Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems

galician troubadours




Cantigas, Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems, reviewed by David Cooke

cantigas zen

Cantigas, Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Translated by Richard Zenith. £14.99. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0691179407

Richard Zenith’s Cantigas is an anthology of medieval Galician-Portuguese poetry which will be of interest to both scholars and the general reader. It contains one hundred and twenty-four ‘cantigas’ in the original Galician-Portuguese alongside Zenith’s own freely rendered English versions. There is a thirty-page introduction, notes on individual poems and a biographical index of each troubadour represented. Although the poems were untitled in their original versions, Zenith has supplied each of them with a title of his own. Readers unfamiliar with these poems, such as the current reviewer, may actually find this feature quite helpful as they attempt to find their way around a substantial body of work. My one small quibble, as a linguist, is that, personally, I would have been grateful for a little more explicit guidance on the pronunciation of Galician-Portuguese.  However, for others who may also be interested in exploring the original texts, there is a detailed pronunciation guide available online at:  #
There is also an excellent glossary in modern Portuguese at

So, before looking in more detail at the poems in order to assess what they may have represented for their original audience and what they might mean to us today, it’s useful to have some idea as to what exactly Galician-Portuguese is and who the Troubadours were. Modern Portuguese is, obviously enough, the language of the nation state of Portugal, while modern Galician is a language spoken in Galicia, an autonomous region in the north-west of Spain. Although for centuries it has had to compete with Spanish and, under the Franco regime, was actively repressed, it does nevertheless have its own poetic tradition, with Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885) being probably its most widely known representative. ‘Galician-Portuguese’, as Zenith explains in his introduction, ‘is a modern coinage for the Romance language spoken in northwestern Iberia in the early Middle Ages.’ It is the common language from which both modern Portuguese and Galician derive.

And who exactly were the Troubadours?  Although in the popular imagination, a ‘troubadour’ is often thought of as merely some kind of wandering minstrel, the Troubadours were the founders of a hugely influential poetic tradition that revolutionised vernacular poetry in the late eleventh century. Zenith gives an account of all this in his introduction, so it will suffice here to say that they first appeared in the South of France and wrote in Old Provençal or Occitan, a standardised literary language deriving from a wide range of Langue d’Oc dialects that ranged from the Alps to the Pyrenees. These poets or songsmiths, for their compositions were meant to be sung, were the first to develop the poetry of fin’amors or courtly love, a highly sophisticated and somewhat idealised expression of the relations between the sexes.

Developing a range of standardised tropes relating to unrequited love and the sufferings of the lover, their influence spread across virtually all of western Europe, inspiring writers such as Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, the English Renaissance poets and many others for centuries later. The names, at least, of some of the greatest troubadours: Arnaut Daniel, Bertrand de Born, Peire de Vidal, may be known to English readers from the work of Ezra Pound. They were poets of great technical virtuosity who, within the thematic limits they set themselves, were capable of a highly sophisticated  lyricism. Nevertheless, particularly among lesser talents, there was inevitably a certain monotony in the endless repetition of the same situations and imagery.

It is against this backdrop that we must consider the poetry of the Galician-Portuguese Troubadours and Zenith is to be commended for making their work accessible to readers beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Presented in roughly chronological order, his troubadours wrote poems which fall into various distinct categories: cantigas de amor, cantigas de amigo, cantigas de escárnio and cantigas morais. It is the cantiga de amor which most obviously follows on from the Provençal courtly tradition. Here is Osoiro Anes, one of its earliest practitioners, writing in the 12th century:

Love brutally took hold of me,
bestowing, instead of love, injustice
by making me love a certain lady
who in all her life has never loved .

This sets the scene somewhat perfunctorily and the reader can see pretty clearly where we’re heading: love is a kind of subjugation, it’s painful, the lady is cruel and, as for sex, forget it! In another poem by Osoiro, we are grateful when a more affectingly lyrical image cuts through the rhetoric: ‘I heard her sing when her hair / was uncovered. Unlucky day!’ Nevertheless, one senses already that this is a tradition that may be wearing a bit thin. This seems even more the case, a century later, in some of the cantigas de amor of Dinis, King of Portugal. The opening stanza of his ‘Song in Provençal Style’ seems little more than a well-oiled run-through of routine tropes:

In Provencal style I’d like
to make a song of love
to greatly praise my lady,
who’s virtuous, good-looking
and kind. God granted her
more virtue than He did other
women of whatever land.

