The Polemical Background of Troubadours & Courtly Love Theories


The academic subject of the Troubadours and Courtly Love is a contentious area of discourse due to the conflicting theories of contending schools of thought.


Beginning in the 19th century, when serious study into the “courtly love” (cortez amors or amour courtois) phenomenon was instituted, there were, at one end of the academic spectrum, scholars who saw it as an idealized form of love and, on the other end, scholars who saw it as a purely sexual form of love. In Anglo-American scholarship today, there are a number of leading scholars in the field who either see it as a literature of sexual seduction and/or outright dismiss it as pure fiction (never really practiced; only an aristocratic game), concluding that Gaston Paris’s 19th-century term, amour courtois (which has been the conventional term of the critical vocabulary of medieval studies), is no longer useful because it is only a hypothesis and not a medieval institution, and therefore distorts the actual phenomenon. Because of this situation in “medieval studies” (and “romance philology”), the layman confronting this contentious academic arena is likely to be confused and lost in the maze of scholarly disputes.


In what follows, the GS will attempt to outline the major contending theories concerning the origin, nature, and characteristics of the troubadours and their so-called “courtly love” (something he couldn’t do when presenting his “Troubadours & The Beloved” musical essays.) He hopes that this academic background will supplement, and therefore enhance, the musical essays presented on the topic.


To begin with, it is now proverbially said that the 12th-century troubadours “invented” what we now know as “romantic love.” Thus (if “invention” is the right word), foremost among the academic disputes are over the origins and/or influences that led to this “invention” of amor and its poetry/song. For over a century, claims have been put forward for a variety of disparate sources; e.g., Ovid’s (Roman) Art of Love, classical Latin love poetry, medieval Goliardic-Latin poetry, The Song of Songs, Bernadine devotional mysticism, Neo-Platonism, heretical Catharism, folk song, and Arabic (Andalusian) poetry/song. (It should be noted here that the GS has taken up this last source as a topic in and of itself in his “The Origins of the Troubadours” musical essay series.)


Secondly, the academic debate still rages on about the vexed question of the meaning and nature the troubadour concept of love (i.e., fin’ amour; “refined love”): Was it purely sexual, or was it a platonic ideal? Was this “illicit” (adulterous) love actually consummated, or was it sublimated? Was it a reality actually practiced, with its own code, or all a just sophisticated literary game?


Thirdly, in this complex and contentious field of research, one even finds that even the normative term for the home of the troubadours in Southern France, the “Provence,” and their language, “Provenćal,” is problematic. (The Provence is a historic southern region or province located in the southeast corner of France between the Alps, the Mediterranean, the Rhone River, bordering Toulouse, and the upper reaches of the Durance River.) The popular designation, “The Troubadours of the Provence,” used to identify the troubadours is misleading, since the earliest of the troubadours all came from Poitou (such as the first troubadour, William IX) and Gascony, which is farther north of the Provence. (The Provence is located in the extreme southeast, bordering Toulouse to the west.) Then there is Toulouse (or Languedoc), the most southeastern of the provinces, from which four out of thirteen of the most famous troubadours hailed from and which was a famous troubadour center. (Nor does the troubadour culture, in its heyday of expansion, halt here; it continues south and east into Italy, as well as due south into Catalonia and Spain. Troubadours were popular in the early 13th century in the lands of Toulouse, where, under Count Raymond V [1148-1194], the Court at Toulouse became a great center for the troubadour arts, the County of Foix, Aquitaine, Provence, Lombardy, Catalonia, Angou, and other English lands in continental Europe, France, Germany.) Therefore, when attempting to locate the troubadours geographically it is more accurate to use the medieval term “Occitania” (or “The Occitan”) which designates the entire area of Southern, as opposed to Northern France. (“Gallia Aquitania” is thus also a name used since medieval times for Occitania, including Provence as well, in the early 6th century.) Occitania (the term revived in the mid-19th century) has been recognized as a linguistic and cultural concept since the Middle Ages, but has never been a legal or a political entity under this name, although the territory was united in Roman times as the Septem Provinciĺ and the early Middle Ages. (For more detailed information, see the GS’s accompanying text, “Geography & Language of the Troubadours.”)


The confusion over the term arises because the term Provence (geographical area) is confused with “Provenćale” (a Southern dialect), because “Occitan,” “Provenćal,” and “Langue d’oc” are used designate both a language and a region. There are thus two common errors, one innocent and one guilty, when it comes to establishing a geographical and linguistic area for the troubadours: (1) All troubadours wrote in Provenćale and that Provenćale is a dialect of French. This first error arises presumably because the name Provenćal is occasionally used, confusingly, to refer to the “Occitan” language, or “Langue d’oc”. (2) The blind acceptance of French nationalist propaganda perpetrated by the same people who promote the fiction that Occitania was always part of France. The fact is that Provenćale is a dialect of Occitan not of French, and relatively few troubadour works are written in the Provenćale dialect. Most troubadour works date from a time before the Languedoc, Provence, the Aquitaine, or much of the rest of Occitania, were annexed by France.


