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A troubadour composing lyrics, Germany c. 1300

A troubadour was a composer and performer of songs during the Middle Ages in Europe. Beginning with William IX of Aquitaine, the troubadours would become a veritable movement in the history of medieval literature, in addition to being one of the largest movements in secular medieval music. They were the first poets on record to write in the vernacular, eschewing the Latin and Greek which had dominated the literature of Western Europe for over a millennium.

The texts of troubadour songs deal mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love. Many songs addressed a married lover, perhaps due to the prevalence of arranged marriages at the time. In popular culture, they are often associated with the invention of "romantic love"; and they were indeed the first poets in the West to address love between a man and a woman as being a topic worthy of the decorations of high art. Many aspects of romantic love have retained an enduring enchantment and dominance particularly in Western cultures so far, but its influence should not be seen as unequivocally positive. Questions of selfish individualism, moral relativism, and social destabilization must also be included in assessing this aspect of social evolution.

The etymology of the word troubadour is controversial, and reflects the historical origins not only of the word but also of the poets themselves. In general, the argument breaks into two camps. Romanists argue that the root of the word “troubadour” can be found either in the Occitan verb trobar (“to compose, invent, or devise”), or in the Vulgar Latin tropare, (“to say with tropes”). By contrast, Arabists posit an Arabic origin in the word taraba (“to sing”). This academic disagreement, which rages on, is a reflection of the odd positioning of the troubadours in history: they emerged out of the South of France and the North of Spain, a region which at the time was constantly threatened (and sometimes overrun) by Arabic Moors. The troubadours emerged from a region that sat at the confluence of Eastern Arabic and Western Latin cultures, during a time when the Arabic-speaking world was one of the pinnacles of literary culture. It is difficult for scholars to fully assess the myriad influences on the troubadours, but it is nonetheless clear that they were in an epicenter of literary activity, drawing influences from East and West.

The troubadours were traveling poet-musicians who spoke Occitan (or langue d'oc); their style spread to the trouvères in the north of France, who spoke langues d'oïl; from there, the style of the troubadours continued to spread to the Minnesingers of Germany and to the poets of the Italian Renaissance such as Dante and Petrarch. The tradition began to flourish during the eleventh century, and troubadours became an essential part of the emerging communities of the Middle Ages. Often troubadours were the primary transmitter of news and information, as they went from town to town, spreading their songs. The earliest troubadour whose work survives is Guilhem de Peitieus (Guillaume d'Aquitaine or William IX, Duke of Aquitaine). However, Peter Dronke, author of The Medieval Lyric, notes that "[his] songs represent not the beginnings of a tradition but summits of achievement in that tradition." [1] His name has been preserved because he was a duke, but his work plays with already established structures; Eble II of Ventadorn is often credited as a predecessor, though none of his work survives. The style flourished in the eleventh century and was often imitated in the thirteenth.

According to Ezra Pound, the troubadours represent the highest perfection of what he called "clear song," the unity of image and idea with the music of the words. Although this may be exaggeration on Pound's part, the troubadours do represent a high point (some would argue, the high point) for the development of formal poetic techniques in European verse. The troubadours were the first poets to write in the vernacular languages of their respective countries, and as a result many of the basic traditions of European poetry (the use of iambs, the length of lines, and so on) begin with the troubadours. In addition the troubadours also invented entirely novel forms of poetry that have no antecedents in either Latin or Greek literature, such as the sestina, a 39-line poem which hypnotically repeats the same six end-words over and over, and the aubade, a poem to be sung at the onset of morning. The troubadours form an essential part of the rich tapestry that is the history of medieval literature.

William IX of Aquitaine

William IX of Aquitaine - Image from Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod. fr. 12473, thirteenth century

William IX of Aquitaine (October 22, 1071 – February 10, 1126, also Guillaume or Guilhem d'Aquitaine, nicknamed the Troubador) was Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony and Count of Poitiers as William VII of Poitiers between 1086 and 1126. He was also one of the leaders of the crusade of 1101 and one of the first medieval vernacular poets.