In ‘Song against God for Taking My Lady’ by Gil Peres Conde (13th century) there is a more personal note that contemporary readers may even have found shockingly blashphemous: ‘God never gave me a thing, / and He carried off my good lady. / That’s why I don’t believe / in Him or my sins.’ Elsewhere, however, in some of the cantigas de amigo and, particularly, in the cantigas de escárnio, we will see how  poets who adhere to the conventions of fin’amors in one poem are more than happy to send it up  in another.

Take, for example, some of the cantigas de amigo by Joam Garcia de Guilhade, poems written by a man but adopting the persona of a young woman. In ‘Song for a Dying Admirer,’ a lover’s histrionics are treated ironically:

Women, don’t ever believe
the suitor who would die,
as I have yet to see it,
but if that’s his pleasure fine,
xxxxxxxand I would really like to see
xxxxxxxwhether or not he dies for me.

In the same poet’s ‘Song for a Distraught Lover’ the young woman expresses herself in a refreshingly down-to-earth tone:

I said so many things
both in and out of my senses,
when crazy or coolheaded,
but those days, Joam Garcia,
are gone, so just accept
xxxxxxxit’s over.

In ‘Song about a Two-faced Lady,’ Joam Lopes de Ulhoa shows that a young woman can be as adept at playing games as any man. In this poem, the ‘lady’ is perfectly happy to flirt with the poet and give him all the attention he wishes, until she realises that he is actualy in love with her: ‘Once she saw my heart was conquered, / she dropped me without a shred of pity.’

In fact, it is when we turn to the cantigas de amigo that we begin to find the qualities that distinguish Galician-Portuguese poetry from the Provençal tradition. Where, at its best, the Provencal lyric is highly wrought and embellished, the cantigas de amigo are frequently minimalistic and naive in tone, distilling an exquisite lyricism from the sounds and rhythms of the language in which they were written.  This makes them very difficult to translate. They often rely upon much repeated refrains and, to quote from Zenith’s introduction: ‘repetitions with small displacements and variation.’ This tends to create an incantatory effect, especially in those poems voiced for a young woman who is waiting, hopelessly, for her lover to return. In ‘Song About an Unarriving Lover’ by Nuno Fernandes Torneol,  it’s as if the protagonist is  caught in a maze from which there is no escape:

Mother. I have seen
the ships in from the sea,
xxxxxxxand I’m dying of love.

Mother, I watched
the ships sail in,
xxxxxxxand I’m dying of love.

The ships in from the sea,
I went to meet them,
xxxxxxxand I’m dying of love …

This is the  kind of poetry where, to adapt a phrase from Yeats, the translator has to ‘walk naked’ as there really is nowhere to hide. Zenith knows this and has done a fair job within the constraints of English, a language in which it is harder to rhyme and which is also much more emphatically stressed  and monosyllabic . Here, in both versions, because it only consists of two stanzas, is ‘Song for a Beloved in Guarda’ by Alfonso X, King of Castile and Leon:

Oh! what agony, always the ache
for my beloved, who went away.
xxxxxxxHow much longer
xxxxxxxwill he stay in Guarda?

Oh! what torment, always to yearn
for my beloved to return.
xxxxxxxHow much longer
xxxxxxxwill he stay in Guarda?

Ai eu coitada, como vivo em gram cuidado
por meu amigo que hei alongado.
xxxxxxxMuito me tarda
xxxxxxxo meu amigo na Guarda.

Ai eu coitada, como vivo em gram desejo
por meu amigo que tarda e nom vejo.
xxxxxxxMuito me tarda
xxxxxxxo meu amigo na Guarda.

Although many of the most lyrical cantigas de amigo are about separation, there are others where the tone is more worldly-wise and knowing and where the female voice is used subversively. In Joam Airas de Santiago’s ‘Song about a Man Who Wants to Talk’,  the protagonist has a shrewd idea that, in spite of the lover’s seemingly lofty ideals, one thing is likely to lead to another: ‘If I give in to his request, / he’ll press for something better’. In another of his poems, ’Song of One Who Knows She’s Good-Looking’,  the mistress feels no need to  thank the poet for his praise because she already knows she’s good-looking!

