Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries was a dangerous place. Considered by mediaeval observers to be a hotbed of heresy, remote and undeveloped, it was the site of endless competition between local lords and of the covetous campaigns of the Albigensian Crusaders. Just at this dark time, however, when outside forces were eroding the traditional rhythms of life and worship, a great artistic tradition flowered.
Known after its practitioners, the troubadours, this musical movement originating in a region of France stretching from Aquitaine to Provence soon enraptured Europe and brought about a revolution in vernacular literature. Having survived in manuscripts–some with their original musical notation still intact–this tradition is represented in a wonderful album produced by the Troubadours Art Ensemble, under the direction of Gerard Zuchetto, called Florilege.
The compilation presents seven works by some of the most renowned and prolific of the troubadours, and seeks to revive and make relevant their tradition while employing historical instruments and melodies to their fullest. Their labours have resulted in a rich tapestry of sound, lovely and languorous, which perfectly captures the bittersweet sentiments of the age.
These sentiments developed, from the 12th century works of Jaufre Raudel to Guiraut Riquier’s writings of the following century, a new, or at least newly important ideal of courtly love. This ideal lavished adulation upon a distant lady love, and spoke in the voice of an enraptured male admirer. A verse from Bernart de Ventadorn’s Quan vei la lauzeta (‘When I Behold the Lark’, track 7) perfectly captures these elements:
I thought my heart had known the whole
Of love, but small its knowledge proved.
For still the more my longing soul
Loves on, itself the while unloved:
She stole my heart, myself she stole,
And all I prized from me removed;
She left me but the fierce control
Of vain desires for her I loved.
Such themes were a world away from the epic character of other vernacular works, such as the Song of Roland, which celebrate a predominately masculine ethos of Christian faith and duty to one’s lord. Performed in a language that all levels of society could understand (although they took the aristocratic elite as their subject matter,) furthermore, the songs of the troubadours soon began to influence places as far afield as Britain, Portugal, and Germany.
Their ideals, for example, transformed King Arthur from a giant-slaying Welshman of earlier legend into the figure of a romantic ruler we recognise today, and inspired a similar musical movement, the minnesang, in mediaeval Germany. As troubadour music developed, it was inspired in turn by mystical currents in contemporary Christianity, which revered the Virgin Mary and added spiritual dimension to its protestations of love.
Despite its importance to the growth of new social conventions and expectations in the courts of Europe, however, the troubadours’ verse retains its simplicity of expression. This simple emotional clarity has allowed their songs to withstand the test of time, enchanting audiences today much as they did over eight centuries ago.
The translation of Bernart de Ventadorn’s lyrics comes from http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-i-behold-the-lark/ .