Life and Family

William was the son of William VIII of Aquitaine by his third wife Hildegarde of Burgundy. His birth was an event of great celebration, but at first he was considered illegitimate by religious authorities because of his father's earlier divorces and his parents' consanguinity. This obliged his father to make a pilgrimage to Rome soon after his birth, where he sought and received papal approval of his marriage and children.

In 1094 he married Philippa of Toulouse, the daughter and heiress of William IV of Toulouse. By Philippa, William had two sons and five daughters, including:

  1. William X of Aquitaine, his heir.
  2. Agnes of Aquitaine, who married (1) Aimery V of Thouars; (2) King Ramiro II of Aragon.
  3. Raymond of Antioch, who became ruler of the principality of Antioch, a Crusader state.

He was excommunicated twice, the first time in 1114 for some unknown offense. His response to this was to demand absolution from the Bishop of Poitiers at swordpoint. He was excommunicated a second time for abducting Dangereuse (Dangerosa in Occitan), the wife of his vassal Aimery I de Rochefoucauld, Viscount of Châtellerault. He installed her in the Maubergeonne tower of his castle, and, as related by William of Malmesbury, even painted a picture of her on his shield.

This greatly offended both his wife and his son, William. According to Orderic Vitalis, Philippa protested against her treatment in October 1119 at the Council of Reims, claiming to have been abandoned by the duke in favor of Dangereuse. She later retired to the convent of Fontevrault. Relations with his son were only repaired when the younger William married Aenor of Châtellerault, Dangereuse's daughter by her husband.

An anonymous thirteenth century biography of William, forming part of the collection Biographies des Troubadours, remembers him thus:

The Count of Poitiers was one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women. He was a fine knight at arms, liberal in his womanizing, and a fine composer and singer of songs. He travelled much through the world, seducing women.

Military life

William invited Pope Urban II to spend Christmas 1095 at his court. The pope urged him to take the cross and leave for the Holy Land, but William was more interested in exploiting the absence of Raymond IV of Toulouse, his wife's uncle, to press a claim to Toulouse. He and Philippa did capture Toulouse in 1098, an act for which they were threatened with excommunication. Partly out of a desire to regain favor with the religious authorities and partly out of a wish to see the world, William joined the First Crusade in 1099.

He arrived in the Holy Land in 1101 and stayed there until the following year. His record as a general is not very impressive. William fought mostly skirmishes in Anatolia and was frequently defeated. His recklessness had his army ambushed on several occasions, with great losses to his own side. In September 1101, the Turks at Heraclea destroyed his entire army; William himself barely escaped, and, according to Orderic Vitalis, reached Antioch with only six surviving companions.

Later on in his life, William joined forces with the kingdoms of Castile (an old ally) and Léon. Between 1120 and 1123, Aquitanian troops fought side by side with queen Urraca of Castile, in an effort to conquer the Moors of Cordoba and complete the Reconquista. William IX also provided troops to Philip I of France in his war against William the Conqueror.


William's greatest legacy to history, however, was not as a warrior but as a poet, though Pound, among others, would point out that like Aesychlus, William not only wrote of battle but fought in it. He was the first known troubadour, although as many scholars have suggested he almost certainly was drawing on a tradition of oral singers and poets that prior to his time had not found its way into literature. Eleven of his songs survive. They are attributed to him under his title as Count of Poitou (lo coms de Peitieus). The topics vary, treating sex, love, women, his own sexual prowess, and feudal politics. His frankness, wit and vivacity caused scandal and won admiration at the same time. He is among the first Romance vernacular poets of the Middle Ages, one of the founders of a tradition that would culminate in Dante, Boccaccio, and Villon. Ezra Pound mentions him in Canto VIII:

And Poictiers, you know, Guillaume Poictiers,
had brought the song up out of Spain
with the singers and viels...

William was a man who loved scandal and no doubt enjoyed shocking his audiences. Upon returning from crusade, he abandoned his wife in favor of a married woman, known as Dangereuse (Dangerosa in Occitan) from his poems, and risked excommunication for the deed. He also composed a song about founding a convent in his lands, where the nuns would be picked from among the most beautiful women in the region—or from the best whores—depending on the translation. While this confirms William's rakish attitudes and penchant for controversy, it also makes a joke and political commentary (often missed by contemporary readers) about the penitentiary convents for prostitutes founded by the charismatic preacher Robert of Arbrissel of whom William was, for various reasons, none to fond (Bond, xlix). In fact, William granted large donations to the church, perhaps to regain the pope's favor. He also constructed the palace of the counts of Poitou, later added to by his granddaughter Eleanor of Aquitaine and surviving in Poitiers to this day.

