Since the eighteenth century, troubadours have haunted the French cultural imagination. Jean-Baptiste de La Curne de Sainte-Palaye published in 1774 a three volume work, HOLLIS Catalog linkHistoire littéraire des troubadours, in which he gave a detailed account of “their poems, lives, mores, and customs.” In 1817, François-Just-Marie Raynouard provided six volumes of troubadours’ selected poems, HOLLIS Catalog linkChoix des poésies originales des troubadours.

From 1802 to the mid-nineteenth century, the “troubadour style” flourished in French painting. Its masters (e.g., Pierre Révoil, Fleury Richard, François-Marius Granet and Jean-Antoine Laurent) and patrons (e.g., Empress Josephine, Louis XVIII, the duke and duchess of Berry) were not exactly focused on Jaufré Rudel, Marcabru, Bernard of Ventadour and their peers. By “troubadour” they did not mean a kind of poet, but anything medieval including Roland, Charlemagne, Ivanhoe, Bayard, Francis 1st, the One Hundred Years War, the fountain of youth, ladies with long braids, young men with pointed shoes, crenellated towers, arch bows, greyhounds, and huge fireplaces. It is striking that “troubadour” could have represented the “medieval” in a nutshell for early nineteenth-century public. The metonymy is not that absurd after all--far less absurd as a label than “pre-Raphaelite,” which logically should include paintings in the Lascaux style. The troubadours did something remarkable to their times: they gave it an air, which eventually became the quintessence of the “medieval” for post-medieval, or, rather, post-troubadour eras. And yet, for all this French excitement about troubadours, they were not even French.

The first known troubadour is Guilhem de Peiteu, in translation: William IX (as duke of Aquitaine) or VII (as count of Poitiers), or William IX of Poitiers. Born in 1071, he died in 1127, lord of a larger, richer and more populated land than the king of France, Louis VI. His maternal language was a romance dialect part of what is called today Occitan language. By the time of William, the corpus of written texts in Occitan was larger than the corpus of texts in Old French. However, it seems that the earliest development of Old French epic poetry is contemporary to the earliest development of Occitan lyric poetry: both date from the late eleventh-century.

The Occitan substantive “trobador” derives from the Occitan verb “trobar” meaning “to compose.” Experts disagree on its etymology: some relate it to medieval Latin “tropus” meaning a musical variation in Gregorian chant; others to Arabic “tarab” meaning song, poem, intense emotion. It may derive from both.

The modest corpus of eleven poems preserved under William IX of Poitiers’s name contains many of the forms, themes and terms that later troubadours will use as their basic material. At the same time it has . . . character: Impish, energetic, humorous, thoughtful, ambivalent, and never shy. Some of William's songs may not correspond to our idea of courtly love. Or perhaps should we revise our idea of courtly love, and remove from it any cuteness, prudishness or meekness that nineteenth-century troubadourification might have introduced in it. “Totz lo joys del mon es nostre, Dompna, s'amduy nos amam.” [All the joy of the world is ours, Lady, if we love each other.] (William of Poitiers, “Farai chansoneta nueva”). This is a great boast, expectation or threat, which involves mutual sexual enjoyment and is about joy in this world, and not in any other one.

William IX was not the only poet to compose and sing in this language at this time, but his elevated status probably contributed to elevate poetry itself, to make of it an ennobling pursuit worthy of the efforts of talented individuals, a pursuit that could be shared collectively in towns and castles, at home and on the roads. William claims that he could compose “en durmen sobre chevau” [asleep, riding] (in “Farai un vers de dreyt nien”). Composing asleep is not something a modern poet could do, driving, without dire consequences.

The golden age of troubadours poetry lasted until the mid-thirteenth century. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) allegedly targeted Catharism. In fact, beside effectively crushing this allegedly abominable heresy by killing and terrorizing its adherents, the Crusade devastated the South and put it under the control of the Capetian monarchy. Social and political dynamic changed, and even if Occitan poets continued to compose, one cannot help to think, while reading the poetry of the late thirteenth to the fifteenth century, that it was not the same. The dompnas of yesteryear tended to be replaced by Dompna Maria, perhaps as a gage of full religious orthodoxy. The creative impulse passed in the Italian peninsula, where some troubadours took shelter. Toscan poets, well aware of their legacy, started to renew it in their own vernacular.

The corpus of troubadours’ songs counts more than 2500 texts and about 240 melodies. This repertoire came to us mostly in the form of chansonniers or manuscript compilation of songs, made in the thirteenth and fourteenth century (some in Italy). Some of these chansonniers contain biographies of the poets (vidas) and explanation of poems (razos). Some are illustrated with portraits of the poets. A noticeable number of troubadours were female (sometimes called “trobairitz”). Women were not only inspiring objects but also critics, connoisseurs, patrons, and authors of troubadours’ poetry.  

Beside influencing Italian poets including, down the road, Dante and Petrarch, the trobar reached northern France (see: Trouvères) and Germany (see: Minnesinger). Overall, it had as much impact on the history of European poetry as Romanticism. The art of trobar is much about forms and variations, subtle differences, reconfigurations of well-known elements. Think about wines: all are made with fermented grapes, so what’s the big deal? Troubadours are like wine-makers. They use the same basic stuff (the grapes of troubadours are desires and frustrations) and turn them into something unique and uniquely enjoyable, although one wine make you think about a lot of other wines. Do you prefer your poem ric (rich), sotil (subtle), escur (obscure), cobert (covert), clus (closed), or leu (light)?