We have to remember here that Occitania (the South) was (a) a very different cultural and linguistic (langue d’oc vs. langue d’oil) region from the North of France and (b) eventually conquered and annexed by the Northern princes and kings. “The land of the Franks” (i.e., “France”) was a very decentralized and culturally diverse territory during the Middle Ages, and at the time, southern provinces, like the Provence, were territories of the Holy Roman Empire and not a part of France. The Capetian or French monarchy began the independent decline of Occitania in the 10th century and by the 16th century established absolute sovereignty over France. But the political event that put this complete annexation in high gear was the Albigensian Crusade, a joint effort of the Church and King, which was launched in 1209 to eliminate the heretical Cathars (who were closely associated with troubadours) in the southwestern area of modern-day France. In the end, the Cathars were exterminated (the troubadours were in exile) and the autonomous troubadour stronghold of the County of Toulouse was annexed into the kingdom of France. The later French kings expanded their domain to cover over half of modern continental France.


Lastly, and perhaps most problematically, the layman discovers that not only is the subject matter of the troubadours and “courtly love” the object of research, but also entails the hermeneutical history of the various schools and their theories about the troubadours and courtly love. To begin to make one’s way through a maze of competing  of scholarly theories, one has to have some idea of the origin and evolution of scholarship on the subject, in order to get a handle on where this or that scholar is coming from when he or she makes authoritative claims concerning the troubadours and “courtly love” (more properly “fin’amor”).


Thus, for instance, one discovers that: (a) the pioneering work here was established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a series of German philologists in the discipline called “Romance Philology.” (These worked off the first philologist on the troubadours, Dante, and his De vulgar eloquentia, “On the Eloquence of Vernacular.”); (b) the early French medievalists, whose franophone studies were interpretative, focusing on biography and eroticism; (c) the main themes of early 20th-century criticism, both in and outside of France, were picked up by a range of critics, who tackled the particularly the vexed questions of the “origin” of courtly love and the sincerity of courtly poetry was debated, but these critics showed little attention to the formal dexterity and literary merit of troubadour poetry/song; (d) in the 1940s and 1950s, lone scholars across the world were making significant contributions to the field, particularly by producing major critical editions; (e) German critics of troubadour poetry in the post-war period, steeped in German hermeneutics and Marxist theory, argued that the troubadour lyric mediated the tensions between the different sections of the nobility and that the erotic “love” to which the poetry/songs were ostensibly devoted was invariably a metaphor for other desires and drives (the different genres of troubadour poetry/song included love song and political commentary song—both canso and sirventes); (f) in Italy, at the same time, Romance scholars interested in language and the Latinate culture of the troubadours were applying equal rigor to philology and textual criticism; (g) by the end of the 1960s, the effects of new theoretical approaches to the study of literature were being felt in medieval studies, and the anglophone “structuralist” school of literary criticism became devoted to the study of the lyrics of the troubadours, which held that this lyric could be seen simply as a play of convention and form; (h) by the 1970s, this view was challenged by the Cambridge school of practical criticism, which gave a purely literary close reading of the poems/songs, playing attention to the form and rhetoric as markers of personal engagement and extolling the unique individuality of the troubadours over the homogeneity of the tradition; (i) in the 1980s, the troubadours became the subject of increasingly sophisticated  and challenging research, which drew attention to the self-reflective hermeticism of troubadour lyric and to the sophisticated process of citation, imitation, and transformation that characterize the tradition; (j) by the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period of demystification set in that concentrated on either irony and play or subjectivity and gender, and turned away from taking the ostensible subject matter of the courtly canso (i.e., “love” song) seriously, but instead sought to revel the underlying aesthetic, psychic, and socio-political dynamics of the tradition; (k) by the late 1990s, this development in scholarship saw “courtly love” (or fin’ amor) as a sophisticated game men played with each other, instead of a refined social practice of love.


Suffice to say, then, that since the post-war period concerted efforts have been made to demystify the myth of “courtly love,” that is, to downplay (or at the very least to radically reinterpret) the significance of what made troubadour poetry/song famous and a pan-European phenomenon in the first place—amor. Yet, in spite of the academic popularity of demystification, one also discovers that in the new century troubadour scholars and other medievalists are taking fresh approaches and returning to history and to manuscript studies with renewed vigor, placing troubadour poetry/song in a context that helps relate it to broader, social, cultural, and psychological structures.


Keep in mind that this brief outline is by no means meant to give an exhaustive and comprehensive survey of the history of scholarship on “courtly love,” but only to give the layman unfamiliar with the troubadours a rough idea of the issues involved when researching the topic. The GS outlines some of the history of scholarly approaches and methods here because, for the most part (except for issue of “origins”), they will not be covered in his musical essays on the troubadours. However, as the GS proceeds in the series, he will be connecting to broader, social, cultural, and psychological issues and, at the same time, posting additional writings on more academic issues, including “origins.”

Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, the GS’s amateur research goes into the musical essays on a limited scale, and only reflects his own subjective take on the troubadours and courtly love (whether or not it agrees with the latest trends and fashions of scholarship). Furthermore, these musical essays on the troubadours are, while indeed giving information, meant to mostly entertain by playing music, both from traditional compositions of the 12th-century troubadours themselves and from contemporary popular singer-songwriters. (This is because, as the musical essays make plain, the GS believes that the latter are the historical heirs of the former, as far as enduring themes of love—its highs and lows—are concerned.)


Having provided this polemical background to his musical essays on the troubadours, the GS hopes that people will be interested in what made troubadour poetry/song famous in the first place—amor!, and would invite those who are interested enough to search out scholarly information for themselves and come to their own conclusions about the troubadours and “courtly love.”