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Notes for a NADFAS Study Day - Spring 2011

The Mediterranean provinces of what became France lay on the ancient trade route between the East and the great Northern lands. The Phoenicians, the Ionian Greeks and the Etruscans all traded along the coast and by 600 BC the Greeks had established a string of important colonies from Marseille in the west to Nice and Monaco in the east. The great river Rhone was the corridor for inland commerce, metal ores, tin and finished metalwork, leather goods and furs came south while fine ceramics, bronzes, oils, wine and spices were traded north. The Romans annexed the South in the 2nd century BCE. and the region between the Alps and the Pyrenees became ‘Provincia’ with a new and splendid capital at Arles. Christianity arrived in the 3rd century and there were two important monasteries at Marseille by the 5th century.

After the fall of the Western Empire in the late 5th century, the South endured over 500 years of invasion and anarchy. She was overrun by the Visigoths and the Burgundians and then incorporated by force into Clovis’ Frankish kingdom. Islamic armies invaded from Spain in the 8th century and reached as far as Tours before being turned back to the coast where they joined the local Count of Province in a rebellion against Frankish rule. This was contained by Charlemagne and there was a period of relative peace in the early 9th century but when his empire was divided between his grandsons Province became easy prey to the Norse raiders who took the lower reaches of the river Rhone. Fresh waves of Saracens invaded from the sea and established several small kingdoms along the coast where they introduced new agricultural methods, new plants, medicine and building methods. Despite this, by the early 10th century continual wars had impoverished most of the land, the cities were depopulated and the Mediterranean trade crippled by the presence of Saracen corsairs and Norman pirates.

The fortunes of the Midi began to improve at the end of the 10th century. Guillame Le Liberateur, the Count of Arles expelled the Saracens and riding high on his triumph was able to claim Province as his feudal estate and the lords as his vassals. He and his successors ruled from the area around Arles and Avignon and for the first time in centuries there was some stability. The Mediterranean ports began to revive and agriculture began to flourish, there was land reclamation and irrigation, viniculture, olive growing, the cultivation of wheat, almonds, melons, figs, citrus fruits, chestnuts and mulberries. Bee keeping was practiced on a large scale, woolbearing sheep and goats were pastured on the lower slopes of the mountains, salt was panned along the coasts and the rivers were cleared to enable transport inland. Learning came to the South with the Benedictines and the new wealth enabled the building of fine churches (marked Classical influence).

The rule of the Counts of Arles was feudal but the various lords of the south had a fair degree of autonomy in the handling of their lands and the growing mercantile cities were already becoming independent of the feudal system by the early 11th century. In 1112 Raymond Beranger, Count of Barcelona married the heiress of Provence cementing the bond between two strong trading states, the bond was further strengthened by other marriages between Provencal and Catalan aristocratic houses. The Midi was one the wealthiest and most liberal parts of  12th century Europe, technically it had been divided between two kingdoms after the partition of Charlemagne’s empire. Province east of the Rhone belonged to the Holy Roman Empire while Languedoc to the west was part of the Kingdom of France, however the Counts of Province were the virtual rulers of the whole Midi and there was no difference in language or culture east and west of the Rhone. The whole of the south spoke the langue d’oc - the ‘language of yes’ - where the word for yes is oc and not oui. (Languedocien, Gascon, Auvergnat and Provencal are languages closer to Catalan or Spanish than to northern French).

The independent South had a ‘modern’ economy, maritime commerce flourished as did trade along the Rhone, the commercial and manufacturing towns of Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Avignon, Arles, Aix,  Marsailles and Narbonne were self governing. Toulouse, the Provencal capital on the River Garonne was the 3rd largest city in Latin Christendom, only Rome and Venice were larger. Urban literacy levels were high, the Jewish communities enjoyed a higher status than elsewhere in Europe, they were allowed to own properties and to employ Christian workers.  At Narbonne alone there were several synagogues and a Talmudic school and a number of important Cabalistic scholars were working in Languedoc. Women from the middle and aristocratic classes also had a better life, the south had partible inheritance where legacies were split evenly between all male and female legatees. Women were able to hold their own land and businesses. Half way through the century the Knights Templar had established a number of thriving estates and businesses in the South.

It was in the Occitan language that troubadour poetry first flowered in the early 12th century; in the langue d’oc the word ‘troubadour’ means inventor or maker. The troubadour tradition wove together many threads and revolutionized both European poetry and music. 