One of William's poems, possibly written at the time of his first excommunication, since it implies that his son was still a minor, is partly a musing on mortality: Pos de chantar m'es pres talenz (Since I have the desire to sing,/I'll write a verse for which I'll grieve). It concludes:

I have given up all I loved so much:
chivalry and pride;
and since it pleases God, I accept it all,
that He may keep me by Him.
I enjoin my friends, upon my death,
all to come and do me great honour,
since I have held joy and delight
far and near, and in my abode.
Thus I give up joy and delight,
and squirrel and grey and sable furs.

Arnaut Daniel

Arnaut Danièl was a Provençal troubadour of the thirteenth century, praised by Dante and called "The Grand Master of Love" by Petrarch. In the twentieth century he was lauded by Ezra Pound as the greatest poet to have ever lived. He was a master of the trobar clus, a style of poetry pioneered by the troubadours that involved tremendously complex rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, and curious word-choices based on the sounds and music of language over the immediately obvious meaning. He appears in The Divine Comedy as a model for poets, and, although little of his work survives, he is indisputably one of the most influential and important poets of the Middle Ages.

According to one vita, Daniel was born of a noble family at the castle of Ribeyrac in Périgord; however, the scant contemporary sources suggest that he may have been a simple court jester with pernicious money troubles. Raimon de Durfort calls him "a student, ruined by dice and shut-the-box". He was the inventor of the sestina, a song of six stanzas of six lines each, with the same end-words repeated in all, though arranged in different and intricate order. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow claims he was also the author of the metrical romance of Lancillotto, or Launcelot of the Lake, but this claim is completely unsubstantiated; Dante's reference to Daniel as the author of prose di romanzi ("proses of romance") remains, therefore, a mystery.

In Dante's The Divine Comedy, Arnaut Daniel appears as a character doing penance in Purgatory for lust. He responds in Provençal to the narrator's question about who he is:

«Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire.
Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor»
(Purg., XXVI, 140-147)


"Your courteous question pleases me so,
that I cannot and will not hide from you.
I am Arnaut, who weeping and singing go;
Contrite I see the folly of the past,
And, joyous, I foresee the joy I hope for one day.
Therefore do I implore you, by that power
Which guides you to the summit of the stairs,
Remember my suffering, in the right time."

In homage to these lines which Dante gave to Daniel, the European edition of T.S. Eliot's second volume of poetry was titled Ara Vos Prec. Eliot's poem The Waste Land also contains a reference to Canto XXVI in the line Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina ("Then hid him in the fire that purifies them"), which immediately follows them in to end Dante's Canto, and appears in the Eliot's closing section of The Waste Land.

Jaufre Rudel

Jaufre Rudel dies in the arms of Hodierna of Tripoli (MS of troubadour songs, 13C North Italian, Bib. Nat. Française)

Jaufré Rudel, Lord of Blaye, was a troubadour probably living in the mid-twelfth century. He is noted for developing the theme of "love from afar" (amor de lonh) in his songs. Like many other troubadours, Rudel wrote on the subject of love, and amorous love (that is, what we would call romantic love) in opposition to marriage and obligations for the sake of politics and convenience. He is unique, however, for being the first to deal with this subject of love from afar—love which cannot be satisfied because the harsh circumstances of the world have driven the lovers apart. In this respect, Rudel is the progenitor of the theme of unrequited love which would become immensely popular not only in his own time, such as with poets like Dante and Petrarch, but also, centuries later, in the period of the Romantics.

Very little is known about Rudel's life, but a reference to him in a contemporary poem describes him as being oltra mar (“across the sea,” i.e. on the Second Crusade in 1147). According to his legendary Vida, or fictionalized biography, he was inspired to go on hearing from returning pilgrims of the beauty of Countess Hodierna of Tripoli, and that she was his amor de lonh, his far-off love, even though he had never laid eyes upon her himself. The legend claims that he fell sick on the journey and was brought ashore in Tripoli a dying man. Countess Hodierna is said to have come down from her castle on hearing the news, and Rudel died in her arms. This romantic but unlikely story seems to have been derived from the enigmatic nature of Rudel's verse and his presumed death on the Crusade.

