French Troubadours

French Troubadour Poets

The early 12th century saw the watershed of Courtly Poetry in France.   William IX, Duke of Aquitaine,  was a lyric poet in the vernacular style and is generally believed to be the first of the troubadour performers. He wrote in the Occitan language, an ancient tongue that still survives today in the Mediterranean regions.

William became King at 15 years old and the Duchy of Aquitaine, taking up an invitation to join the 1^(st) Crusade of 1101, with little success.

William became known for his writing skills as a troubadour, writing poems and songs in the Romance vernacular language and performing them to invited audiences.  

In the Middle Ages, poetry was sung by minstrels in the Market place.  From there it moved into the courts of the Monarchs and became the preserve of the aristocracy - John Donne.  As the middle class gained their wealth it moved into the parlours of over stuffed gentility.  Eventually poetry became the preserve of the Academia, studied in literature courses limited to esoteric coteries.  Modern poetry attempts to appeal to the masses and should be enjoyed at first reading.

William IX, wrote about sex and love, including his own successes with women, portraying himself as a great lover,  a witty and vivacious writer provoking scandal and admiration in almost equal proportions. When performing he had his audiences gasping at times with the coarseness of his words.  

Adapted from:


* Comrades, I don’t know where to turn without being upset* * about a case I am called to judge:* * because a woman complains to me about her wardens.* * And she says that they don’t acknowledge either custom or law;* * instead, they keep her locked, all the three of them,* * so much that when one loosens her snares, the others tighten them more.*

And they behave in such a way * (one is as courtly as a hangman’s noose) * * and they make more noise than the King’s gang. * * And I tell you, wards, and I admonish you, * * and it shall be a proper fool he who doesn’t believe me: * * there hardly is a warden who doesn’t sometimes doze. * * Since I never saw a woman so steadfast * * that she wouldn’t want to take what she likes or deserves, * * and who, if kept from worth, wouldn’t turn to depravity. * * And if you keep her from proper harness * * she’ll do with what she finds around herself * * and if she can’t have a steed, she’ll buy a palfrey. * * None of you would contradict me if I said * * that, if one were forbidden to drink strong wine because of an illness, * * he would rather drink water than let himself die of thirst. * * Everyone would rather drink water than die of thirst! * * I shall write a new little song * * before it turns windy, cold and rainy: * * let my mistress assay and test me * * so she’ll learn in which fashion I love her; * * and certainly, come hell and high water, * * she won’t free me from her snares. * * Instead, I surrender and deliver myself to her, * * so that she can write my name in her charter. * * And don’t think I am drunk, * * if I love my good mistress, * * because I can’t live without her, * * so much I starve for her love.*

* … *

* … * * I shiver and shake for this woman * * because I love her of such a good love: * * I don’t think one alike to her was born * * in the great lineage of the noble Adam. * * Because she is whiter than ivory, * * and for this I can’t adore anyone else: * * if I am not reassured shortly, * * that my good mistress loves me, * * I shall die, by the head of St. Gregory, * * unless she kisses me in her room or under a tree. * * What good will it be to you, beautiful dame, * * if your love parts me from you? * * You seem to intend to become a nun! * * And know, since I love you so much, * * that I fear that the pain will harm me, * * if you don’t redress the wrongs I blame on you. * * What good will it be to you if I become a monk * * and you don’t keep me as your own? * * All the joy in the world is ours, * * Lady, if we love each other. * * Down there, I tell and command my friend Daurostre * * to sing and cry. *

Due to the translation, we lose much of the musicality of this poem.  Its oral form is a song like The Iliad or Odyssey.  

The subject matter appears to be an early instance of idealising women.  King William supported women in positions of power and was likely a strong influence on his grand daughter Eleanor of Aquitaine, a strong woman who asserted her power. The poem, in two parts dealing first with men who feel they have to assert their domination of women by keeping their wives locked up.   He describes one of them as being *“as courtly as a hangman’s noose” * - killing their love. Primitive man’s concept of wooing a woman was to scour their territory, ambush the most desirable young girl, club her, then drag her by the hair, back to his cave and tame her to keep house for him and provide comfort for him at night.  Aristocratic men, slightly more sophisticated,  used their wealth, status and power to negotiate favorable contracts for themselves.

King William advances the argument, that if women were freely courted, they would prove more valuable to share your life with.

He shows that his love for his women is unquenchable and that by loving her, she returns his love by kissing him in her room or under a tree.  Rather than she becoming a nun and he a monk, they enjoy the world and sing and cry.  This could be a reference to the tragic tale of Heloise and Abelard, his contemporaries. Is this the first challenge of St Paul’s advice about chastity? 

Arnaut Daniel #

Arnaut Daniel,  (1180–1200), Provençal poet, troubadour, and master of the trobar clus, a poetic style composed of complex metrics, intricate rhymes, and words chosen more for their sound than for their meaning. Born in Ribérac (now in France), Arnaut was a nobleman and a highly regarded traveling troubadour. He is credited with inventing the sestina, a lyrical form of six six-line stanzas, unrhymed, with an elaborate scheme of word repetition.

His skill with language was admired by Petrarch and in the 20th century by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. His greatest influence, however, was on Dante, who imitated him and gave him a prominent place in Purgatory as a model for the vernacular poet. Arnaut’s speech in Provençal is the only passage in the Divine Comedy not in Italian.

A poet whose commitment to love, is unflinching in using vernacular language, desire, and subjectivity that Dante saw as essential to lyric poetry.

Ab la douzour del temps novel *For the sweetness of springtime, * *the woods leaf and the birds * *sing, each in its own language, * *according to the swing of the new song: * *it is therefore right that one tends towards * *what he desires most. * *From the place I like and love * *comes neither messenger nor missive; * *because of this, I neither sleep nor laugh; * *and I don’t dare come forward * *until I know with certitude * *whether things stand as I want them to. * *Our love works * *just as the hawthorn twig * *which stands shaking on the tree * *in the night, in the rain and in the frost * *until the morning after, when the sun stretches * *on the green leaf and on the branches. * *I still remember a morning * *when we ended a fight * *and when she gave such an important gift, * *her love and her ring: * *god let me live long enough * *to put my hands under her cape. * *I don’t worry that a strange language * *would part me from my Good Neighbour, * *because I know the wandering ways of words: * *they begin as idle chat: * *some people brag about love matters, * we have the matter in hand.


The adjective primaveral refers to “spring ” found in just about all the Romance languages: Italian (end of the 12th century), Catalan (13th century), Spanish (14th century), and Portuguese (16th century); even Romanian has primăvară.  The Latin gaudia “delights, joys,” becoming singular joie in French and gioia in Italian.

It is the urge of Spring—the primaveral force that inspires the young and mocks the aged.  The image of “*the hawthorn twig/ stands shaking on the tree/ in the night," but then growing strong captures the desperation and hope of first love.

Even though they often fight, the reconciliation is always intense and he looks forward to initiating sexual intimacy by putting “his hand beneath her cape”.