The Origins of Amor or Romantic Love:

Theories About The Troubadours





1. The Hispano-Arab Connection

2. The Early Influences on the Troubadours

3. The Cathar Connection

4. The Cathar Connection: The Matriarchal Theory of Troubadour Origins Revisited






In my academic inquiry, as I went deeper into the phenomenon of the Troubadours “invention” of romantic love, the vexing question of the mysterious “origins” of troubadour poetry and song asserted itself.  It seemed that the regnant opinion of the previous generation of scholars was now being challenged by new evidence.  Thus, I discovered the conventional view of philologists (at least since Nietzsche), which held that the Troubadours of Southern France, the Occitan (or Occitania) independently “invented” romantic love, was up for grabs.  (The field of Romance studies, especially philology, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, began the search for the possible origins of the Troubadour conception of love.  I should also note here that the eighteenth-century literary movement of Romanticism was largely responsible for rediscovering the Troubadours and bringing them out of disrepute. In fact, so singularly formative were the Romantics in rediscovering the Troubadours in particular and looking back to the Middle Ages for models in general that the term “Romantic Medievalism” was coined, because of its focus on the “primitive” or folkloristic constituent elements of medieval culture.)  Although there is unified agreement that the Troubadours of the Provence did indeed initiate a revolutionary new poetic form in the vernacular (the Occitan Romance language of the region of Southern France, which is commonly referred to as Langue d’oc [1] ), and although its known that the Troubadours became a pan-European phenomenon, spreading quickly from the Occitan to Northern France, Italy, Germany, and as far east as Arabia, there is today little agreement as to possible “sources” for Troubadour poetry and song.  This is not to say that many possible “influences” have not been identified in making up the repertoire of both the southern Troubadours and northern trouvère, especially in the later twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances, the Arthurian Romances, or Grail-Quest cycle.  Therefore, as far as the origin of the Troubadour’s conception of courtly love—amor—and its code, no academic consensus has been achieved, and so the question of Troubadour origins and sources remains controversial.

This essay will review the contending theories for the Troubadour tradition and, in the process, put forth the Gypsy Scholar’s favored theory (or theories).  If this essay does nothing else, it should indicate the hidden extent of the subterranean currents of the Troubadour phenomenon.



1.       The Hispano-Arab Connection


To be precise, there has recently been renewed scholarly doubt that the troubadour invention was completely idiosyncratic, or that courtly love, or amour courtois (coined by a scholar in 1883), was a creation ex nihilo.  Again, many theories have been put forward.  Yet precious few philologists or medievalists have dared to suggest the influence that may have come from south across the Pyrenees into France.  However, there has recently been one major development in the field that seems to be in the process of overthrowing the dominant theory of Troubadour origins.  As I mentioned at start of this discussion, the regnant opinion of the previous generations of scholars was now being challenged by new evidence.  I’m referring here to the theory of the exclusive “Western” origins of the Troubadour conception of love.  I put “Western” in parenthesis because, in the face of a chauvinist establishment, there is increasing evidence put forward of a profound non-Western influence. [2]

I began by talking about the Troubadour/Courtly Love tradition of the High Middle Ages and the issue of its “origins,” and the conflicting theories put forward to account for the Troubadour’s primary sources.  In will now proceed to give some evidence that has been put forward by the dissident “Arabic (or Hispano-Arabic) theory”. To put it succinctly, the Arabist hypothesis, championed as early as the sixteenth century, is that the troubadour tradition was created, more or less, by William IX of Aquitaine after his experience of Moorish poetic arts while fighting for the Reconquista in Spain (then, Al-Andalus or Andalusia). 

In the Romance philologist’s search for origins, word origins, etymologies, are usually the first clues of where to look.  Few other etymologies, in fact, have provoked and sustained the Romance scholars as that of the French trobar and troubadour.  However, after almost a century of inquiry, the philologists have been unsuccessful in their efforts to establish to “Western” roots of trobar, or even its meaning.  The best guess is that the Langue d’oc word, troubadour, means literally “finder” or “inventor.”  Yet what is curious is that some other scholars—Arabists—as early as 1928 identified the Arabic verb tarrab, or taraba—meaning “to sing” and “to sing poetry,” among other things—as the root of the Langue d’oc word troubadour (trobar).  (TaRaB: music, song. The “-ador” of troub-ador is merely the agental suffix.)  As far as I’m aware, the first to popularize this scholarly theory was Idries Shah (The Sufis, 1964), who sees the Western concept of love as coming from a “deterioration of the Sufic love-ideal.” “Spreading from Spain and southern France into western Europe,” writes Shah in a disparaging tone, “undergoing a change of language which robbed it of its effective content, the creed of love lost many of its essential characteristics. . . .”  Nonetheless, Shah argues, like those Arabists before him, that word “troubadour” was Arabic in origin, “and bound up with all sorts of puns suggesting lovemaking, musical performance, and close fellowship. Troubadour art grew out of Sufi love poetry of medieval Moorish Spain.”

The Arabic derivation was a simple proposal and, relatively speaking, free of the semantic or phonetic difficulties of the other “European” words.  It was a simple proposal and probably would have been readily accepted were it not for the fact that it was based on a hypothesis that was at that time and is still, relatively speaking, anathema to the European notion of the unique “Westernism” of the troubadour phenomenon.  This is where what was later to be known as the “Arabist Theory” of troubadour origins comes in.  The proposal, then—that the origins of the Troubadours was to be found in Arabic Andalusian musical practices, was based upon the hypothesis that the interaction of Romance and Arabic cultures in Provence and Al-Andalus—the Arabic name for Iberia or Spain—had been frequent and substantial, especially in the musical-poetical spheres of influence.  Yet, it was surprisingly rejected out of hand, even though evidence for it existed in numerous historical sources and in other related etyma, such as pertaining to musical instruments, of which the Troubadours seem to have borrowed considerably from the Arabs.  Yet, to be fair (thinking of the frequent interaction of the two musical cultures again), some proponents of this theory argue, on cultural grounds, that both etymologies may well be correct, and that there may have been a conscious poetic exploitation of the phonological coincidence between trobar and the triliteral Arabic root TRB when sacred Sufi Islamic musical forms with a love theme were first exported from Al-Andalus to southern France.  It has also been pointed out that the concepts of “finding,” “music,” “love,” and “ardour”—the precise semantic field attached to the word troubadour—are allied in Arabic under a single root (WJD) that plays a major role in Sufic discussions of music, and that the word troubadour may in part reflect this.  Also, the derivations of the Arabic roots TRB and RBB literally mean, when spelled as RaBBab, “Sufi singer,” (which was used by Khayyam and Rumi to apply to themselves) and, when spelled RaBBaT, “lady, mistress, female idol.”)  The Sufis sometimes used the imagery of divinity as female.  In fact, Ibn Arabi of Andalusia (the “greatest master” of the Sufis) used this imagery to such a degree that he was accused of blasphemy.  (Keep in mind that there were flourishing Sufi schools in Andalusia from the 9th century and the Troubadours made their appearance at the end of the 11th.)

Another aspect of the “Arabic theory” looks back even before the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. [3] It asserts that the first great love songs were performed not by the Troubadours, but by Bedouin Arabs around 500 years earlier, giving evidence again that the word “troubadour” is very probably derived from the Arabic word tarab, meaning musical enchantment.  It also looks to eighth-century Baghdad, where the love poetry of the Bedouin had already inspired a thriving courtly tradition.  The poet al-Abbas composed love songs for Harun al-Rashid (the caliph immortalized in The Thousand and One Nights), and the nature of true love was a frequently debated topic.  By the 11th century, Islamic authors were writing love poetry on a much grander scale, which were conspicuously similar to the medieval romances that eventually came out of the court at Poitiers.  The most influential of these early Islamic romances is Nizami’s Layla and Majnun (1188).  It contains almost all of the characteristics that became the hallmarks of romantic or courtly literature: love at first sight; a love triangle; forbidden love; idealization; lovesickness; restless wandering; lack of consummation; and a tragic end. Thus the legend of Majnun and Layla later became the central topos of Arab and Persian romance.  From Arab folklore the story passed into Persian literature, the most famous being that of Layla and Majnun.

There are the parallels in the love theme between the two cultures of Andalusia and the Provence.  For example, there were several elements concerning “love” that were developed in Arabic literature in the 9th and 10th centuries.  For instance, the notions of “love for love’s sake” and “exaltation of the beloved lady,” or the Persian notion of the “ennobling power of love,” developed in the early 11th century in Avicenna’s philosophical “Treatise on Love.” (Another influence coming from the Persian Ibn Hazm of Cordoba, whose 10th century scholarly treatise, The Dove’s Neck Ring: About Love and Lovers, which was the very first attempt to codify the new conception of profane love and was most influential to Andalusian poet-singers.)  Finally, the element of courtly love, the concept of “love as desire never to be fulfilled,” was at times implicit in Arabic poetry, whose metrical forms used by the Andalusian poet-singers were similar to those later used by the Troubadours.  One of the foremost authorities on Arab history, Professor Philip Hitti, was fully persuaded in 1951 of the Arab origins of the Troubadours:


The troubadours resembled . . . the Arab singers not only in sentiment and character but also in the very forms of their minstrelsy. Certain titles which the Provence singers gave to their songs are but translations from Arabic titles.