Traveling musician/story tellers exited all over medieval Europe, they were known as jongleurs in the Midi, gleemen among the Saxons and  minstrels in the Anglo-Norman world. They were working along the networks of pilgrim roads, performing in the market squares and cathedral forecourts of towns along the roads of  the three Greater Pilgrimages (Holy Land, Rome and the tomb of St James at Compostella) and those leading to innumerable other centers in England, France and Italy.  The jongleurs functioned as independent individuals, as informal bands or sometimes as families. They were musicians with a range of traditional instruments, singers and sometimes jugglers and acrobats. To take to the road as a jongleur or to be born into a jongleur family automatically set one aside from feudal society; because no loyalty was owed to any single lord or country the protection of feudal law was lost, crimes committed against the jongleurs were deemed to have not happened. On the other hand the jongleurs had a high degree of freedom, they could travel across lands and frontiers and into the cities.

The best jongleurs and jongleuse (gleemaidens) were highly regarded and were employed at Court, there are several accounts of jongleurs entering the service of the Saxon and Norman kings (Rahir jongleur to Henry I earned a great fortune that he left for the founding of St Bartholomew’s Hospital) Some were full-time employees in the aristocratic households but there were many who preferred a life of absolute freedom despite the penalties. By the late 11th century there were guilds of gleemen and gleemaidens, the Guilds of St Julian in several European towns organized to support and protect the wandering players and hold courts at which complaints and disagreements between the players might be settled. 

It was through the jongleurs that stories of heroes and chivalry were first spread through Europe. The Chansons du Geste, set at the time of Charlemagne tell of the battles of the Christians against the Saracens. The best known was the ‘Song of Roland’ that appeared in many variations from France to the Sicily. The Romances drew on the legends of Greece and the Celts. Dido and Aeneas, Jason and Medea and the Roman de Troie were popularized by the jongleurs before they were put into writing. In the same way the stories of Arthur, King of the Britains were told up and down the Pilgrim roads before they were recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poet Chretien de Troyes.


The Provencal troubadours were linked with the jongleurs but they came from an entirely different class and their influences were Hispano Arabic. In the Christian world musical forms tended to arise from those developed for the Church. In the Islamic world Muhammad had forbidden the use of anything other than the human voice in mosques so music had developed as an independent secular art. It was understood to be a branch of mathematics and schools of music were parts of the mathematical ‘departments’ of the Islamic colleges. As early as the 8th century there are accounts of raouis; minstrels employed at the courts of the Islamic world. They were composers of sung poems and there were substantial rewards for the most skilled. Slightly lower down the scale were traveling raouis who performed for households not sufficiently wealthy to keep one in full time employment. There are various accounts of instruments, lutes, lyres and Egyptian dulcimers being kept at the porter’s lodge for the use of the traveling musicians.

What the raouis performed were lyrical poems concerning the beauty of nature, of women and of love. By the 9th century there were raouis at the Islamic courts of Al Andalus, the profession was honourable and a skilled raouis had a status equivalent to that of a university professor. He was not bound to one patron and was free to choose for whom he performed. By this time Al Andalus had some 60 varieties of stringed instrument, the lute family, the violin family and the lyre and dulcimer family all of which allowed the singer to provide his own accompaniment. New forms of sung poetry were also evolving, most significantly poems presented as dialogues or conversations between two characters.

There were close cultural connections between Al Andalus and the Christian states in the north of Spain and the County of Barcelona. Raouis were performing for the ruling houses of Castile and Catalonia and bringing with them a range of stringed instruments. Their influence was already spreading east in the 11th century and was intensified when Raymond of Barcelona and some of his aristocracy married into Province. The Occitaine lords of the Midi enjoyed lives very similar to those of the Islamic lords of Andalusia. They fought among themselves but they were not involved in the territorial wars affecting the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. They ruled rich lands, their commercial cities yielded good incomes in the form of taxes and they were extremely wealthy. Their culture was ‘Southern’, closer to the cultures of Sicily and Spain than to that of the North and above all they had the leisure to indulge their interests. 

It was at the aristocratic courts that the skills of the raouis developed into the troubadour tradition. The Provencal troubadours came from the upper reaches of society, like their equivalents in the north they were trained in the skills of war although they seldom needed to use them. On the whole they had received a more liberal education than the aristocracy of either France or England and readily adopted the role of ‘poet’ seeing themselves as ‘musical warriors’. During the winter months a troubadour would spend time at his castle practicing his knightly skills and composing new poems the bulk of which were concerned with chivalry and love and particularly with the concept of ‘ideal’ love, a pure emotion having nothing to do with marriage, sexual passion or dynastic ambitions. The beloved is inaccessible, she might be a memory of a beautiful woman glimpsed once and never seen again, she might be married, have taken Holy Orders or even be dead but nevertheless the lover longs for her and dedicates himself to her. To some extent this connected with the growing cult of the Virgin in the west, she represented the ultimate ideal, the unattainable Lady but on the whole the troubadours had very little sympathy with the Catholic Church and a number were protectors of the Cathars.

