Rennie Parker: Troubadours and Trobairitz

This feature is dedicated to the memory of Harry Hilgrove Lucas  (1913 – 1991) who first taught me Old Occitan at Nottingham University in the 1970s and introduced me to the poetry of the troubadours (Ed.)

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The poems featured below have been translated from Old Occitan, also commonly known as Old Provencal, by Rennie Parker.  The work of the troubadours and their female equivalents, the trobairitz, appeared in the South of France in the eleventh century and, from there, their influence spread across much of Europe and lasted for centuries. You can find more information here. As lyric poetry, these poems were intended to be sung and many musical settings are available on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify.

If you already enjoy,  or would like to find out more about medieval music, a good place to start would be this version of  ‘Farai un vers de dreyt nien‘ by Guillem de Peiteus, who was the first of the troubadours to establish his reputation. You can access the original version of this poem (and others below) by clicking on the highlighted text. Here also is a link to Peter Sirr’s English language version which was included in an earlier feature in The High Window. 

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An extract from the ‘vida’ of Guillem de Peiteus

Lo Coms de Peitieus si fo uns dels maiors cortes del mon e dels maiors trichadors de dompnas; e bons cavalliers d’armas, e larcs de dompneiar. E saup ben trobar e cantar : et anet lonc temps per lo mon per enganar las domnas. Et ac un fill que ac per moiller la duquessa de Normandia, don ac una filla que fo moiller del rei Enric d’Englaterra, maire del rei jove e d’En Richart e del comte Jaufre de Bretaingna.

[William], the Count of Poitiers, was one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest seducers of women. A renowned knight at arms, his galantry was unsurpassed. He was a fine poet and singer. For many years he travelled far and wide in order to seduce women. He had one son who married the Duchess of Normandy and who had a daughter [Eleanor of Aquitaine]who became the wife of King Henry II of England and the mother of the ‘young king’, [who died early], Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey of Brittany [and King John].

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Troubadours and Trobairitz

Rennie Parker was born in Leeds, and currently lives in Lincolnshire. She studied for an M.A. in medieval literature at York University, and later, began publishing poetry with Shoestring Press. Her previous collection was The Complete Electric Artisan (2017), while these translations from the 12th century are included in a forthcoming pamphlet, Jongleur. A recent essay on W.H. Davies appears in W.H. Davies: Essays on the Super-Tramp Poet ed. Rory Waterman (Anthem Press, 2021).

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Garsenda de Forcalquier
Vos que.m semblatz dels corals amadors

You seem to have the heart of a lover
But I wish you were not so hesitant.
It pleases me greatly when we embrace in love
Otherwise I would be embarrassed for you,
Having so much shame in your cowardice
Because no one dares to ask for more boldness –
It would bring great shame on both of us
Since no woman dares to reveal
Above all that she wants these fears and misgivings.

Vos que.m semblatz dels corals amadors,
ja non volgra que fossetz tan doptanz;
e platz me molt quar vos destreing m’amors,
qu’atressi sui eu per vos malananz.
Ez avetz dan en vostre vulpillatge
quar no.us ausatz de preiar enardir,
e faitz a vos ez a mi gran dampnatge;
que ges dompna no ausa descobrir
tot so qu’il vol per paor de faillir.

Garsenda de Forcalquier ( c. 1180 – c. 1242) was the Countess of Provence as the wife of Alfonso II from 1193 and the Countess of Forcalquier in her own right from 1209. She was also a patron of Occitan literature, especially the troubadours, and herself wrote some lyric poetry and is counted among the trobairitz as Garsenda de Proensa. She was, in the words of her most recent editors, “one of the most powerful women in Occitan history”.

Marcabru
Al prim comenz de l’invernailh

At the beginning of winter
When acorns rain in the woods
I wish men would engage themselves
On security; those who do not weave
And those who are not in love
As if they were still in the green time.

Well, every other fellow complains
When he sees cold weather and mud
Ganging up against him –
Why isn’t he ready and bartering
When in summer you don’t need clothes,
When you can walk in bare skin?

These ones are just like animals
Full and glutted in the evening
After the wine –
Never giving a thought to tomorrow
And these grey losers swear
They have never seen such bad times.

Young men of handsome appearance
I see them ruined by villainy,
Who go around boasting –
They say, devising a thousand projects
‘We will do them when the weather is fine’
Yet everything remains as bluster and noise.

And they have the habits of children
Who say: when there will be light
He will build a house –
But when it is there and you tell him
He neither listens nor hears
And for him there is nothing to do.

Husbands! The best in the world
You are… but chastise your mistress,
Why are you confounded
When she puts herself on the market
Because of a young vagabond
And you are called a cuckold?

The price is shame and fraud
Wherever it comes from
Even the husband –
And I have the answers for you,
Where happiness is spread between you
And money will maintain you all.

The wrongs and the rights are above us
And youth will declare its losses
From the lowest to the highest.
Sadly, I find what is freely given –
Hats will fly at a vile accuser,
A scapegoat who has no predictions.

Marcabru (fl. 1130–1150) is one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known. There is no certain information about him; the two vidas attached to his poems tell different stories, and both are evidently built on hints in the poems; not on independent information.

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Giraut de Bornelh
S’anc jorn agui joi ni solatz

This year I have no joy or consolation,
I am angry
And always in despair
Since I cannot change my future
Or recover happiness
Because I am pierced
By what remains in my thoughts
While I lament my lost friend.

Like my cries were expressed when I was born
As if God was not pleased,
Why does my brave best friend
Not live any more when other people do?
Thus it is my destiny
I do not have my Linhaure, which troubles me,*
My greatest joy has fallen first
And thus begins my misfortune.