 And he regarded the Provençal Troubadour transmission as the marking of a new civilization for the Western world:


In southern France the first Provencal poets appear full-fledged toward the end of the eleventh century with palpitating love expressed in a wealth of fantastic imagery. The troubadors (TaRaB: music, song) who flourished in the twelfth century imitated their southern contemporaries, the zajal singers. Following the Arabic precedent the cult of the dame suddenly arises in southwest Europe. The Chanson de Roland, the noblest monument of early European literature, whose appearance prior to 1080 marks the beginning of a new civilization—that of Western Europe—just as the Homeric poems mark the beginning of historic Greece, owes its existence to a military contact with Moslem Spain.


Another fact that supports the theory of Arabic origins is that of poetic language.  Before the Troubadours and before Dante, who revolutionized European literature by abandoning classical Latin and composing in the vernacular (Tuscan), Andalusian poets had already abandoned the classical language of Arabic for the common languages of the people—the Romance languages—, especially in which the popular love song was sung.  (It should be mentioned here that Dante—in relation to Beatrice—is said to have been directly influenced the Arab love poetry and the mystical poetry of the Sufis.  Arab mystical poetry expresses longing and love for God, who is addressed as “the Beloved.”  This tradition began in the ninth century.)  It has been said that no other people, until the people of the Provence picked it up from them, so fiercely loved the love-song as did the Andalusians.  And, as the story goes about the evolution of this form of expression of the heart (the one that started, by the way, with women’s songs), it was the people of exile who perfected the genre—the Andalusian-Sefardic or Jewish rabbis, the Andalusian-Mudejar or Muslim mystics, and the Andalusian-Mozarab or Christian poets.

It has been demonstrated that there was both substantial interaction between Provence and Andalusia and between Provence and the rest of the Arab world.  Here, the Crusades (the first of which was called for in 1095 by Pope Urban II) have to be factored in as the major event in this shared milieu, resulting in an influx of Islamic influence into Latin Europe.  Perhaps the dominant cultural factor during the twelfth century, bringing, among other foreign elements, a distinctly Islamic and gnostic tradition back to Europe.  Furthermore, by the mid-eleventh century, contacts between the literateurs of the Provence and south of the Pyrenees in Al-Andalus were far from infrequent.  Everything modern scholarship has discovered about the geographic and political ties of what are now southern France and northern Spain shows clearly the extent to which the citizens of the area of Languedoc or Occitan were in intimate contact with the Arabized world of the late eleventh century.  It has also been pointed out the great extent to which Arabic courtly poetry and song were a fact of everyday life at the court of Alfonso II (king of Christian Aragon from 1162-1196) the rallying point of both Catalan and Provençal Troubadours.

More specifically, it is now is well known among Romance scholars that the first known Troubadour, William IX Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers (1071-1126), had gone south, so to speak; that is, he crossed the Pyrenees into Iberia (Spain) to the caliphate of the Moors, where he found first love poetry, preceding Troubadour poetry by almost two centuries.  (The Muslims had taken Iberia in 711, whence it became Al-Andalus.)  Yet, what rarely gets mentioned in studies of the early Troubadour influences.  However, there is even a prehistory to this; for it is not only that William was exposed to and picked up the Arabic art of poetry and song, but, more importantly, that a half a dozen years before his birth there occurred one of the most well-documented examples of the taking of Arabic cultural “booty” by southern French Christians. However, among the rest of the “booty” brought back to Christian lands was something that was to be a primary factor in the invention of Troubadour courtly love.  When taking of the great Moorish city of Barbastro on the other side of the Pyrenees in 1064, 31 years before the first official Crusade called by Pope Urban II, the Christian knights are said to have taken a thousand slave girls back to Provence.  What does this have to do with the Troubadours and their invention of amor, or “love”?


. . . we have little reason to assume that the courts of Provence of the late eleventh century were oblivious to the art of Arabic sung poetry that the captured women would have brought with them.  The world from which these women were abducted was al-Andalus, and they and other refugees and victims of the wars of reconquest were familiar figures in Christian courts on both sides of the Pyrenees. In the tradition of all those throughout history who have been forced from their homeland, they took with them many of the trappings of the world from which they came, and in some small measure they recreated that world.  Thus . . . Jewish and other Andalusian refugees taught some of the learning that already distinguished al-Andalus as an advanced culture, and in the courts of Aquitaine, Andalusian music and songs provided entertainment.  After all, both the learning and the music had been essential features of any measure of civilization in the world from which they had fled or been abducted. 



In other words, what these young Andalusian slave women were proficient in was Arabic popular sung poetry.  From this time on, there was a steady source of Andalusian song for the enjoyment of the Christian court in the Provence.  Indeed, it is said that this was a prominent feature that the young William IX of Aquitaine heard in his father’s court.  Thus the songs from these refugees, the young Arab women from Al-Andalus, expressed love themes that were soon to be the major part of the repertoire of William of Aquitaine and the Troubadours, both male and female (trobaritzes), that followed him.


In the castles of the Languedoc could be heard music from the Arab world with delicately woven words, loosening the bonds of the body and leading a fortunate nobility to love.  Their was a “liberal” spirit in the air. At a time when it was forbidden to write in old Provencal, when it was forbidden to think in any way other than that of the Church of Rome, “things were written, they were sung, they were said and it was said that the people needed to be free.”


In fact, the evidence we have points to the fact that during the lifetime of William IX of Aquitaine to two societies were contiguous, and the interrelations between the two worlds were remarkable.  Already in the time of William the Great, grandfather of William IX, the export of Andalusian scholarship to other parts of Europe was noteworthy.  Once more, the material, intellectual, and artistic riches that flowed out of Al-Andalus were abundant in the ancestral home of the man who came to be known as the first Troubadour, William IX.  Even as a young man he could hardly have avoided knowing the songs of the women slaves of Barbastro, because they were dutifully presented to William VIII of Poitiers, father of the same man whose own songs would for many centuries be known as the first songs of Europe.


William was thus born and raised in Christian territory more than just randomly or sporadically involved with its Andalusian and semi-Andalusian neighbors.  And the record of William’s direct ties with the culture of the muwashshahas and of his own society’s life in the limelight of al-Andalus leaves little or no doubt that the birth of Provencal troubadour poetry occurred at a time and place when the Arabic world and its culture were of immediate fascination and importance.  Toldeo, already an important seat of learning and translation, was conquered in 1085, and what followed in the wake of that Christian military victory was a victory of far greater proportions for Arabic learning, the virtual explosion of cultural material from al-Andalus to all points north.



Other biographical evidence supports this view.  In 1094, two years before the Christians captured the Aragonese city of Huesca, William had married princess Philippa of Aragon, and his fascination with the Arabized, multilingual and culturally polymorphous society of the reconquered territories was well noted by his contemporaries.  One of his sisters had married Pedro I of Aragon, and yet another Alfonso, who had captured Toldeo and proclaimed himself “Emperor of Spain and the two Faiths.”  In 1096, the years after his marriage, The First Crusade was called.  William followed it to the Holy Land in 1100, when Jerusalem had already fallen.  He remained there for several years, years for which there is ample documentation of the virtually complete acculturation of the Christian crusaders to the Arab ways.  Back in Europe, a William who is as well Arabized as any noble of his time, who is described by his contemporaries as restless and bored with Christian society, who was reviled by contemporary Christian chroniclers as an enemy of “modesty and goodness,” and who was twice excommunicated by the Church, this same William began to write the vernacular lyric poetry that was to make him the father of the Troubadour courtly love of Europe.   William interspersed this creative period with a number of crusading excursions to Spain, including one, in 1119, which was part of a broad-based alliance that attempted to turn back the Islamic fundamentalist Almoravids, who had invaded Al-Andalus in 1091.

For the next several generations of Troubadours, their cultural ambience would only increase the knowledge of Andalusian culture.  The Christian courts of Barcelona, Aragon, and Castile maintained their wealth of Andalusian cultural trappings, reinforced by refugees seeking asylum from the fundamentalist reforms taking place in Almoravid Al-Andalus.  Furthermore, these same courts of Christian Spain were often-visited havens of some of the best-remembered Troubadours; Guiraut de Borneil, Arnaut Daniel, Peire Vidal, Marcabru, Raimbaut d’Orange, and Peire d’Auvergne.  All these “wandering minstrels,” or Troubadours were attracted by the world of cultural symbiosis, richness, and artistic diversity that was Andalusia.  (It is also interesting to note that in 11th -century Spain, a group of wandering poets appeared who would go from court to court, and sometimes travel to Christian courts in southern France, a situation closely mirroring what would happen in southern France about a century later.) Thus it was such cultural and social-political circumstances as these that witnessed the birth, or at least the definitive shaping, of the Provençal lyric that was to become the focal point, from a Europeanist’s perspective, of the courtly and lyric culture of medieval Europe and was furthermore the font from which modern European poetry issued.

Given that the main themes of courtly love were well in place in Andalusia before the 11th and 12th centuries, it is very likely that they were the source for the Troubadours.  Therefore, the evidence of the “Arabist theory” of the origins of the courtly love of the Provençal Troubadours is entirely convincing.  And it is intriguing that poet and translator Ezra Pound long ago credited William of Aquitaine, in Canto VIII, with brining song out of Spain:


And Poictiers, you know, Guillaume Poictiers,

had brought the song up out of Spain

with the singers and veils...


