Troubadours in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
In a time dominated by the Church, troubadours became well-known secular entertainers moving beyond religious themes and exploring love and politics. Troubadours rose to prominence in the High Middle Ages, which is generally considered to be 1100-1350; however, a majority of the surviving works date to what is referred to as the classical period (1180-1220).
The origin of the word troubadour is somewhat debated, but it is apparent that it arose from the Occitan language as the tradition began in Occitania. Occitania was never a country or single political entity, but is more of a cultural group united by the use of the Occitan language and geography.
The region considered Occitania contained parts of present-day southern France, Monaco, and small pieces of Spain and Italy. Occitan is a Romance language deriving from Latin so it maintains similar vocabulary and grammatical structures with French, Italian, and Spanish.
Who are the Troubadours?
In contrast with common perception, troubadours were not itinerant musicians, but instead generally remained with a wealthy patron for a period of time before traveling to a new court. In the rigid social structure of the Middle Ages, troubadours occupied a rather ambiguous place in the hierarchy. Many of the early troubadours came from the nobility, either the high nobility or the class of knights, but throughout the era, troubadours from lower social classes also emerged.
Troubadours were employed to entertain at court, and often enjoyed many of the pleasures and privileges enjoyed by the wealthiest members of society. It is as a result of this patronage that many important examples of songs and poetry survive. Troubadours would create songbooks known as chansoniers for their patrons, and the preservation of these books in libraries of castles allows them to now grace some of the top international modern libraries.
In addition to performing for their patrons and the courts they entertained, troubadours also competed in regular competitions, though these did not become popular until the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries.
The first troubadour with surviving work is Guilhem de Peiteus who lived between 1071-1126. The survival of work this early is astounding, but as a noble, his title was Duke William IX of Aquitaine, it is more likely he had the capabilities to copy and preserve his work.
While a vast majority of troubadours wrote and performed their own original material, some troubadours, such as Arnaut de Maruelh, employed others, musicians known as jongleurs, to perform their music. This is a deviation more towards the notion of separation between the performer and the composer/lyricist.
Medieval society was intensely male-dominated, but there are notable examples of women rising to prominence in art, politics, and other fields, and secular music was not an exception. Female troubadours were known as trobairitz as troubadour was a masculine word. The trobairitz were much less common than their male counterparts, but evidence of a few hundred remains. The work of the trobairitz was less prolific than of the troubadours, but surviving manuscripts demonstrate that the women were highly capable poets and musicians.
Other notable troubadours include Cercamon, Marcabru, Bernart de Ventadorn, Monge de Montaudon, Bernart d’Auriac, Joan Esteve, Joan Miralhas, Raimon Gaucelm, Bernart Marti, Bernart de Venzac, Gavaduan, and Peire d’Alvernhe.
The Music and Poetry
Most troubadours composed their own music and paired this with original lyrics, which demonstrated that the troubadours were very talented and capable individuals. Some troubadours, however, used existing music to accompany their lyrics, and it is uncertain how this practice was viewed by the audiences and patrons.
The most common musical instruments in the Middle Ages included woodwind and stringed instruments. While woodwinds, such as the recorder or pan flute, may have accompanied certain works, these sorts of instruments were less used. Because troubadours performed and sang their music, stringed instruments were a practical accompaniment as they left the mouth unoccupied and available for singing. Lutes, gitterns, psalteries, and others were the primary instruments employed by troubadours.
A majority of musical compositions for troubadours were monophonic, meaning they were played or sung one note at a time without harmonies. Monophonic compositions are rather simple and relate to the chanting music used in churches in the Early Middle Ages. The relatively simple structure of the music allowed the emphasis to be placed on the lyrics.
Troubadours wrote on a wide range of secular subjects though the common themes are chivalry and courtly love. An extensive list of more specific genres evolved throughout the development of the troubadour tradition. A canso is a very typical genre that is a simple love song, generally admiring the beauty and virtue of a woman.
An alba refers to a morning song for lovers in advance of the necessary separation during the day. Canso de crozadas were political in content regarding the Crusades and generally in support of these ventures. A tenso is a particularly interesting genre that is sung as a two-voiced debate, generally over political or ethical matters.
The three types of compositions were known as trobar leu (light), trobar ric (rich), and trobar clus (closed). As would be imagined, the trobar leu is the simplest and was accessible to those of varying levels of education, making them both popular and populist. The trobar clus was notoriously difficult to understand in the Middle Ages and are even more difficult for modern scholars.
Many of the poems classifying as trobar clus contain such complex metaphors and difficult vocabulary that only select audiences were meant to understand them and bewilder the modern scholar. Trobar ric is between the leu and clus styles. It is more sophisticated in the use of vocabulary and metaphors’, though trobar ric songs could still be understood by reasonably wide audiences.
During the Middle Ages the tradition of the troubadour spread throughout Europe. The most notable examples are the Minnesang in Germany, Trovadorismo in Galicia and Portugal, and the Trouveres in Northern France. The structure of the lyrics has also inspired poetic forms still in use today including the sonnet and the aubade.
Troubadours went out of fashion at the end of the Middle Ages, but their influence throughout the medieval period created a lasting legacy. Courts and noble families continued to employ musicians as entertainers throughout much of history. The surviving examples of work by troubadours are not readily performed today, but the manuscripts are frequently studied and remain a popular interest in academia.