The gentle ironies of some of the cantigos de amigo are, however, as nothing compared to the bawdiness  of the cantigas de escárnio. In the work of the Provençal troubadours  – one thinks for example of Jaufre Rudel and his ‘distant love’ – relations between men and women became so etherealised that sexual fulfilment  was an impossibility. In reality, of course, this was unlikely to have been much more than a literary construct. However, with their scathing and frequently obscene satire, the cantigas de escárnio show the other side of the coin. In ‘Song to a Learned Abbess,’ the recently married Afonso Anes Do Cotom proclaims his inexperience and turns to an abbess for guidance because  she is notoriously well-versed in all such matters. Elsewhere, it is clear that nothing is sacred when  a box containing indulgences, brought back by a lady from the crusades, is used as a euphemism for something else, which is far from holy. It is worth noting also, that these poems, like the cantigas de amigo, offer a particular challenge to the translator. There is no disguising their lewdness, but nevertheless ‘foder’ and ‘conno’ which are scattered liberally through them do not sound quite as brutal in their effect as their monosyllabic English equivalents. Finally, the cantiga moral, deriving from the Provençal sirventès. gives the poets further scope for social comment but in the more elevated manner of  ‘Song of a Man Weary of Scorpions,’ where Alfonso X finds a striking image for the baseness and duplicity of the world:

I’d rather sail, alone,
as a simple merchantman,
until I find a land
where I know I can’t be stung
by black or spotted scorpions.

Perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks for the modern reader in coming to a full appreciation of  these poems is our notion of authenticy, the poet’s truth to experience. One of the greatest of the Provençal troubadours, Giraut de Borneil, proclaimed that:

Singing cannot much avail
if from within the heart comes not the song,
nor can the song come from the heart
unless there be there noble love, heartfelt.

(Translated by Alan R. Press, Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry.)

This probably still strikes a chord with most modern readers who have been schooled by the  Romantics, but the extent to which this  ars poetica is exemplified by the Galician–Portuguese Troubadours is debatable. They were nothing if not professional, even if, like Alfonso X or Dinis, they were kings and didn’t actually need to earn their living.  Nevertheless, they all seem to have been skilled performers who were seemingly capable of baring their heart and all their torments in one poem and then, in another, indulging in the most scathing satire while debunking those same conventions . Perhaps this is simply to view poetic creation anachronistically, when we should take the poems on their own terms. What is beyond dispute is that we should be grateful to  Richard Zenith for the knowledge and enthusiasm that he has put into editing this important anthology. In doing so, he has brought to our attention a little known body of work  which casts it own fascinating light on relations between the sexes. Moreover, these poems, by turns, lyrical, epigrammatic, scabrous, wise,  will amply reward all readers attuned to the pleasure of well-crafted words.

Richard Zenith, a freelance scholar and writer who lives in Lisbon, has translated the work of Camões, Pessoa, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and a number of other Portuguese and Brazilian poets. His recently published Pessoa: A Biography (titled Pessoa: An Experimental Life in the UK) was a Pulitzer finalist.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection of poetry is The Metal Exchange (Littoral Press, 2022).


Music: ‘Ondas do Mar’ by Martim Codax (fl. 13th century)

Martín Codax was a troubadour who is said to have flourished in Galicia during the late 13th Century. The body of work attributed to him consists of seven cantigas d’ amigo which appear in the Galician-Portuguese songbooks and in the Vindel Parchment.

The cantiga de amigo is a genre of Iberian medieval poetry (written in the voice of a woman, to an absent lover), and this is the only example to have survived with music. Written in Galician-Portugese, which was in common use during the Medieval period, it features seven short poems, six of which were set to music (one appearing with blank staves).




Ondas do mar de Vigo,
se vistes meu amigo?
Ei ai Deus! Se verra cedo?

Ondas do mar levado,
se vistes meu amado?
Ei ai Deus! Se verra cedo?

Se vistes meu amigo,
o por que eu sospiro?
Ei ai Deus! Se verra cedo?

Se vistes meu amado,
o por que ei gran coidado?
Ei ai Deus! Se verra cedo?


Waves of the sea of Vigo,
have you seen my friend? Oh God!
Will he come to me soon?

Waves of the rising sea,
have you seen my lover?
Oh God! Will he come to me soon?

Have you seem my friend,
for whom I sigh?Oh God!
Will he come to me soon?

Have you seen my lover,
for whom I grieve?Oh God!
Will he come to me soon?

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