In his study, Lévi-Provençal, Pound claims to have found four Hispano-Arabic verses nearly or completely recopied in William's manuscript.  (In fact, one of the songs of Guillaume of Poitiers, song XI, is written in quatrains of octosyllabic AABB, which is the form even Andalusian zajal, which is a traditional form of oral strophic poetry declaimed in a colloquial dialect, most notably in one of the many dialects of Arabic, and accompanied by musical instruments.)

Again, William IX, grandfather of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, was among the first Romance vernacular poets of the Middle Ages, one of the founders of a secular poetic tradition that would culminate in Dante and Petrarch.  However, Troubadours, reworking of the popular art-form of the people of Al-Andalus, didn’t translate from the Arabic to Latin, rather they wrote and sung their love-songs in the vernacular, that is, in Provençal or Langue d’oc, the tongue of the people of Provence or Occitan.  Thus, the Troubadours seem to have created, according to young Dante, the very first popular art form in Europe.  Or did they? 

Fact is, while the Troubadours of the Provence can rightly be credited with this popular innovation, it was the Andalusian poets who first altered poetry by not completely putting it into the vernacular instead of classical Arabic, but by adding a vernacular refrain at the end of the last strophe.  (A strophe differs from a stanza in that it is an irregular pattern.)  Of course, the great poetic form of the eleventh-century Andalusians was at first disdained by many of her most renowned poets.  This poetic form was known as muwashshaha and its vernacular refrains known as kharjas.  With examples dating back to the 11th century, this genre of poetry is believed to be among the oldest in any Romance language, and certainly the earliest recorded form of lyric poetry in Ibero-Romance.  It was eventually accepted and had reached its peak of popularity around the middle of the eleventh century.  The reasons for its lack of respect among the Arabic paragons of high culture were also the reasons for its success and popularity among those less anxious and protective of the classical canon of Arabic literature.  And the reason was that the song was a hybrid, a reflection of the polymorphic culture of Al-Andalus.  In other words, it embodied the symbiotic culture of Al-Andalus rather than its strict classical Arabic heritage.  By symbiotic is meant the coming together of three distinct peoples and their spoken languages—the languages being vulgar Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and the group of Romance languages, particularly Mozarabic.  (Latin as spoken—Vulgar Latin—begins to diversify into Romance forms in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries, but it’s not until the tenth and eleventh centuries that substantial written texts appear that take account of the sound changes in the Romance vernaculars of Europe, where bilingualism was common.  Thus, Mozarabic comes from Mozarab, a group of Spanish Christians who adopted certain aspects of Arab culture under Moslem rule but practiced a modified form of Christian worship. The cultural language of Mozarabs continued to be Latin, but as time passed, young Mozarabs studied and even excelled at Arabic.  During the early stages of Romance languages development, a set of Romance dialects spoken in Al-Andalus was spoken by the general population.  This is known as the Mozarabic language, though there never was a common standard.  Thus this Hispano-Arabic poetry developed into the uniqueness of the muwashshahas, and this was something revolutionary; for, to reiterate, although the strophes were in classical Arabic, the final verse was in the Romance vernacular of Mozarabic. It was the Moorish and Jewish poets of al-Andalus whose kharjas are snatches of lamentation in which young women bewail the absence of their lovers: “My heart is leaving me. / O God, I wonder whether it will return / My grief for my beloved is so great!”


The formal and musical alterations between strophes and refrain in these songs were reiterated and enhanced by the oscillation between classical and vernacular, between the language and poetry of the courts and that of the streets. 


Of course, this revolutionary art-form for poetry was, of course, not welcomed by the cultural purists, but, like the disapproval of many guardians of the old classical ways in every culture, including our own, it did little to prevent its spreading popularity.  The innovation, in fact, proved widely appealing for numerous generations of Andalusians, and for none more than those of the eleventh century, whose cultural decadence in the eyes of stricter Moslems invited and justified the eventual invasion of the Islamic fundamentalists, the Almoravids.  And history shows that this wouldn’t be the first time a reactionary backlash would ensue because of the popular song and the language of its lyrics. [4]



2.       The Early Influences on the Troubadours


Having looked into alternative “origins” of the Troubadour conception of love—amor—and called into question the conventional scholarly theory that the Troubadours “invented” courtly love out of thin air the, we could still say that the “originality” of the Troubadours consisted in being the first to develop all the elements they discovered in the love poetry/song of the Arabs of Al-Andalus into a doctrine or “code of love” in European literature.  (I add this in case of a misunderstanding that I’m arguing that the Troubadours were engaging in servile imitation of Andalusian love poetry.)

 Be this as it may, it should also be pointed out that the issue of the non-Western origin of courtly love is further complicated by the fact that the Arabic literary tradition itself contained Greek—Platonic and Neo-Platonic—influences, since the Arabs had been singular in preserving and translating the classical Greek texts in Andalusian Toledo, and since these same influences from Sufi mysticism can be detected in the poetry of the Troubadours.  In fact, it has been asserted that the major themes of Troubadour poetry reflect Sufi what has been called a “Sufi love cult” (especially from Andalusia).  For instance, the Sufi elevation or idealization of woman can be seen in the Troubadour’s “Lady of the Manor.”  (Many of the greatest Sufi thinkers were themselves influenced by Platonic, Neo-Platonic, and Gnostic Christian ideals of love, kept alive in the medieval Middle East by the translation of Greek, Roman and Byzantine texts into Arabic and Persian.)  Therefore, as I have already suggested, it’s better for the matter of the “origins” of courtly love to simply drop the Europeanist dichotomy of “Western” and “non-Western,” since the early writings that are the basis of the “Western canon”—the Greek—are inextricably bound with the Arabic tradition. (It should be noted that the introduction of the “classics” back into mainstream Latin culture was because of the Arabs.  In fact, the only Aristotle the Europeans knew was the Arabized one, due to the Andalusian-Arab Aristotle, Averroes, 1126-1198.)  

The history behind the Troubadours and courtly love (amor, amore) tradition is a long and complicated affair, with mix of influences that come from many directions.  I cite Joseph Campbell here to give a hint of what I will be unpacking in the next pages:


There had been added, furthermore, through the influence Islam, related symbols, loaded with the mystic lore of Asia; elements, also, from Byzantium and from even farther East. By various schools of modern scholarship the Grail has been identified with the Dagda’s caldron of plenty, the begging bowl of the Buddha in which four bowls, from the four quarters, were united, the Kaaba of the Great Mosque of Mecca, and the ultimate talismanic symbol of some sort of Gnostic-Manichaean rite of spiritual initiation, practiced possibly by the Knights Templar. All such alien, primitive, or related Oriental forms, however, were in the European romances reinterpreted and applied to the local, immediate spiritual situation. . . .


However, it could be said that the most important early influence for both the Andalusian poet-singers and Provençal Troubadours is Plato, whose symposium on “love” stands as the first major treatment of the subject in the Western world.  Plato was the first to suggest that love has a spiritual dimension, and yet this was not taken up with very much enthusiasm by the classical poets, who were far more interested in the sensual aspects of love, as portrayed in Ovid’s The Art of Love.  Islamic poets, on the other hand, found Plato's idea fascinating, and from the 12th century on, Islamic love poetry became more obviously mystical.  In The Symposium, Plato attributes a mythic story to the great playwright, Aristophanes, who says that the primal humans that were originally androgynous and that Zeus divided the spherical-shape humans because they were so powerful that the gods became jealous.  He split each four-legged, four-eyed individual into two, leaving them desperately seeking their lost wholeness.  Only when reunited could they be once more powerful.  This story is told to account for the power of eros—the cosmic unitary principle—, since these divided beings spend the rest of their existence looking for their missing half. (This is where the concept of “soul-mate” comes from.) So, according to Plato, human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love, eros. (It is noteworthy that Plato’s Socrates credits a woman, a priestess called Diotima, as his teacher of love.)  This story was first passed on to the Arabs, since they had the Greek texts, and influenced (in Neo-Platonic form) the Sufi poets, who, in turn, influenced the secular poets of Andalusia, and from there found its way into the Troubadour conception of the origin of love.  Thus Campbell observes of the courtly love tradition: “Numerous links are known, furthermore, to the mystic poetry of the Sufis of Islam.”

Here it should be pointed out that for some scholars, a powerful component to Arabist theory is the 10th- and 11th-century Sufi mystical love tradition, from which it is claimed the Troubadours took their inspiration. (For example, Rumi: “Wherever you are, whatever your condition is, always try to be a lover.”)  The Sufis were famous for their romantic poetry (referencing the romantic bonds between human lovers, the worldly love of man and woman), particularly the practitioners of it who originated in Moorish Andalusia (such as Ibn Arabi, who was suspected by orthodox Muslim authorities of erotic poetry and who declared that he was actually a devotee of the “religion of love”).  With Sufi poetry, a double level of meaning is expressed in “love”—as worship the Beloved as the Divine, or as a flesh-and-blood person (or both!).  The Sufi poetess Rabia declares: “I pray God that you fall in love / With someone as cold and indifferent as you are. / Then you may understand / The pain of love, the sufferings and tortures of separation, / And you may appreciate my devotion.”  The issue of “borrowing” here is complicated by the fact, as some scholars have pointed out, that “for the courtly love tradition itself was implicated with Arabic and Islamic culture.”  (We should recall here what I have pointed out earlier as regards the Arabist theory; that recent studies show a dynamic interchange between the Latinate culture of the Provence and the Arabic culture of Al-Andalus; the two societies were contiguous.)  In the same way, the academic issue of “textual influences” (which is sometimes used to deny an influence when it is not found there) is complicated by the fact that these ideas about “love” (on both sides of the Pyrenees) must have been circulating freely, probably via oral traditions, even conversation, rather than just translations of texts.  (Recall here how William IX, the first Troubadour, probably first heard notions of what was to become courtly love through the love songs of the young women in his father’s court, who had been abducted from the northern cities across the Pyrenees reconquered from the Moors.  This instance of “influence” is certainly not textual.)

