A troubadour was a medieval poet-musician of southern France. The language of the troubadours was Provengal (langue d'oc), and their compositions were chiefly lyrical. The name has also been applied indiscriminately to various others connected with the creation and performance of medieval lyric and epic poetry. These include the trouveres, northern French contemporaries of the troubadours; the minnesingers, their German counterparts; the writers of French epic poems known as chansons de geste; the minstrels, professional entertainers, either wandering or attached to a court or royal household; and the jongleurs- wandering musical entertainers, some of whom were also acrobats or jugglers.
The troubadour movement, which began about the year 1100 and lasted for some two centuries, had a profound influence on both the subject matter and the form of European poetry. It originated in aristocratic circles, the first known troubadour being William IX, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers. But commoners, such as Marcabru, rose to the ranks of the troubadours and made important contributions. The troubadours went from one Provencal court to another, and some were invited to other courts. Bernard de Ventadour was among those invited to the court of William IX's granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became the wife of Louis VII of France and later of Henry II of England. Arnaut Daniel, who was admired by the poet Dante, became a troubadour at the court of Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard I of England), the son of Eleanor and Henry. Other troubadours, active when the movement was at its peak during the period 1170-1220, included Bertran de Born, Peire Vidal, Gaucelm Faidit, and Raimbaut de Vaqueiras. A main factor in the decline of the troubadours was the persecution of the Christian sect known as the Albigenses, whose members Included many of the noble troubadours of southern France.
Form and Subject Matter of Poetry
The repertoire of the troubadours that has come down to us Includes some 2,500 poems. Of these, little more than one tenth survive with music, although it is likely that most, if not all, were intended to be sung. The written music is almost exclusively monophonic (consisting of a single melodic line, without additional parts or accompaniment). Most of the few melodies preserved in more than one source contain numerous variants. This fact suggests that performers were free to embellish the melodies as they saw fit. Instruments were often used in the performance, but there are no records showing how they were used. The performer may have played an instrumental prelude or postlude to the song, or he may have provided a simple accompaniment to his singing.
In taking sensual love (especially love exalting the lady) as their principal theme, the troubadours developed the social and literary conventions known as courtly love, which long prevailed in European culture. The chief genre was the chanso (canso, chanson), or love song. Related genres include the alba, or dawn song, expressing lovers' regret at their separation with the coming of dawn, and the pastorela, a short narrative relating the encounter of a knight and a shepherdess. But some of the works deal with moral or political issues.
Although many of the poems seem sincere and ardent, close scrutiny reveals that the poets often drew on stereotyped images and situations. Elegance of expression and skill in versification were prized more highly than originality of thought. Arnaut Daniel is credited as the originator of the sestina, one of the most intricate of the many complex verse forms. See sestina.
Because the troubadour poems constitute the first sizable body of European poetry in the vernacular and the earliest of them are technically advanced, there has been much speculation about the origins of this art. It would seem that the troubadours drew on secular Latin poetry as well as on Islamic poetry of Moorish Spain and on the poetic forms and music of ecclesiastical chant. The significance of the movement was by no means local. The poetry and music of the troubadours served as a point of departure for both the trouveres and the minnesingers and were known in Spain, Portugal, England, and Italy. Certain troubadours and their works are cited in Dante's Divine Comedy.