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The Troubadours 1: entrebescant los mots…

Thanks to my local library, I have been reading the medieval Troubadours. (The Wikipedia entry is in this case excellent, so I recommend you head there if you want a more in-depth overview.)

The troubadour tradition had its origins in Eleventh Century Occitania – the Kingdom of Oc – but from here it flowered into an incredibly cosmopolitan and sophisticated network which, at its height, drew together medieval courts from Portugal to Greece.

Typically, a troubadour would be patronised by a nobleman, for whom he would perform and undertake commissions, and from whom he would receive great favours and preference. But so expressive of courtly values was the troubadour’s art that many of the greatest troubadours were themselves noblemen. Richard the Lionheart famously composed a song urging his friends to club together and pay the ransom for which he was being held captive by Duke Leopold of Austria.

The troubadours would express aesthetic philosophies and communicate with each other through their songs, discussing their art and influences in a way that modern criticism would not hesitate to characterise as intertextual. Moreover, it was a common practice for two or more troubadours to compose a song together on the same theme, somewhere between a duet and a dialectical discourse.

Linguistically, the songs of the troubadours are fascinating. Although the language in which they are invariably composed was spoken only in Oc, apparently the members of any of the many Romance courts could understand the words perfectly. Indeed, such was the success and influence of the Occitan tradition that any aspirant troubadour would compose in that language, regardless of what their native tongue was – rather like how many pop singers from Europe today tend to write songs in (mostly mid-Atlantic) English.

To read the texts of the troubadours is a fascinating experience, because they seem to contain or prefigure elements of all the major Romance languages. Take the following verse as an example: I suspect that a speaker of contemporary French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or Catalan would not have too much difficulty understanding at least the first line:

…eu non puesc lonjamen estar
de sai vius ni de lai guerir,
si josta mi despollada
non la puesc baizar e tenir
dins cambra encortinada.

(Cercamon – Ab lo temps qe fai refreschar, vv. 45-49)

[A Spanish gloss would be: No puedo estar mucho tiempo aquí vivo y allá sanar, si no puedo besarla y tenerla desnuda a mi lado, dentro de la cámara encortinada. In English: I cannot be a long time here alive and there healthy, if I can’t kiss her and have her naked at my side, inside a four-poster bed.]

The verb ‘baizar’, to kiss, is reflected in the French baiser (in the old sense…), Spanish besar and Portuguese beijar.

In future blog posts I will use the language of the troubadours as a prism through which to look at aspects of the development of the Romance languages. For now, though, here is a striking metaphor for poetic/musical composition:

C’aisi vauc entrebescant
los mots e·l so afinant:
lengu’entrebescada
es en la baizada.

(Bernat Marti – Bel m’es lai latz la fontana, vv. 60-63)

[Voy entrelazando las palabras y afinando la melodía, del mismo modo que la lengua se entrelaza en el beso./I proceed by interlinking the words and refining the melody, in the same way that tongues interlink in the kiss.]

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