As to other possible influences from the ancient Greek world on the Troubadours, as far as I’m aware, it was a woman who was the first proto-troubadour.  Sappho (612 BCE) was the first to celebrate Eros, the power or god of love, with music, and in the same paradoxical terms as we later find prevalent with the Troubadours: “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / sweetbitter, impossible to fight off–you burn me!”  (The oxymoron, “bitter sweetness” is common in Troubadour and Minnesinger poetry.) 

There are many poets and philosophers who carried on and developed the concept of eros, notably the Latin poets of the Middle Ages. Thus we come to what is probably the most prominent and popular theory of courtly love influences, the classical Latin. Various attempts were made to codify this new conception of profane love.  (I’ve already mentioned the 10th century Ibn Hazm of Cordoba’s The Dove’s Neck Ring: About Love and Lovers.)  Of course, there was a pagan book of love prior to this, which probably influenced the Troubadours (thanks, again to the translations by the Arabs from Al-Andalus).  I referring to the Roman poet Ovid’s The Art of Love, which we know had a momentous effect on later cultivated Europeans and influenced churchman Capellanus’ own derivative De Amore, although it was more a 12th-century Latin manual on seduction than anything else, causing some scholars to doubt its sincerity about courtly love.  Be that as it may, the classical Latin theory emphasizes parallels between Ovid, especially his Amores and Ars amatoria, and the lyric of courtly love, which predominated in eleventh-century France.  That being said, missing are the basic themes of the veneration of woman and her spiritual rise, the lover becoming a figure as exemplary as the saint, wise one, or hero, as well as the purifying action of true love (fin’amors) and its spiritual dimension, since the focus in Ovidian poetry is the carnal aspect.  Thus, from the formal point of view, except for the more blatant sexual expression of some verse, there is not a strong bond between the poetry of the Troubadours and Ovid.

Second to Ovid was the Roman “righteous pagan” Cicero, whose treatise “On Love” held sway for many, including those of the Imperial French court.  Thus, in shaping the form of the medieval romance tradition, the classical Latin theory of Troubadour influence holds that the Roman-Latin tradition of poetry, a la Ovid, played a major role.

As for the earlier pagan and mythic background of influence on the Troubadours, the Celtic (and Germanic) has been recognized as a powerful element, especially in the medieval romances, such as Tristan and Iseult and the Arthurian Grail cycle. Thus the Celtic (for Tristan, the Cornish and Welsh) survival of pre-Christian warrior codes and sexual mores from Celtic and Germanic (or Pictish), among the aristocracy of Europe has been put forward to account for the idea of courtly love.  In the northeast corner of France lay Brittany, which contributed to a Breton-speaking sub-culture of Southern France, probably contributed to a considerable borrowing from Celtic mythology, such as the Grail cup coming from the great Celtic cauldron and the Celtic “otherworld” that lent these tales their fantastic element.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell is particularly informative about the Celtic influence:


The backgrounds of the legend lay in pagan, specifically Celtic, myth. Its heroes were the old champions, Cuchullin and the rest, returned in knightly armor as Gawain, Perceval, or Galahad, to engage, as ever, in marvelous adventure. . . . By various schools of modern scholarship the Grail has been identified with the Dagda’s caldron of plenty . . . .

The immanent yet lost—but not forgotten—realm within us all in Celtic mythology and folklore allegorized variously as the Land below Waves, the Land of Youth, the Fairy Hills, and, in Arthurian romance, that Never Never Land of the Lady of the Lake where Lancelot du Lac was fostered and from which Arthur received his sword Excalibur. . . .


We also recognize—here as in the Grail context—strains from the Celtic mythic sphere. The proven prototypes of Mark, Tristan, and Iseult were the Irish legendary favorites, Finn MacCumhaill, his lieutenant Diarmuid, and his abducted bride-to-be, Grianne. There is, in short, between the pagan past and high Middle Ages of Europe an impressive continuity of spirit and development . . . .


Closely associated with the Celtic background of courtly love influences is the “Matriarchal.”  This marginalized theory maintains that the courtly love tradition represents a survival from the Great Goddess cultures of the Neolithic period and demonstrates the persistence of an underlying paganism in High Middle Ages. According to this theory, the Troubadours (to a certain extent within a male-dominated society) represented, with the worship of their Lady, the rebirth of the feminine principle in Western, patriarchal civilization.  The relationship of love—amor—between the Troubadour and his Beloved is a secularization of the sacred love relationship between the Mother Goddess and her consort, epitomized in their “sacred marriage” (hieros gamos), which can be found, for example, in the union of Inanna/Dumuzi in Sumeria and Shatki/Shiva in India.  In fact, this theory holds that the Troubadours called into question the opposition of sacred vs. profane love.

Thus, cultural historian Riane Eisler sees the rite of the “sacred marriage” of the feminine and masculine principles as the legacy of the primordial Great Goddess and her “old religion,” and suggests that this deity and her sexual union ritual survived in diluted form into the Middle Ages with the Troubadours.  She observes that “the seeds of the old forms of worship were too embedded in the deepest layer of European culture to be completely eradicated,” and thus during the Middle Ages, when the Church was erecting its great cathedrals, each dedicated to Our Lady, the Holy Mother, it was possible for people to at least “openly retain the ancient worship of the Goddess.”  She goes on to describe the importance of the Troubadour phenomenon to the revival of the “old religion” and, consequently, the liberation of the feminine: 


Also during the Middle Ages in the same south of France where woman’s sexual power was once venerated in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries, there flourished the poets known as troubadours and trobaritzes [female singers], whose songs of courtly love honored woman as man’s spiritual inspiration and celebrated erotic love between woman and man.

       In their love songs, the troubadours and trobaritzes celebrated a love between woman and man that was out of wedlock—and thus not controlled by the Church, with its by-then rigid rules on marriage and its prohibition of divorce. In some lyrics, particularly the later ones, this romantic love was a chaste love—that is, a love without sexual consummation. But in many of the songs, particularly those written before the Church-launched Crusades against the Albigensians of the south of France (the only Crusades by Christians against Christians), the lyrics of troubadour and trobaritz poetry are clearly sexual, without the obligatory proclamation of the chasteness of later poets. . . .

       . . . . But their main import is the celebration of women and of romance—and the ritualistic courtship between a noble lady and her chosen love.

       In terms of the old religion, this was certainly a toned-down version of earlier myths of the sacred union of the Goddess and her divine sexual partner. But in terms of medieval life it was a radical challenge to prevailing norms.

       Indeed, the troubadour ideal of a more gentle manhood, from which our term gentleman derives, was in itself a violation of prevailing norms. And it is for this ideal of gentleness, even reverence, toward women—and of a romantic and highly ritualized love between woman and man that has both a strong erotic and a strong spiritual element—that the troubadours are today remembered.

       It is a powerful legacy, this legacy of romance and ritual that the medieval troubadours and trobaritzes left us despite the condemnation of the pleasures of sex by the Church.  And it is a legacy that, as we have seen, stems from more ancient roots: from a time when sexuality was associated with the sacred rather than the profane and the obscene.


Farther away from the geographical epicenter of Troubadour activity in Southern France, there is textual evidence of other prominent influences, going as far back as the Greek Eleusinian Mystery cults for the underlying religious elements in the romances.  We should remember here that the Eleusinian Mystery rites were about the Great Goddess, Demeter, and her daughter Persephone.

As far as the underlying religious and philosophically elements in courtly love, some scholars observe that the romances exhibit strong features from the Western esoteric tradition—Neo-Platonism, Hermetical Alchemy, and Gnosticism (Catharism). The element of alchemical influence has been especially noted because of the many references in the texts of the romances, especially the famous Romance of the Rose, which was understood in the Middle Ages (by such as Albertus Magnus) as an alchemical allegory.  This theory is said to account for the more idealized view of courtly love, “ennobling effects of love,” as opposed to its more erotic aspects.  It entails a sub-theory about how the Neo-Platonism was transmitted to the Troubadours.  Some scholars connect with the “Arabist” theory and see it transmitted through Platonizing Arabs like Avicenna, while others see it transmitted through the Catharism by way of John Scotus Eriugena.

So these are some of the Greek, Celtic, Old European, Balkan, and Latin elements that have been recognized as going into the diverse mix that came to be known as the romance tradition a la the Troubadours.  (I will deal with the controversial theory of Cathar influence in southern France separately in the last section of this essay.)  Yet, as diverse as all this is, it still remains within the European cultural matrix.  Thus, we come to the strictly non-European influence.

