catholics.

Although the troubadours’ reputation as poet-musicians has largely been tied to their songs of courtly love, as observed in their crusade songs, religion and politics were also important poetical topics; however, the question of whether these religious topics concerned Cathar themes and symbols has not yet been definitively answered, making way for further scholarly investigation.


Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in late medieval English choral music and the Old Hall Manuscript from York University. In 2019, Sonja presented her paper titled Royal Authorship in the Old Hall Manuscript: A New Approach for Examining Roy Henry’s Identity and Compositions at the 9th International Medieval Meeting held at the University of Lleida in Lleida, Spain. This paper has been peer-reviewed and is being prepared for publication in Spain.

Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass

Further Reading:

Barber, Malcolm. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Gaunt, Simon and Sarah Kay, eds. The Troubadours: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kehew, Robert, ed. Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, a Bilingual Edition. Trans. Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass, and Robert Kehew. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McManners, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sullivan, Karen. Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: British Library MS Additional 62925 f. 48v