Did you know there were female troubadours? I was first introduced to them in the book, The Women Troubadours by Meg Bogin. Like many others, I thought that troubadours were only men, and was delightfully surprised to find out about the trobairitz through Meg’s work, which was the first full-length book on the subject.
The troubadours and trobaritz were medieval singer-poets who typically hailed from the south of France. They flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, thought only a handful of their works – which include poems and dialogues set to music – have been translated and study. Troubadour poetry was one of the first times that a vernacular – or common – language was given equal status to literary languages. The movement as a whole spurred the development of poetry in other common languages, and had a profound influence on Western relationships and thought even into the present day.
Trobaritz are exceptional within their own right – as women taking ownership of a traditionally male field, and using it to express themselves publicly and seemingly without reservation. They are exceptional in musical history as the first known female composers of Western secular music – all earlier known female composers wrote sacred music – and exceptional in history itself as being female voices completely unedited by male hands. To date, about twenty trobaritz have been identified – all of whom lived in the south of France, in a region known as Occitania, and were from the high nobility (wives and daughters of lords).
The first female troubadour was Tibors, the sister of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange and the wife of Bertrand de Baux. She lived around 1130 CE. Only a fragment of one of her poems survives, and it reads:
Sweet handsome friend, I can tell you truly
That I’ve never been without desire
Since it pleased you that I have you as my courtly lover;
Nor did a time ever arrive, sweet handsome friend,
When I didn’t want to see you often;
Nor did I ever feel regret,
Nor did it ever come to pass, if you went off angry,
That I felt joy until you had come back
Even more curiouser than the fact there were trobairitz is the subject matter they addressed. The trobaritz wrote about love, but in very different terms from their male counterparts. They often preferred the more straight-forward speech of conversation (as opposed to rhyming) and wrote about relationships that we recognize almost immediately.
Their songs also demonstrate that love occupied a central place in women’s emotional lives. There might have even been lesbian love, as demonstrated in this poem by Bieiries de Romans from around the first half of the 13th century. It reads:
Lady Maria, in you merit and distinction,
Joy, intelligence and perfect beauty,
Hospitality and honor and distinction,
Your noble speech and pleasing company,
Your sweet face and merry disposition,
The sweet look and loving expression
That exist in you without pretension
Cause me to turn toward you with a pure heart.
Thus I pray you, if it please you that true love
And celebration and sweet humility
Should bring me such relief with you,
If it please you, lovely woman, then give me
that which most hope and joy promises
For in you lie my desire and my heart
And from you stems all my happiness,
And because of you I’m often sighing.
And because merit and beauty raise you high
Above all others (for none surpasses you),
I pray you, please, by this which does you honor,
Don’t grant your love to a deceitful suitor.
Lovely woman, whom joy and noble speech uplift,
And merit, to you my stanzas go,
For in you are gaiety and happiness,
And all good things one could ask of a woman.
Whatever their intentions, it is clear that the poetry and songs of the trobaritz were as varied and complex as the women who wrote them. Despite their variety, all the trobaritz wrote about two things: first, to be acknowledged for who they are as women and as individuals, and second, to have a determining voice in their lives and relationships. As Meg Bogin stated, “The voices of the women troubadours are as complicated as the voices of real people, and as earth-bound. They sound like women any of us could know. Unlike the men, who often wrote in the persona of the knight, the women wrote in no one’s character but their own.”
Unfortunately, the troubadours and trobaritz did not last long. In 1209, Pope Innocent III proclaimed a crusade against the “heretics” of Occitania, known as the Albigensian Crusade, which targeted the troubadours and their courts of love. Within fifty years, the great cities and centers of the troubadour movement lied in ruins. Women had lost their rights – both in poems and songs as well as law and custom – and fell into a status more in line with the rest of European women of the time. Troubadour poetry, the ultimate symbol of the southern French way of life, had been the first casualty – the troubadours were forced into silence or exile, and the women they so adored had been silenced forever.