At the level of influence with what has been detected (beginning with Ezra Pound) as the supposed sexual mysticism cult behind the Troubadours, connections have been seen in the Tantric Shakti cult of India.  Joseph Campbell (though without going so far as suggesting such a cult), taking a cue from 12th-cenruty St. Bernard of Clairvaux and his allegorizing of the erotic Song of Songs (which also influenced the Troubadours), makes the connection of certain Gnostic sects (who saw sexual love as sacramental) with the Shakti cults of India:


Analogies appear, as well, to the Shakti cults of India and above all to the poetry of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, the date of which, c. 1175, is about that of the Tristan of Chretien of Troyes. . . .


In India there was likewise a doctrine of divine love flourishing in Bernard's time; however its metaphors of rapture were not confined to sermons but displayed in temple sculpture and translated into rites of the kind of our Gnostic friends, the Phibionites. Jayadeva’s “Song of the. Cowherd,” celebrating in voluptuous detail the love—illicit and divine—of the man-god Krishna for the earthly matron Radha . . . .



I will now circle back to the influences that are said to have come from inside the central European cultural matrix, most particularly that of the French.  The first theory of note, propounded in 1891, is that of the “Folklore or Spring Folk Ritual.” According this theory, folklore and oral tradition gave rise to troubadour poetry in.  The French Romance scholar, Gaston Paris, located troubadour origins in the festive dances of women hearkening the spring in the Loire Valley. This theory has since been widely discredited, but certain discoveries in the field of Romance languages raises the question of the extent of oral forms of literature in the eleventh century and earlier.  Be that as it may, some philologists speculate that the popular songs of the settled people of Iberia (pre-Arab Spain) could have been an early influence on Andalusian and, by extension, Troubadour poetry.  However, this theory is weak, since scholars have little information on the popular songs of the people.  (For a rough list of the pre-Andalusian people, see note 3.)

The next theory of Troubadour influence is the Medieval Latin or Mediolatin, or Goliardic.  The Goliards were a group of clergy who wrote satirical Latin poetry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The satires were meant to mock and lampoon the Church. They were mainly clerical students at the universities of France, Germany, Italy, and England who protested the growing contradictions within the Church (such financial abuses), expressing themselves through song, poetry and performance.  (The derivation of the word is uncertain.  It was said by them to originate from a mythical “Bishop Golias,” a medieval Latin form of the name Goliath, the giant who fought King David in the Bible, suggestive of their posing as heavy drinking yet learned students who lampooned the ecclesiastical and political establishment.  Many scholars believe it goes back to a the bitter conflict between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abélard, specifically a letter between St. Bernard and Innocent II, in which he referred to Pierre Abélard as Goliath, thus creating a connection between Goliath and the student adherents of Abélard. Others support its derivation from gailliard, a “gay fellow.”)  Scholars examining the intertextual connection between vernacular and medieval Latin (such as Goliardic) song have asserted that trobar (the root of troubadour) means “inventing a trope,” the trope being a poem where the words are used with a meaning different from their common signification, i.e. metaphor and metonymy. This poem was originally inserted in a serial of modulations ending a liturgic song. Then the trope became an autonomous piece organized in stanza form. The influence of late eleventh-century poets of the “Loire school,” such as Marbod of Rennes and Hildebert of Lavardin, is stressed in this connection.

Since the great philosopher, logician, and theologian (and composer-musician of love songs) of the 12th century, Peter Abélard, is referenced here, I would, for the sake of comprehensiveness, add the fact that, while it is not a “theory” in its own right, there are those who maintain that a direct influence on the Troubadours were the real Parisian lovers Peter Abélard and Heloise.  Here, is where the sub-theory of Latin influence comes in, the Latin and clerical literature made up of love letters.  Originating primarily in the North of France, this epistolary literature is made up especially in prose or Latin hexameters.  However, in terms of formal structure and not theme, this theory only has minor application to the Northern trouvère, who came later than their southern cousins.

And speaking of his archenemy, the monastic Bernard of Clairvaux, there is the Bernardine-Marianist or Christian theory of Troubadour influence.  According to this theory, it was the devotional theology espoused by Bernard of Clairvaux and the Latin poetry of the time on the Virgin Mary, both increasingly important for the new Mariology impulse, that most strongly influenced the development of the Troubadour genre. Specifically, the emphasis on religious and spiritual love, disinterestedness, mysticism, and devotion to Mary would “explain” the phenomenon of courtly love.  This theory argues that in the courtly love, the religious abandonment of oneself to the celestial Virgin was redirected at the mortal woman.  Chronologically, however, this hypothesis is hard to sustain, since the forces believed to have given rise to the Mariology arrived after the Troubadours.  Indeed, a more plausible theory is that the popularity of the Troubadours and their secular conception of the love for a flesh-and-blood lady instead of Mother Mary, coupled with the anxiety of the Church over it (after all, it did launch the very first crusade in its history against the phenomenon), meant that Bernard had to try and co-opt this dangerous new phenomenon for the Church.  In fact, in terms of who was imitating who, one can make the counter argument that even if the Troubadours were taking a religious yearning and secularizing it with a mortal woman the transposition was so successful that later even the great Catholic saints and devotional mystics, like Catherine (14th c.) and Teresa (16th c.) were so enamored of the courtly love poetry and romances that they used its tropes of erotic love to describe their passionate love for Christ.  Indeed, St. Francis of Assisi (12th-13th c.) learned French so he could read the romances in the original, and was so taken by them that when he became a monk he declared that he was “a knight for Lady Poverty.”  In any case, reciprocal influences were certainly in operation, but they seem, at best, to be parallel phenomena, and the terminology of the poetry of Troubadour shows little resemblance to the symbolic system of Mariology.  But the influence of Bernardine and Marian theology can be retained without the origins theory, if are talking about the later Troubadours, who seemed to transfer their poetical devotion to Mary as their “Lady.”  But the catch is this was probably in a large part due to external coercion, since the Church had by this time launched its reprisals on the blasphemous Troubadours, and many of them either concealed their feelings for their secular Lady under the trope of the Virgin Mary, or straightforwardly converted to the orthodox devotion.  

There is one interesting connection worth mentioning with regard to the Marianist-Christian theory of Troubadour influence and the issue of the secular Troubadour “Lady” and the Church’s. Alfonso X, or Alfonso the Learned (king of Christian Castile from 1252-1284) wrote a collection of poetry he called Cantigas de Santa Maria, devotional poetry to the Virgin Mary, which are put forth to prove the Christian theory of Troubadour origins. The problem is he wrote it in the Troubadour style, since this was the game for the Troubadour phenomenon.  But even if this was not the case, the example of Alfonso gives, in fact, more weight to the Arabic theory of Troubadour origins—the Christian king Alfonso was thoroughly Arabized.  Early in his reign he attempted to establish a new center for Arabic and Latin studies in Seville, carried on the Andalusian task of the translation of Arabic philosophical and scientific texts into Latin and vernacular Castilian.  As a center for learning and culture, Alfonso’s court became the rallying point of both Catalan and Provençal Troubadours.  As J. B. Trend pointed out in The Legacy of Islam (1931):


The subject—the praise of the Virgin Mary—is a logical development of the troubadour’s idealization of the lady of the manor; while the poems of the troubadours . . . are, in matter, form and style closely connected with Arabic idealism and Arabic poetry written in Spain.


Another theory that is Church oriented is the “Liturgical,” which holds that the Troubadour lyric may be a development of the Christian liturgy and hymnody.  Here, the influence of the Song of Songs even been suggested.  Of course, it is a Song of Songs sanitized of its blatant erotic element.  Through the exegetical process of allegorization, Bernard and others taught that Solomon (who we now know wasn’t the author) was using a trope: the Song was about the love of God for his Church or, alternatively, the love of the (feminine) soul—the black Shulamite, great breasts and all!—for God.  Yet even one as chastely devout as St Bernard—that votary of “Our Lady”—, living in the time of the Troubadours, couldn’t help himself making a connection with amor in his interpretation in the embarrassingly erotic Song of Songs, the only text of the Bible that encouraged many Troubadours in their erotic poetry.  He knew these mad lovers weren’t susceptible to reason:


I am not unmindful of the fact that the king's honor loveth judgment. But intense love does not wait upon judgment. It is not restrained by counsel; it is not checked by a sense of false modesty; it is not subject to reason. I ask, I implore, I entreat with all my heart: Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.


(It has been shown by some scholars that the tradition of esoteric thought concerning the Song of Solomon was Jewish Kabbalism, which, interestingly enough was, centered in Andalusia, where the main religio-philosophical works of Jewish Kabbalism were composed in the late 12th century and then made their way to South of France.)  In any case, the problem with is Latin liturgical theory is that there is no preceding Latin poetry resembling that of the Troubadours. On those grounds, no theory of the latter’s origins in classical or post-classical Latin can be constructed, but that has not deterred some, who believe that a pre-existing Latin corpus must merely be lost to us.  That many Troubadours received their grammatical training in Latin through the Church (from clerics) and that many were trained musically by the Church is well-attested and the “Para-liturgical” tropes were in use there in the era preceding the Troubadours’ appearance.