Few of the Occitan lords could play an instrument so they employed male and female jongleurs to create musical settings for their poems. From these works came some of first steps in rhyme and musical harmonies. In the spring the troubadour would set out on horseback accompanied by his jongleurs to visit the castles of his neighbourhood and present new works which might then be put into manuscript form and given as gifts.  Apparently some aristocrats became so immersed in the troubadour tradition that they bankrupted themselves by buying fabulous outfits, giving rich gifts and paying vast numbers of gleemen. By the middle of the 12th century the troubadour tradition was spreading beyond Province into the French Kingdom and England.

Poetry whether sung or spoken fell into several categories. The Chanson divided into five or six stanzas of couplets; –

‘Since she is fair, the dame I celebrate,
Fair her great name, and fair her broad domain,
Fair her sweet words, and fair her stately gait,
My couplets eke to be as fair as fain’.
William de St Didier.

The Plaint or Dirge which celebrated the memory of a lady love, a friend or benefactor; -
‘Weeping and sorrowful, and full of woe
Be Europe’s paragons of chivalry!
The mourning troubadours and jongleurs know
How death is now their fiercest enemy
Death which has pierced our lovely English prince
For generous heart so proudly eminent
Ne’er will there be again for dire event
Such grief, such sorrow, such profound despair.
Bernard de Born on the death of the son of Henry II

The Tension or Contention was a development of the dialogue poems of the raous. Each combatant gave verses of the same length terminating with similar rhymes and offering contradictory opinions on questions of love, chivalry, morality and so on. If more than two speakers were involved the Contention was called a Tournament.

Contention between The Countess of Die and Rambaud of Orange

Friend with what a weight of woe
Day by day I sit repining!
‘Tis from you that comes the blow;
Yet you scarce suspect my pain.
Why do you my love remain,
When we so unfairly share
You the joy and I the care?

Lady, love is measured so,
When two lovers ‘tis entwining,
Each must in their manner know
Joy and care, its constant train.
But my lady, I maintain
Thy contention is unfair;
For ‘tis I the sorrows bear.

The Sirvente or War Song was one of the commonest forms of poetry among the troubadours and performed many functions, it might be used to air grievances or as a true war song with which the troubadour cheered on his soldiers.
‘What joy when scouts are skirmishing,
And scatter craven knaves in flight!
What joy to hear the fighters fling
High words and cries about the fight!
What bliss is in me welling,
When castle walls that flout the sky
Stagger to their foundations nigh!
What joys are me impelling,
When gallant troupes a city try,
With trenches fenced impregnably!
Bernard de Born.

The Pastoral Piece. Usually a dialogue between a troubadour and a shepherdess or shepherd. The poems generally began with a description of the location.

By a lone and leafy brake
I did on my way
A sad shepherd overtake,
Who in grief did say-
‘Love alack for me
And the shafts of calumny!
For my ladye
Sorrows evermoe
Which doeth give me woe’

The Sixtines were highly formal compositions of six stanzas, each consisting of six verses. Only six rhyme words were allowed through the whole poem. The Discords were not divided into stanzas and were written in verses of different measures and sometimes different languages. A discord written by Rambaud de Vaqueiras has a first section in Romance, a second in Tuscan, a third in French, a fourth in Gascon, a fifth in Spanish and a sixth in a farrago of several dialects.

 William IX Count of Poitou and Aquitaine was a skilled poet and notoriously anti-Church. His court at Bordeaux was a magnet for the troubadours of all the Provencal counties. His granddaughter Eleanor was imbued from childhood with the ideals of chivalry, a distrust of the Church and grew up surrounded by poets and musicians. When William abdicated his immense holdings in Gascony, Guienne, Poiteau and Toulouse went to Eleanor, making her a desirable prospect for both England and France. Her first marriage to Louis of France was not a success, she was too willful to adapt to the life required of her as the French queen, she insisted on joining Louis on his Crusade in specially designed armor complete with her own armorial bearings, she also remained deeply attached to her Bordeaux court and returned as often as possible. The king’s adviser Bernard of Clairvaux disliked her and especially her Provencal scorn of the Church.