Seven of Rudel's poems have survived to the present day, four of them with music. His composition "Lanquan li jorn" is thought to be the model for the Minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide's song "Allerest lebe ich mir werde", which in turn became one of the most influential of all the Minnesingers' songs.

Bernart de Ventadon

A medieval depiction of Bernart de Ventadorn.

Bernart de Ventadorn (1130-1140 – 1190-1200) was a troubadour composer and poet.

According to the troubadour Hugh of Saint Circq (c. 1217 – c. 1253), Bernart was possibly the son of a baker at the castle of Ventadour (Ventadorn), in Corrèze, France. Yet another source, a satirical poem written by a younger contemporary, Peire d'Alvernha, indicates that he was the son of either a servant, a soldier, or a baker, and his mother was also either a servant or a baker. From evidence given in Bernart's early poem, Lo temps vai e ven e vire, he most likely learned the art of singing and writing from his protector, viscount Eble III of Ventadorn. He composed his first poems to his patron's wife, Marguerite de Turenne.

Forced to leave Ventadour after falling in love with Marguerite, he traveled to Montluçon and Toulouse, and eventually followed Eleanor of Aquitaine to England and the Plantagenet court; evidence for this association and these travels comes mainly from his poems themselves. Later Bernart returned to Toulouse, where he was employed by Raimon V, Count of Toulouse; later still he went to Dordogne, where he entered a monastery. Most likely he died there.

Bernart is unique among secular composers of the twelfth century in the amount of music that has survived: of his 45 poems, 18 have music intact, an unusual circumstance for a troubadour composer. (Music of the trouvères has a higher survival rate, usually attributed to their survival of the Albigensian Crusade, which scattered the troubadours and destroyed many sources). His work probably dates between 1147 and 1180. Bernart is often credited with being the most important influence on the development of the trouvère tradition in northern France, since he was well known there, his melodies were widely circulated, and the early composers of trouvère music seem to have imitated him.


  1. Dronke, Peter. The Medieval Lyric. Perennial Library, 1968. p. 111.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aubrey, Elizabeth. 1996. Music of the Troubadours.
  • Bond, Gerald A. (ed., transl.). 1982. The Poetry of William VII, Count of Poitier, IX Duke of Aquitaine. New York: Garland Publishing Co.
  • Boutière, J. and A. H. Schutz (eds.). 1964. Biographies des troubadours. Paris: Nizet.
  • Duisit, Brice. 2003. Las Cansos del Coms de Peitieus (CD), Alpha 505.
  • Eusebi, Mario. 1995. L'aur'amara. Parma: Pratiche Editrice. ISBN 887380294X
  • Herman, Mark and Ronnie Apter (tr.). 1999. A Bilingual Edition of the Love Songs of Bernart De Ventadorn in Occitan and English: Sugar and Salt. Ceredigion: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0773480099
  • Hoppin, Richard H. 1978. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393090906
  • Lazar, Moshé (ed.). Bernart de Ventadour: Chansons d'Amour. Paris, Klincksieck, 1966
  • Roche, Jerome. 1980. "Bernart de Ventadorn," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ISBN 1561591742

Further reading

  • Butterfield, Ardis. 1997. "Monophonic song: questions of category", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198165404
  • Gaunt and Kay. 1999. The Troubadours: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521574730
  • Harvey, Ruth E. 1993. “The wives of the 'first troubadour', Duke William IX of Aquitaine.” Journal of Medieval History.
  • Meade, Marion. 1991. Eleanor of Aquitaine.
  • Merwin, W.S. 2002. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0375414762
  • Owen, D.D.R. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend.
  • Parsons, John Carmi. 2002. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady.
  • Verdon, J. 1979. La chronique de Saint Maixent.
  • Waddell, Helen. 1955. The Wandering Scholars: the Life and Art of the Lyric Poets of the Latin Middle Ages.

External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2023.


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