Lastly, there is the “Feudal-social or –sociological” theory.  This theory or set of related theories has gained ground in the twentieth century.  It is more a methodological approach to the question than a theory; it asks not from where the content or form of the lyric came but rather in what situation/circumstances did it arise.  Thus, for instance, it focuses on the status of women in feudal society and their relationship to economic and other factors that would determine their place Troubadour poetry.  For instance, the amazing success of the Troubadours can be attributed, for the most part, to one major social change—the rise of educated women to the feudal class.  Women now could inherit property and therefore, regulate their own lives.  They married, of course, but marriage was understood to be a general social convention that had nothing to do with love.  Beginning with the first Troubadours, the love songs they composed brought them in conflict with the Church, since the vocabulary and emotional passion hitherto used to express the “love” for God is now transformed into the love for woman.  As Courtly Love developed, it challenged the sacrament of marriage, as it advocated and celebrated adulterous love.  It’s “code of love,” championed by the women of the court, was undermining the code of masculine domination.

Going back to the Marianist or Christian theory of Troubadour influence, this need not be posited as responsible for the Troubadours tendency to idealize their flesh-and-blood Lady into a quasi-divinity status, because in the twelfth-century south of France was another church that worshipped a female divinity.  This was not the Church of Roma, but the Church of Amor.



3.       The Cathar Connection


I now come, next to the Arabist theory, one of the most controversial, the Cathar (or Crypto-Cathar) theory of Troubadour influence.  To put it succinctly, according to this thesis, Troubadour courtly love is a reflection of religious doctrine the Cathari, a heretical Gnostic-Manichaean sect (a sect also known as Albigensians, either because of the their presence in and around the city of Albi, or because of the 1176 Church Council held near Albi which declared the Cathar doctrine heretical) in the south of France or the region of Languedoc.  Cathars of Languedoc represented an alarmingly popular mass movement, establishing an alternative church—the Church of Amor. Although the theory is supported by the traditional and near-universal account of the decline of the Troubadours coinciding with the suppression of Catharism during the Albigensian Crusade (first half of the thirteenth century), support for it has come in waves.  It is seen by some as an important step in the direction of altering our ideas about the Middle Ages, especially the Troubadour movement’s relationship to heterodox religious movements that challenged the orthodoxy of the Church.  However, like the Arabist theory and the Matriarchal, it has been eschewed by mainstream scholarship.  

From the perspective of mainstream scholarship, the Cathar theory is problematic in several ways.  I will briefly summarize these difficulties with the theory.  First of all, little is actually known about these Manicheans (the dualistic religion from the Iranian-Syriac prophet Mani, and in the medieval period more properly Neo-Manichaeism).  It is known that they originated in Bulgaria and Bosnia around the tenth century and migrated to the south of France.  The Cathari (“pure ones”) were popular with the people of the region, their priests were called the perfecti, their main rite called consolamentum, and the Church launched a crusade (the Albigensian) to “exterminate the heretics,” which is what happened (between 1209 and 1244). This is the gist of what is actually known for certain about the Cathars. 

The reason for the scarcity of information about these “heretics of the Provence” (like their actual beliefs) and the reason that the Cathars’ views are not easy to reconstruct is owing to the efficiency with which their writings were either suppressed or destroyed by the Church in the thirteenth century.  Deprived of the apologies by the heretics themselves, we are dependent for our knowledge of them on the works of refutation written by Catholic polemicists and Inquisitors of the thirteenth century. In other words, all the information that comes down to us is from the late Catholic polemicists who were constructing the past according to the logic of their own agenda. 

Thus, the particulars of their doctrines are relatively non-existent.  Like all dualistic Gnostics with whom the Church continually struggled, they believed that the material world was evil, the body place of entrapment for the soul, and created by the false God, the demiurge.  Thus, the thing to do was to renounce the world through extreme asceticism.  Beyond this, from the fragmentary evidence from all over Europe before the Albigensian Crusade a common dualistic and ascetic doctrine can be detected, “but we can detect no common theology, Manichaean or otherwise, and we can detect no sign whatever that the various heretics were connected in any way.”  In fact, historian Raffaello Morghen (1951) has shown that these so-called “Manichaeans” discovered by the churchmen were heretics who professed a bundle of beliefs so individual that no common belief-system can be ascertained.  And historian J. B. Russel (1965) agrees: in most cases the doctrines of the heretics of the Provence were totally idiosyncratic to, or even incompatible with, what was supposed to be Catharism.  Yet scholars on the whole have accepted that all these heretics were Cathars simply because the Church had identified them as the prevailing heresy of the age.  But, as Russell points out, “this is precisely what is questionable.”  Thus, the quasi-independent evidence from Languedoc from the period of the Crusade and after, stemming from chroniclers and Inquisition witnesses (as opposed to that of the Church proper), detects not only “no generally shared theology,” but can find “no trace whatsoever of an ascetic psychology.”  (This last point is especially important, and will be taken it up when I discuss alternative theory to “Manichaean Catharism.”)  Yet, oddly enough, this is nevertheless not acknowledged by mainstream historians: The Cathars were “neo-Manichaean” heretics that dominated the south of France in the 11th and 12th centuries and were the victims of the Albigensian Crusade.  This consensus is there despite the fact that the only evidence we have of medieval Catharism in Languedoc derives from the Inquisitors and other Church polemicists, who are the real source of the classic picture of heresy in southern France. 

The second related problem with the theory is that it is entirely possible that the idea of a monolithic heresy, called “Catharism,” was concocted by the Church in the 12th and 13th centuries.  The term “Manichaean” was applied to a huge range of medieval heresies, despite the fact that they occurred in widely different cultural contexts.  This is not to say that there were no Cathars. The Church observed various heretical sects, dualistic and ascetic, scattered all over Europe over a long period of time, the Cathars being one of them. (Others were, to name a few, the Arians, the Bogomils, and the Waldensians.)  However, the Church regarded all these as one giant, interrelated web of evil heresy.  Thus, when Languedoc and surrounding territories became estranged from the Church, it automatically assimilated the phenomenon onto their paranoid fantasy of a great web of evil heresy that was out to overthrow the Catholic Church.  Thus any heresy that became popular was another symptom of the one monstrous evil rearing its ugly head, and all disobedience to the Church was evidence of the same infernal, monolithic plot—in this case the “Cathars” of Languedoc.  Thus churchmen, like St. Bernard, charged that, in addition to the courtly mischief of the Troubadours, there flourished in Provence a competing religion —a counter- or anti-Church.  Declaring that anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of God which conflicted with Church dogma must be burned without pity, Pope Innocent III decided on a crusade to exterminate “the impious, lascivious sects, who, overflowing with libertine ardor, are but slaves to the pleasures of the flesh.”

I offer a paraphrase from Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade (1978), which sums up the problem: Given the havoc wreaked by the crusade, our “knowledge” of Provencal heresy must necessarily be a reconstruction; furthermore, that reconstruction traditionally has been based on texts which are, in one way or another, suspect.  The reason they are suspect is that the conventional picture of Cathar heresy was produced by Church writers whose tendency was to rely not on empirical investigation, but only on what other writers on heresy had said.  This is, in fact, what has been termed a “heresy narrative,” by scholars who have examined medieval monastic writing.  Though purportedly factual, these narratives were in fact an established literary genre, part of whose appeal was the opportunities it offered for descriptions of the fantastic. Moreover, key to this writing tradition was the assumption that heresy was monolithic—that is, that it was everywhere more or less the same.

The third related problem is one of a closed feedback loop of information.  The Church’s records have the weakness of all such records, that the inquisitional mind tends to develop a stereotyped image of the beliefs of its victims, and extracts confessions which accord with it.  It is not difficult to make demoralized prisoners mouth the fantasies of their persecutors.  Faced with the doctrinal and sexual perversities in various pars of Europe and especially in Languedoc, the churchmen called them “Manichaean” simply because they assimilated these heretics into the Manichaeans attacked by St. Augustine (354-430 AD, a former Manichaean himself).  And once this all-encompassing heretic fantasy was established in the minds of the watchdogs of the Church, any evidence of heresy was automatically part of it.  Thus, the stereotype of The Cathar Heresy firmly in the minds of the fanatical ascetics (terrified of their own repressed desires) who were heretic-hunters meant that any information extracted under torture fit the stereotype.  Indeed, those poor souls under torture probably were made to give the Inquisitors exactly what they wanted to hear—what fit their own tortured fantasies.  There is a certain twisted logic to this, but what is hard to understand is why the stereotype of The Cathar Heresy has been perpetuated by scholars of our era.  

The first scholar to advance the idea of a Cathar connection to the Troubadours was Denis de Rougemont in his 1939 study L'Amour et l'Occident (translated as Love in the Western World).  According to him, under the influence of the Cathars, the Troubadours rejected the pleasures of the flesh, and in their erotic poetry they metaphorically they were really addressing the spirit and soul of the lady. While de Rougemont seemed to make a one-to-one connection of the Troubadours exclusively to Catharism/Manichaeism, he nonetheless seemed to link Cartharism with a more syncretic set of influences (which I have also outlined above):


It happens that as early as the ninth century, there occurred an equally “unlikely” fusion of Iranian Manichaeism, Neo-Platonism, and Mohammedanism in Arabia, and the fusion was reflected in a religious poetry employing erotic metaphors that are strikingly akin to those of courtly rhetoric.