Fortunately there were no male heirs, (there was a daughter Marie who later became the patron of Chretien de Troyes) and when there was a divorce Eleanor took back her lands. In 1152 she married Henry Duke of Normandy at Bordeaux where they remained until he became Henry II of England. The celebrated troubadour Bernard de Ventadour. (highly praised by Petrarch) came to Eleanor’s court at this time and dedicated a series of beautiful love poems to her. When she left for London he followed to join her at her palace at Bermondsey which became a new troubadour court and opened the door for the influence of Provencal manners and literature. Within a few years English lords were becoming the patrons of the new music and poetry; William of Salisbury the son of Henry II and Rosamund was patron to Marie de France who wrote her ‘Lays’ in his honour.

The fifth Lay, the ‘Lai de Lauval’ is concerned with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and was the first work to invest the Arthurian legends with the trappings of chivalry and ideal love. Eleanor’s son Richard was known as the ‘Troubadour King’ but the ideal had spread throughout many of the royal houses of Europe by his time and he was one of many kings, dukes and princes writing poetry, dedicating themselves to ideal ladies (seldom their wives) and paying homage to chivalry by mounting tournaments and so on. (chivalry was rarely practiced in actual warfare). The minstrels remained an important part of the tradition, many became squires to their troubadour masters, going with them into war as well as acting as go betweens in affairs of the heart. There are innumerable stories of troubadour excesses when lords in order to prove their devotion to their beloved would become hermits, suffer public humiliation or undergo physical hardships of one kind or another. 


The so-called Courts of Love possibly developed in the late 12th century as a means of regulating these excesses. Several are recorded, Eleanor’s at Bermondsey and Bordeaux, others at Narbonne, at the Court of Eleanor’s daughter Marie at Champagne, at Gascony, Artus and elsewhere. They were presided over by aristocratic ladies who gave judgment on various matters concerning the conduct of lovers, Queen Eleanor herself was given the case of a lover who had sent his beloved gifts in order to win her affection, she accepted the gifts but did not love him so he claimed to have been deceived. Eleanor judged that he had in fact been deceived and that the lady must give back the gifts or pay for them or else be judged as a courtesan. A number of topics were debated ‘Can a person who cannot keep a secret ever be a true lover’? ‘Can an individual really love two people at the same time?  ‘Can love exist where avarice has its dwelling? On 29th April 1174 at the court of Champagne the question posed to the Countess Marie was ‘Can real love exist between married people’? Her eventual answer was that it could not. By the end of the 12th century all of the Courts of Love in England, France and Province were ruled by the written code of the 31 Laws of Love.
1)Marriage cannot be pleaded as an excuse for refusing to love.
2)A person who cannot keep a secret can never be a lover.
3) Favours yielded unwillingly are tasteless.
4It is not becoming to love those ladies who only love with a view to marriage.
5)Love is always an exile where avarice holds dwelling.etc.etc.

The written Romances developed from the Courts of Love and provided the subject matter for art for several centuries. These complex allegories on the nature and art of love became ‘best sellers’ among the literate aristocracy. One of the most famous and influential, the 13th century ‘Roman de La Rose’ by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun was written as a dream vision in which the lover has to find his way into a walled garden to reach his beloved, the Rose of the title. Within a few years it had been translated into Middle English by Chaucer and into Dutch and Italian. In the 14th and 15th centuries the authorship of a Romance was a mark of prestige and various noblemen were producing their own. In 1457 King Rene of Anjou (his daughter Marguerite married Henry VI of England) wrote ‘Le Livre du Cuer d’Amours Eprise. The Heart as Love’s Captive’ in which Love sends Heart on a quest. Accompanied by his page Desire, the Heart sets off to liberate the Dame Doulce-Mercy from captivity by Denial, Shame and Fear.

The troubadour tradition gave birth to the Codes of Chivalry, the founding of new Chivalric Orders (The Order of the Garter, the Order of the Golden Fleece etc) and to  the tournaments that remained as aspects of royal and aristocratic display until the 17th century. Troubadour poetry had a vast influence in the west - Dante and Petrarch acknowledged its’ contribution to Italian poetry (the New Sweet Style) Troubadour music was also vital to later musical developments, arguably all the systems of harmony, descant and so on can be traced back to 12th century Midi. Tragically the culture that had produced this wealth did not survive.


