Saturday, April 11, 2009

A history lesson

Last Monday, i had a presentation on the troubadours & trouvères for my Medieval Women's Writing course - this Monday, i am supposed to submit a paper on said presentation. Hence my reappearance in the blogosphere. The troubadours and trouvères are really interesting, though. So i'll share some of my thoughts

The troubadours were medieval poets who are perhaps most associated with Southern France, though there were also troubadours in Italy & Spain. They wrote in the language of Old Occitan - a Romance language thought to be closer to vulgar Latin than Old French. These poets were not wandering minstrels, but rather nobles who wrote songs to send to one another; these songs were often picked up by minstrels, and so it is important not to think of the troubadour poetry as private correspondence. Many of the songs were hugely popular, in fact. A rough time frame puts the troubadours working between 1100-1300. The troubadours are widely credited for popularizing fixed forms of poetry in which set patterns of rhyme, length, & stanza composition must be adhered to. Though their subject matter was primarily courtly, troubadours wrote in many different genres, the most common being the canso (love song), the tenso (debate poem about love or ethics), and the sirvènte (satire). These particular genres did not have fixed forms (except the tenso, which required stanzas to alternate between two voices, each presenting one side of an argument), but, to give an indication of the complexity the troubadours were capable of, the sestina was also a troubadour form.

The trouvères were followers of the troubadours, largely based in Northern France and writing in Old French. Perhaps the best known now is Chrètien de Troyes, although he is remembered for his Arthurian Romances rather than for his trouvère poetry. The trouvères also broke out of the nobility, opening the genres up to a bourgeois audience. The poetic forms of the trouvères were much more rigid and codified, because by the point they emerged (slightly after the troubadours) there had been treatises written on the specific genres & structures that "good" poems should follow - the most influential treatise being the "Leys d'amor" ("Laws of Love") setting out the rules for participation in the Floral Games at Toulouse, a poetry competition meant to encourage the writing of troubadour poetry.

For both the troubadours and the trouvères, some manuscripts survive complete with musical notation. Others have room for notation, but it was never filled in, suggesting that one scribe would record the lyrics, another the music. There are some CD recordings of modern ensembles playing troubadour music, but i couldn't find a good link to post (at least, none that didn't require paying a subscription fee for access).

Interestingly enough, while i had an easy time finding books about both the troubadours and the trouvères, it is very hard to find good definitions of the troubadour genres - even in books claiming to be introductions to the troubadours. Authors throw around terms like canso without specifying what a canso is. This was very frustrating, as these Old Occitan terms aren't in English literary dictionaries (i checked 3). Although they are defined on good ol' Wikipedia, that's hardly a source i can cite. So i turned to a French dictionary of poetic terms. Voila! Problem solved - at least for me. It's a good thing i can read French, otherwise i'd be in trouble for this paper.

So although troubadours have had a huge impact on the development of English lit, it is hard to find the really basic information on them needed to enter into their work. Why? Well, my theory is that troubadours were once considered canon, so authors don't feel the need to elaborate on, or even define, key terms because they expect that anyone reading the troubadours will have access to this knowledge - perhaps through a professor. But the troubadours aren't generally taught as part of English literary history - at least not in any course i took. So the literature is lagging behind reality. This really hammers home the necessity of academic writers defining their terms instead of assuming a shared base of common knowledge. Actually, i think most literary critics would benefit from the same lesson; part of the reason why so many people people are so afraid of poetry is that they see words they don't really understand (avant garde! post-modern! parataxis!) and therefore believe that special training is required to access the poetry itself.

Speaking of terms, there is a term for female troubadours - trobairitz - although not one for female trouvères. There are known females working in both traditions, and while the exact numbers are disputed, for the time period it is considerable that the work of more than 20 different trobairitz survives. What i dislike is that some critics claim that while the writing of the male troubadours that dealt with courtly love was intended as a game, the trobairitz are more emotionally honest and their feelings more authentic. Because, you know, women cannot engage in games when love is at stake. Never mind that they are writing in the same forms, and that they use the same conventions. Oh no. Women writers are logging their own experience. Always.

Sometimes i just want to smack the people who write that way. It undermines the intelligence of the female writer, assuming that they cannot participate in a tradition of imaginative creativity, or perhaps that they wouldn't want to. People treat women's literature of most periods this way, although since the confessional poets of the 1950s, the tendency to look for "emotional authenticity" in poetry is pretty universal, regardless of the author's gender. i wonder, though, is it really necessary to tie literature up with its author that way? It would be interesting to do a study of criticism to see a breakdown of how often and in what periods critics look for emotional honesty in the writing of women versus in the writing of men. And really, is "authenticity" or "honesty" even something a reader should try to discover? How much can a text stand apart from its writer?

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