 He goes on to list the primary writers of this kind of poetry in the twelfth century: Hallaj, al-Gazali, and Suhrawardi, who, he adds, were “All three troubadours of supreme Love, of the Veiled Idea, which they treated as beloved object but also as symbol of a longing for the divine.”  (Here we again note the influence, more particularly, of Sufism: Hallaj was the Sufi mystic and martyr who claimed to be one with God, al-Gazali was an intellectual who is said to have brought philosophy and philosophical theology within the range of the ordinary mind and who turned to Sufism for salvation, and in the process gave Sufism a firm place in Islam.  He is also known as putting Sufi doctrine on a metaphysical basis by borrowing terms from Neo-Platonism.  Al-Suhrawardi was a Neo-Platonist oriented Sufi pantheist and martyr who founded the Illuminationist school of philosophy.  Like al-Gazali, al-Suhrawardi was a synthesizer responsible for bringing into harmony divergent intellectual perspectives.  It’s unfortunate that de Rougemont leaves out the Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi, who is most directly aligned, as previously stated with the Troubadour “religion of love.”)  However, what is more unfortunate (in an otherwise informative and insightful classic) is that de Rougemont’s own morality concerning sex and marriage taints his study; the consequences of which give a one-sided view of the Troubadours and purge any element of non-ascetic amor and its eroticism out of the phenomenon of “love in the Western world.” 

After de Rougemont, in 1964 none other than Joseph Campbell stated that, “There is considerable evidence that a number of the Troubadours were associated with the Albigensian heresy,” and went on to explain (but at odds with de Rougemont’s identification):


       It is hardly to be wondered, then, why in the course of the twelfth century there should have developed throughout Europe a deep trend, not merely of anti-clericalism but of a radical heresy, of which the Cathari or Albigenses of the fairest cities and lands of the south of France were the most threatening examples. We need not rehearse the whole length of the well-known, terrible history of the papal extirpation of this sect. The main point to our present purpose is that Albigensianism seems to have been a resurgent variant of the Manichean religion, which had recently entered Europe by way of Bulgaria, Bosnia, Hungary, and then Italy, to flourish largely in the southern France of the troubadours. . . .


       The problem for the Church in southern France lay in the indifference of the aristocracy to anathemas, excommunication, bulls, embassies, legates, or anything else emanating from Rome to frustrate the rising heresy. . . .



Many Troubadours were caught up in the Crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc, largely because their noble patrons were Cathars, or at least were sympathetic to the Cathars. After this period the high culture of the Troubadours declined, which is attributed to the Albigensian Crusade and the activities of the Papal Inquisition that followed it. But the decline came some time after wandering Troubadours had already influenced neighboring lands. 

Again, how closely the Troubadours of the Languedoc were associated with, and in what way to, the Cathar religion is still debated.  Some historians have affirmed that Cathars and Troubadours were the same people under different names or at least that Troubadours performed at Cathar ceremonies.  The truth is that there is very little historical evidence to implicate Troubadours in Catharism.  On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that no pro-Cathar Troubadour literature has survived, since the Inquisition rooted out and destroyed what they saw as heretical works as well as their heretical authors.  The closest reliable connection we have is Savaric de Mauléon, who fought alongside Raymond VI of Toulouse against the French Catholic Crusaders in the war against the Languedoc. He was a noted Troubadour but there is no evidence that he was himself a Cathar believer. Peire Cardenal, another Troubadour, although sometimes regarded as verging on heresy, is not specifically Cathar in his views.  Thus in the opinion of most scholars, the search for traces of Catharism in such literature has been pressed with enthusiasm but has not produced convincing results.  Nevertheless some circumstantial reasons for associating Cathar and Troubadour ideas are:

(1) Some Troubadours shared a concept of spiritual love and rejection of carnal love.  (2) They both ridiculed the Roman Catholic Church and its beliefs, and were hated by the Church for both their attitudes as well as for their ideas.  (3) Troubadours and Cathars regarded women more highly than the Catholic Church and women held high positions in the Cathar church.  (4) Both ridiculed marriage. (4) Both regarded the Catholic Church as little more than a huge moneymaking scam. (5) Troubadours and Cathars expressed contempt for conventional class distinctions that were approved as God-given by the Catholic Church.  (6) Troubadours and Cathars were popular in the same areas and at the same time; the lands of the Count of Toulouse and the County of Foix, Aquitaine, Provence, Lombardy, Catalonia, Angou and other English lands in continental Europe, France, Germany. (7) Some of the Troubadours, like Miraval, were strongly associated with the Cathar church and frequented the same courts.

It seems that this Cathar heresy has been singly responsible for creating the mystique about the Troubadours.  Here, we come to speculation, beginning with Ezra Pound, that there was a secret, mystic love-cult behind the Troubadours.  While it is almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty where the origin of this heretical-mystical “love” was located, we know that the most likely place to look are to the Cathar-gnostics who shared the same cultural milieu with the Troubadours and their concept of fin’amors (or “refined love”).  As one French scholar, who supports the thesis of the Cathar-Troubadour connection, puts it:


The old problem of the relations between Cartharism and the Fin Amors need no longer be stated—now we see the intense familial connections—in terms of a secret rapport between religious clandestines from a menacing and mysterious church, and sybilline singers with a coded message destined to ensure the spiritual survival of a Church so pure that Rome would have to extinguish it.


And extinguish the “heretics” they did in the infamous Albigensian Crusade, wherein thousands upon thousands of heretics were burned alive between 1209 and 1244, the first holocaust of history—massacred in numbers some have listed as high as over 40, 000.  Thus Miraval wrote: “That is why the wicked are terrified / At the idea of running love’s adventure . . . .”  As one historian of the period writes of the effects of the crusade: “Queen Eleanor’s Kingdom was dissolving in dust and ashes, and with it the feminine culture of the South and the ‘free spirit’ of the troubadours.”  The phenomenon of courtly love, developed at the end of the eleventh century, was formally condemned by the Church in 1277.

The Cathar-Troubadour counter-culture (“the feminine culture of the South”) of Occitania, whose people thought of themselves as fiercely independent of the King and the Pope, was attacking the social order of the medieval period on two fronts: the Cathari were subverting religion—the heretical Church of AMOR undermining the Church of ROMA—and the Troubadours were undermining feudalism.  Seen this way, the Cathar-Troubadour phenomenon was a rebellion against the prevailing social mores.  Thus the Cathar-Troubadour movement may have represented an underground mood of profound dissatisfaction with the Church and its entire theocratic social order.  And it was the Troubadours, like Peire Vidal, using song to promote a social message, who explained why the heresy had spread: ”Now, the Pope and the false doctors / have cast Holy Church into such confusion / that God himself is grieved! / It’s because they’re so foolish and sinful / That the heretics have spring up . . . .”  And as one scholar of the period tells us, the Troubadours even wrote sermons directed against the clergy—“political columnists in twelfth-century style.”  Concerning this issue, one scholar makes the following assertion regarding what’s going on behind the struggle of the Church of Amor with the official Church of Roma in the Middle Ages and connects it with our time:


... the passionate love which the myth celebrates actually became in the twelfth century— the moment when it first began to be cultivated—a religion in the full sense of the word, and a particular Christian heresy historically determined. Whereupon it may be inferred (a) that the passion which novels and films have now popularized is nothing else than a lawless invasion and flowing back into our lives of a spiritual heresy the key to which we have lost; and (b) that underlying the modern breakdown of marriage is nothing less than a struggle between two religious traditions .…


Other scholars have noted the connection of certain Cathar rites reflected in the Troubadour conception of their “Lady.”  One scholar puts this in the context of the Cathar’s and Troubadour’s shared sense of freedom from the Church of Rome (a sense that seemed to pervade the region of Occitania) and also brings in a reference to the Arabist influence: 


. . . the Cathar parfaite ( a woman who had passed through the Cathar “baptism of fire” or spiritual baptism, the Consolamentum) may have been a romantic subject for the enamoured troubadour.  The parfaite was chaste, was good, was spiritually pure and her heart was fixed on the divine world. 

       In the castles of the Languedoc could be heard music from the Arab world with delicately woven words, loosening the bonds of the body and leading a fortunate nobility to love.  There was a “liberal” spirit in the air.

       At a time when it was forbidden to write in old Provençal when it was forbidden to think in any way other than that of the Church of Rome, “things were written, they were sung, they were said and it was said that the people needed to be free. They needed to free themselves from the tutelage of the Church, they needed to free themselves from the constraint of writing in Latin, and that was important.”  Dante was to write in thirteenth-century Florence that, “It is in the Occitan language (la langue d’oc) that the exponents of the living language have made themselves the firsts (or masters) of Poesy (De vulgari Eloquentia).  It is highly significant that the Cathar perfecti made the gospels available in Occitan.  This was the world in which the Cathars emerged with a message of simple spirituality.  They were welcomed by many into a world which longed for purity and independence.