Raymond Beranger V Count of Barcelona took the step of removing his court from Barcelona to Toulouse in the interests of better protecting and ruling his lands. His son Raymond VI married a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine Joanna of England, their 13th century court, a mixture of Catholics, Troubadours, Jews and Cathars was one of the most culturally extraordinary in Europe and the object of much criticism from the Roman Church.  The anti clericism of Raymond and many of the southern lords was well known as was their support of the many Cathars in their lands. At the beginning of the 12th century a number of missionaries had entered the towns and villages of Languedoc and set up shop often as weavers. They were known to live lives of great austerity and morality and to be hard and honest workers, they called themselves ‘Good Christians’ and were respected in the communities where they settled. The example they set and their preaching won hundreds of converts in the South East, in 1167 the first open meeting of the Good Christians was held at St. Felix en Lauragais. Delegates came from communities in northern France, the Rhineland, northern Italy and the Byzantine Empire.  They had a number of names - Cathari, Manichaeans, Bougre a corruption of Bulgar, the name Albigensian came into use because of the concentration of communities around the town of Albi. 

Cathar belief held that mankind had been created as pure light and had become trapped in a gross material world created by evil. To escape the world an individual must be reincarnated until he or she had learned to overcome the traps of the flesh at which point the soul/light could return to the ‘good light’ and to eternal bliss. Cathars had no ecclesiastical hierarchy and no property; the community was the centre of the faith.  At the centre of each community were the male and female Perfects who had received consolamentum (baptism) and renounced the world for a life of extreme asceticism and periods of fasting and prayer. They did not indulge in sexual activity, they took no food which was a byproduct of sexual activity - no meat, cheese, eggs, milk or butter. Around the Perfecti gathered the believers who were committed to living their lives in the best way possible. Deliberately doing harm to others was to be avoided and acts of self denial were expected but not imposed. One could aspire to Perfect status at any point, there were several aristocratic ladies who renounced the world after bringing up their children, received the consolamentum and took up honoured position in the Cathar communities. There were apparently 1000 Perfects in Languedoc by 1200 including a number of what the troubadours called the bela eretga, - the fair heretics. The Cathars were an obvious threat to the Church, they did not revere the cross or saintly relics which were simply unimportant material detritus. The Church itself was the work of evil since it was trapped in material wealth and encouraged violence and since the Church was corrupt, the Sacraments of the Church were worthless. 

On Feb 22 1198 Innocent II was elected to the Papacy and was determined to stop what he saw as the public humiliation of the Church by the Cathars. He made several attempts to organize a campaign, promising Philip Augustus of France the blessing of the Church and authority over Languedoc if he would put the land to the sword, the King declined. Cistercian preaching tours met with no success so Papal legates were sent to the province in 1207 and on their advice Raymond of Toulouse was made personally responsible for the heresy in his lands. He was excommunicated and all of Europe was called to a Holy Crusade against him. Rome nagged and threatened the northern lords until Philip August allowed his barons raise their armies. Twelve thousand mounted knights, infantry and archers and an unknown number of mercenaries and common adventurers assembled at Lyons On July 22 1209 the armies attacked Beziers and overtook the town, when asked how they would know Cathars from Catholics, the monk Arnold Amaury is supposed to have said - ‘Kill them all. God will know His own’.

The entire population of 20,000 was put to the sword and the town was looted and burned. In 1209 Carcassonne  was put to siege by armies lead by Simon de Montfort,   Carcasson was starved out and the people forced to leave the city which was promptly resettled with northern immigrants. The lands were granted to Simon de Montfort who began a systematic take-over of Languedoc. Many Cathars fled to Montsegur in the Pyrenees, to Toulouse or to the castles of sympathetic nobility. At Minerve 140 of them, men and women were burned alive, 400 died in the same way at Lavaur. Simon began to institute northern feudalism into Languedoc, Jews were dispossessed and the southern heiresses forced to take northern husbands. The Counts of Languedoc were dispossessed and driven from their lands, Toulouse was taken by trickery and the mercantile population deprived of its rights.

Resistance was building in Languedoc under the leadership of Raymond, by the time Simon learned of the rebellion Toulouse had armed itself and in the subsequent campaign Simon was killed. At this point the southern Catholics were turning against the Church and the bishops who were seen as traitors. In 1224, in the face of outright civil war, Simon’s son Amaury handed Languedoc to Louis VIII the new king of France who launched a Royal Crusade. Louis VIII died on the campaign but his wife Blanche of Castile took over command. Raymond sued for peace and was brought to Paris and publicly scourged and humiliated at Notre Dame. The Dominican Inquisition lead by armed troops was sent into Languedoc to hunt out remaining heretics which they did with appalling relish. Louis IX’s armies marched on Montsegur which was full of Cathars including 200 Perfecti, In March 1244 after an 8 month siege the citadel surrendered and the Perfecti were burned along with 21 who chose to die with them. The south now belonged to France, feudalism was enforced by her new lords, her Jewish communities were expelled or repressed, French became the approved language  and Occitan was isolated to the rural fringes of the area. The acquisition of the Midi ensured the prosperity of the French kingdom