Troubadours Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Late medieval lyric poets and poet-musicians who flourished in the Provençal region.

The troubadours were poets and poet-musicians who flourished from the late eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries in southern France, northern Italy, and northern Spain. They wrote their lyrics in Oc, a language commonly referred to as Provençal, and their subject matter was primarily courtly love, a stylized set of conventions governing the conduct of romantic relations between ladies of the court and their lovers. Troubadours belonged to every class of medieval society, including the nobility and the church, and they employed numerous verse forms, including the canso, or love poem; the sirventes, or satire; the tenso, or debate; and the planh, or lament. While melody lines are extant for some troubadour lyrics, it is not known how much of this body of works was sung to music. More certain is the profound influence that the troubadours had on European lyric poetry and, less directly, American song.

Scholars have examined the troubadours and their works from a variety of perspectives, including their relation to literature, linguistics, culture, and history. Norman Klassen discovers a high level of complexity in the troubadours' verse. In evaluating the troubadours' legacy, Robert S. Briffault observes that they are responsible for a complete break from the classics of Greece and Rome: “The Provençal song-makers did not … frame anew the form only of poetical expression; they enacted a change which has struck deeper into the European mind, a change in the whole of its emotional and imaginative cast. They did not pour new wine into old bottles, they poured new wine into new bottles. Both form and content were, in their poetry, a new departure, in all respects, foreign from the tradition of Greco-Roman literature.” Anthony Bonner discusses the patronage system under which the troubadours operated. In return for singing their praises, noblemen would reward the troubadours with money, clothes, horses, or land. Bonner suggests that, when a battle did not otherwise occupy his attention, a nobleman recognized the permanence of art in contrast to the “transitoriness of political power” and might choose not “to go down in history as a man whose court was a measly, unlettered, backwoods affair.” William E. Burgwinkle also examines the economics of courtly patronage, focusing on Uc de Saint Circ, an early thirteenth-century troubadour whom he deems the author of the vast majority of the razos (accounts of the composition of works) and a large number of the vidas (biographies) of the troubadours. Margarita Egan provides literary analysis of the texts of the vidas, calling them “a vital link between the didactic tradition of the Middle Ages (commentaries, glosses on classical texts, exemplary lives of saints) and the fictional short stories of the Renaissance.” Numerous feminist studies have been undertaken of the troubadours and the trobairitz, or female troubadours. E. Jane Burns contends that for all the attention typically given to the troubadours' admiration of women, the poets actually viewed them with ambivalence. Burns finds that the troubadours wrote only of their own feelings and not those of the women whom they supposedly loved. Joan M. Ferrante examines the question of whether there is a distinct female rhetoric in the work of the trobairitz and answers, with caution, in the affirmative. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White also study the trobairitz—concluding that they number approximately twenty out of more than four hundred total troubadours—and explore their literary, historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts.