Around 1160, Northerners started to emulate the troubadours in their own dialects. The courts of Champagne and England played the role of hubs. Scholars disagree on the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the production and diffusion of French literature. Some believe that she patronized most of Old French literature produced in the second half of the twelfth century; others hold that she was too involved in politics to care about literature; most scholars stand between these two positions. Eleanor was the granddaughter of William IX, allegedly the first troubadour. Her daughter from her first marriage with Louis VII, king of France, married the count of Champagne, Henry the Liberal, and became the famous countess Marie of Champagne, patron of Chrétien de Troyes. After her separation from King Louis VII, Eleanor remarried Henry II Plantagenet, king of England, count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. There is no doubt that the art of trobar and a few troubadours traveled with her during her long, eventful life (c. 1112-1204). But other less prestigious patrons and other venues have certainly played their role in the making of the first truly French corpus of lyric poetry.

The first trouvères (“trouveur” is the northern version of the occitan word “troubadour”) appearing in written records are Guiot de Provins, Huon d’Oisy and Chrétien de Troyes. They all lived in the last decades of the twelfth century.

Guiot was from Ile-de-France or Champagne, and according to his own account, studied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy in Arles, became a court poet patronized by Henry the Liberal, Richard the Lionhearted, Peter II of Aragon, Frederick Barbarossa, and several other lords. He traveled extensively before becoming a monk (apparently a not too austere one). His known work comprises five love songs, a satirical poem titled La Bible Guiot de Provins [The Bible of Guiot of Provins] and an allegorical poem titled L’armeüre du chevalier[The equipment of the knight]. See Les Œuvres de Guiot de Provins, poète lyrique et satirique / éditées par John Orr. Manchester : Impr. de l’Université, 1915.

Huon d’Oisy was a lord from the North (the area of Arras), who became viscount of Meaux, a dependency of the county of Champagne. Of him we have one serventois (a political poem) about the third Crusade, and a Tournoiement de dames (Tournament of Ladies) describing a fictional tournament between real, historically known ladies of Ile-de-France, Picardy, and Champagne, including Marie de Champagne.

Chrétien de Troyes is better known for his five Arthurian romances (of which one is dedicated to the countess Marie de Champagne) than his two surviving songs: “Amor, tençon et bataille” [Love, Strife and Battle] and “D’amors qui m’a tolu a moi” [Of Love who took me from myself].

Strikingly, each one of these first trouvères composed both lyric poetry and didactic or narrative poetry. When the lyric forms and vocabulary invented by the troubadours came to the North, they encountered an already rich literary tradition. Old French epics and romances were flourishing. The troubadours incarnated the quintessence of Occitan language at its most refined, and probably left the activity of storytelling to a lower category of performers; or if, by chance, they were also good storytellers, their stories were not written down. Stories were eventually written about them (in the vidas), but as auxiliary to their poetic production. The trouvères could be engaged themselves in composing narratives or didactic texts, or, if they specialized in lyric poetry, they were aware that they did not represent the whole of Old French literary creativity. In the thirteenth century, several romances inserted well-known lyric poems, some translated from Occitan and some originally composed in Old French, in their narratives. The most famous examples are: Jean Renart’sRoman de la rose ou de Guillaume de Dole and Jakemes’s Roman du Châtelain de Coucy. In the former, the fictitious heroes of the romance sing popular songs in their spare time between tournaments; in the latter, a real trouvère of the early thirteenth century, Renaud de Coucy, becomes the hero of a tragic romance, built around Renaud’s love songs. Thus, poets, singers, singing, and songs were fictionalized in a more upfront way than in the Occitan vidas.

The trouvères repertoire counts about 2000 songs, with musical notations for about half of them. These songs are more often anonymous than troubadours’ songs. They are also more focused on the theme of love. The trouvères tended to allegorize Love more than the troubadours did. Religion was also an important source of inspiration. Some poets such as Gautier de Coincy diverted astutely the themes and words of courtly love from terrestrial ladies to address them to a celestial One, named Marie. If trouvères generally prefered the plain style (trobar leu) to the obscure one (trobar clus), it must be noted that Chrétien’s two known lyric poems are difficult and intricate. And even the plain style manages to be paradoxical. Guiot de Provins depicts in simple words the tricky game of Eros and Thanatos:

Las! toz jors la desir,
Et ades voi ma mort,
Et si ne puis morir.

[Alas! for ever I desire her
And always see my death
And cannot die.]

(Guiot de Provins, “Contre le novel tens”)
The court and province of Champagne was the first center of production of lyric poetry in Northern France, but through out the thirteenth century, other areas such as Ile-de-France, Burgundy and Lorraine contributed as well. It is the Northern area (Artois, Flanders, Picardy), and particularly the town of Arras, that succeeded Troyes and Champagne in the second half of the thirteenth century as centers of poetic production.

By 1300, the impulse to sing (the imperative “chanter m’estuet” [I must sing] appears in dozens of poems) was channeled in different modes and directions (see the next section for more about the poetry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). The poet appeared when the trouvère disappeared.