Now everyone will recognise me
As a man forsaken
Because of you, Linhaure, my loved one
Now I will be so downhearted
Since I will no longer see you,
Never to arrive at where you are
With your welcome and courteous messages,
Giver of joy who became everything to me.

To a fine friend and his savoir-faire
Foolhardy in deeds,
And honour and cleverness with his memory:
For you were struck down during April and May
The bittersweet season
And I will never be cheerful again
And I will never sing spontaneously,
Now it can only be a mournful summer.

You contained so many qualities
That you were lacking in nothing –
I was never your equal in poetry.
Now I cannot come and see you again
So much will not exist
Of the only man with such prowess;
There was no knight with the gift of words
Who won so many laurels.

Dead are his beautiful follies
And joy in words,
And deeds and women forgotten –
(Any ‘ruined reputation’ was restored by you….)
Through the gate at Velay*
Now I will become wretched,
Whom you made guide and companion
Learning more about the mystery.*

All your refined poems
About the good times
Of their worth, the judgement and the richness
And your desire for happiness,
All these become fouled –
I will not abandon anything of yours
When the lord of the Berengers
Is re-assembled by slanderers.

They say that by your legacy
Proensa* is made magnificent
Nowhere else has so many works.
My Above-All, I have been killed;
The heart in me must write this letter.

*Linhaure is Bornelh’s name for fellow trobar Raimbaut d’Aurenga.
*Velay – most likely Le Puy-en-Velay, a notable court for the arts.
*mystery – the craft of writing.
*Proensa – Provence.

Giraut de Bornelh (c. 1138 – 1215), was a troubadour connected to the castle of the viscount of Limoges. He is credited with the formalisation, if not the invention, of the ‘light’ style, or ‘trobar leu’.

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Na Castelloza
Mout avetz fach lonc estatge

You have been so long at my house
My friend, and now you have left me
And I am heavy and unsatisfied
Because you swore to me and declared
That all the days of your life
You would have no other woman but me.
If you take another
You will leave me dead and betrayed,
Who has her hopes in you
Who loves me without a doubt.

Dear friend, with my fine heart
I loved you; we were successful
And I know how foolish I have been –
(I am very much destined towards it)
I was never dishonest with you
But you’ve done bad instead of good
Though I love without regret,
Since love has siezed me so hard
I do not believe in its bounty
Unless I can have your loving.

I have heard about the awful habits
Of those other lovers
Who send their messages to men
In words selected and arranged
And I am ready for opposition –
My friend, by my faith
When you plead, anyone would agree
That the highest would not be annoyed
If they had an abundance from you
Of kisses or charming behaviour.

I get no good from you and your fickle heart
You have been too changeable,
And a lover with no honour
Cannot be an embarrassment for me.
Yet I am pensive and troubled
Because my love is not as I dreamed
And I have no enjoyment from you.
Soon you will find me finished
By only a small amount of illness –
I’m a dead woman if a man does not cure me.

All the mistreatment and the shame
Which is my fate with you….and yet
You have pleased my parents
And above all my husband.
If you have done any wrong towards me
I pardon it, in good faith
And pray that you will return to me
In spite of hearing what you hear,
My song, which is done in truth:
You will find it a perfect likeness.

Na Castelloza (fl. early 13th century) was a noblewoman and trobairitz from Auvergne.

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Bertran de Born
Be.m platz lo gai temps de pascor

It pleases me, the merry springtime
When foliage happens and the flowers appear
It pleases me also, the liveliness
Of the birds, who bring back
Their song to the woods;
And it pleases me when I see the meadows
Sealed over with heaven’s pavilions
And I have great happiness
When I see how the companies gather,
Cavalry and armed horses.

And I am pleased when the vanguard
Sends the people into flight
And it pleases me when I see afterwards
Great armies coming together
And it pleases me and my courage
When I see strong castles under siege
Their ramparts wrecked and collapsing,
And I see the host on the banks
Where all around are trapped in the ditches
Enclosed by heavy timbered palisades.

And this is also a lord’s pleasure,
When the first ones are attacking
On armed horses without fear
And how they increase in boldness
With honourable service
And then, how they engage in combat
Everyone must be ready
To follow with willingness
Because no man has any worthiness
When there is a fault in his approach.

Mattocks and swords, painted helmets
Shields cut down and destroyed,
We see them at the start of battle
And many vassals fighting together –
They give themselves to the cause,
Horses of the dead and of the injured,
And when he is engaged in battle
Every man of noble honour
Does not think anything of splitting heads and arms
Because he would rather be dead than vanquished.

And I have to admit I take no pleasure
Eating without butter and not sleeping
Except when everyone roars ‘At them!’
On both sides and each boasts
Riderless horses in the shade,
Each person crying out ‘Help! Help!’
And I see falling into the pits
Small and large onto the grass
And I see the dead with their sides run through
By lances with their pennants.

Worthy comtessa, the greatest
Whose example we follow, wonder of wonders,
Your man is enthralled by the best-born
Woman in the world, as everyone agrees,
Beatritz of the high lineage
Great lady in words and in deeds,
Origin of song and source of all beauty
Lovely in her majesty,
Your high worth is elevated so much
Who is exalted above all others.

Baron, spending and forfeiting
Castles and towns and cities,
Advance when everyone is your enemy.
Papiol, with willing obedience
Go straight to ‘Yes-and-No’ and say to him
We have been at peace too long.*

*Papiol is Bertran’s jongleur and messenger; ‘Yes-and-No’ is Richard I of England, ruler of Aquitaine and Gascony at the time.

Bertran de Born (1140s – by 1215) was a baron from the Limousin in France, and one of the major Occitan troubadours of the twelfth century. Dante Alighieri portrayed him in the Inferno as a sower of schism, punished in the ninth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell (Canto XXVIII), carrying his severed head like a lantern. Ezra Pound did a famous version of this poem which you can read here.

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