Looking at the historical background to the Cathars, we can discover a possible source for their views and love and sex by looking back to the Valentinian Gnostics of the second century, who, like all good Gnostics, believed in the duality of the spiritual and material worlds.  Nevertheless, paradoxically enough, these rare Gnostics also believed sex could have a sacramental dimension.  Valentinus (c. 160) emphasized the idea of spiritual marriage as a divine union—a union with God—not as a social contract, which was, after all, the Roman Church’s view.  They took a particular interest in the special relations that they believed existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who also symbolized for them the union of the heavenly Christ with the heavenly Sophia (Wisdom).  Added to this, the Gnostics held the view that the original state of humankind was one of androgyny, and that the fall into matter was at one and the same time the division of the sexes.  Thus, a “spiritualizing” of sex was considered to represent a restoration of the original union of male and female and, thereby, a return to God.  But, by the fourth century, this idea had been suppressed by the Church.  However, it is significant that some Valentinian Gnostics had been particularly widespread in the South of France.  It has been suggested that what we have here is a remnant of a secret gnosis from the Valentinians, or even a transportation from the Sufi gnosis of nearby Andalusia.  According to some authorities, this secret gnosis affirmed the body and senses as vehicles of mystical experience.  This is vitally important for a re-visioning of the Cathar-Manichaean stereotype connected with the Troubadours (and I shall return to it is significance at the end of my discussion.)

This radical theory provides an explanation of the issue that has vexed those who are sympathetic to the Cathar-Troubadour connection, because the question of how a Manichaean dualistic doctrine, which holds that the material world is evil, could at he same time inspire the Troubadours to have a positive (some would say “sacramental,” others “obscene’) view of sexuality. 

At this point, having rehearsed the history above, I will return to Campbell’s theory.  Scholars like Campbell, who although acknowledging a strong presence of Catharism in Occitania, can’t see how anyone (like de Rougemont) could possibly read into Troubadour poetry or romance Cathar doctrine.  He would substitute the Pelagian heresy for the Manichaean as influential to the Troubadours:


However, the first point to be remarked in connection with the Albigensian charge is that, whereas according to the Gnostic Manichaean view nature is corrupt and the lure of the senses to be repudiated, in the poetry of the troubadours, in the Tristan story, and in Gottfried's work above all, nature in its noblest moment—the realization of love—is an end and glory in itself; and the senses, ennobled and refined by courtesy and art, temperance, loyalty and courage, are the guides to this realization. Like a flower potential in its seed, the blossom of the realization of love is potential in every heart (or, at least, every noble heart) and requires only proper cultivation to be fostered to maturity. Hence, if the courtly cult of amor is to be catalogued according to its heresy, it should be indexed rather as Pelagian than as Gnostic or Manichaean, for . . . Pelagius and his followers absolutely rejected the doctrine of our inheritance of the sin of Adam and Eve, and taught that we have finally no need of supernatural grace; since our nature itself is full of grace; no need of a miraculous redemption, but only of awakening and maturation; and that, though the Christian is advantaged by the model and teaching of Christ, every man is finally (and must be) the author and means of his own fulfillment. In the lyrics of the troubadours we hear little or nothing of the fall and corruption either of the senses or of the world. . . .


And so, although it is true that in the century of the troubadours there was rampant throughout Europe a general Manichaean heresy, and that many of the ladies celebrated in the poems are known to have been heretics—just as others were practicing Christians, and the poets themselves communicants of one tradition or the other—in their character as artists and in their poetry and song the troubadours stood apart from both traditions.


Be this as it may, it may also (as suggested above) be the Gnostic (and thus the Cathar) emphasis on Mary Magdalene—her love relationship to Jesus and he role in bringing the Grail cup to Southern France—that interested the Troubadours.  For legend has it that Mary Magdalene came with Jesus child and chalice of his blood to the south of France to initiate the Grail Romances.  Here it is interesting to note, in connection with the Matriarchal theory of Troubadour origins—where it meets the Cathar theory—, that the region of the Troubadours, Occitania, was a great pilgrimage center, not only for pilgrims passing through on their way to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago but for great sites in the region itself.  There was a strong tradition that St. Mary Magdalene was buried in the basilica of Saint Maximin near Aix-en-Provence.  Further north, in Lot, was the most famous Black Madonna shrine of Midi: Our Lady of Rocomador (c.1172).  Why do I mention the recent rediscovery of these Black Madonnas?  Because they are said by some scholars to hark back to the Neolithic age of the Great Goddess, who was often depicted (like Isis and even Athena) as black.   According to one scholar who has investigated the Black Virgin phenomenon in the churches of Europe,


Once women are free to bestow their favors and affections where they will, the whole structure of patriarchal society starts to crumble.  In the spiraling progress of the history of ideas this seems to be the point that we have once again reached.  Now it is an idea whose time has come and no crusades have so far been launched by Church and State to quell it.  If the Black Virgins really do carry a charge from the [pagan] goddesses, perhaps, now that they have been ‘found’ again, they are whispering in our ears like the female serpent of Eden ….


Eisler summarizes the conflict of the Troubadours and their “Black Virgins” with the Church:


 [St. Bernard] De Clairvaux wrote at a time when in the south of France and other parts of Europe troubadours and other “heretics” were again reinstating the worship of the Goddess in the form historians call Mariology.  During the next two centuries, the great cathedrals of Europe (every one dedicated to Our Lady or Queen of heaven, as she is explicitly described in the splendid cathedral at Chartres) were still being built on sites where the Goddess had formerly been revered (not coincidentally in vaulted shapes reminiscent of the ancient cave as a womb sanctuary).  And images of a Black Virgin or Madonna (black because she represents the fertile black earth or because she traces her roots to the Great Mother Goddess Isis of Egypt) still attracted pilgrims from all over the Christian world, sometimes in shrines dedicated to Mary Magdalene (who according to some legends fled Palestine with a holy child, her son by Jesus, to the south of France).

       But at the same time that such vestiges of the worship of the Goddess continued to persist . . . the Church also mercilessly persecuted “heretic” sects still clinging to the sacred marriage as the union of the female principle (the Great Goddess) and the male principle (the Bull God).  As late as the eighteenth century, women were still being killed as witches for sexually “consorting with the devil”—that is, with a now-demonized hoofed and horned deity.

Yet even with all this, the ancient sacred marriage as the union of the feminine and masculine erotic and spiritual energies could not be completely stamped out.  All through the Middle Ages, and even later, people (including monks and nuns in medieval monasteries) continued to cling to this ancient tradition, albeit in the most strangely altered forms.

       For in the context of medieval Christianity, the sacred marriage was now undergoing still another radical transformation.  Now—instead of a celebration of life and love—it was increasingly becoming a celebration of pain and death.


Therefore, as previously mentioned, some feminist-oriented scholars see in the medieval Troubadour phenomenon a survival of the “old religion” of the Great Goddess.  This important connection with the Cathars of southern France has also been made by Ean Begg, in his The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985).  He details the very mysterious Black Virgin statues which seem to be closely linked to the Cathars, to Islamic elements arising from contacts during the Crusades, and to the old Gnostic traditions of Mary Magdalene as the wife of Rabbi Jesus. “It is, however, no longer shocking to suggest,” asserts Begg,


that the images represent a continuation of pagan goddess-worship and that some may have once been idols consecrated to Isis or other deities. . . . They are also numerous in many areas where paganism lingered or where the Cathars flourished. Quite often there is a cult of Mary Magdalene and a Black Virgin in the same place. . . . The Black Virgin is a Christian phenomenon as well as a preservation of the ancient goddesses and compensates for the one-sided conscious attitudes of the age. . . .



Begg, who had traveled to the south of France to investigate the phenomenon the Black Virgins, makes the connection of them to the Cathars and to the Troubadour ethos of the liberated woman and eroticism:


It was, however, in Occitania, the land of the Cathars and the troubadours, that men in the Latin, Christian west first learned to honour and obey women, though not through marriage. . . . Nevertheless, Catharism and courtly love, which grew together as part of the same phenomenon, acknowledged, in theory and practice, women’s freedom to take a lover. . . . Indeed Cathars agreed with Plato . . . that salvation began with love of bodies. Troubadours even went so far as to suggest that one must tend towards heaven through the love of women. Although both marriage and fornication were qualified as ‘adultery’, extra-marital union, undertaken freely, was preferable to the conjugal bond.  It might even symbolize the return of the soul to its spirit after death. Nelli states categorically that Cathars and troubadours were perfectly in agreement that true love—from the soul—purified from the false love associated with marriage.



He also points to the attitude of Cathars towards women and the feminine principle:


One of the most remarkable and distinctive features at Catharism, which it shared with some early Gnostic groups, was that women were admitted to their priesthood of parfaits and parfaites. . . .



The entire point of Begg’s thesis seems to be a validation of what I’m calling the “Matriarchal theory” of Troubadour origins, which is transmitted in the medieval period through the Cathar-Troubadours.  The marginal sub-theory that seems to be part and parcel of the Matriarchal finds new evidence in Begg’s investigation of the Black Madonnas; that is, there was a secret, mystic love-cult behind the Troubadours, which consisted of the veneration of a Black Sophia goddess in Gnostic-Cathar cave sanctuaries.  Begg discovers in Languedoc a mysterious love-cult which worshiped a feminine goddess; in fact, a “Black Sophia”.  Intriguingly, as he points out, one of the most famous shrines dedicated to the “Black Madonna” is in this very region in the South of France.


To Gnostics there was one all-embracing feminine wisdom, including both the virgin and the whore, which they called Sophia or the Holy Spirit. They identified her with the vision to John on Patmos of ‘a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12.1) and they invoked her as ‘Lady’. . . .For the simple people, on the other hand, the Black Virgin no doubt continued to be what she had been for some thirty millennia, the manifestation of the Great Goddess.


Here we can round out the final point—the “manifestation of the Great Goddess”— with the observations of cultural historian Riane Eisler, who acknowledges the Troubadour’s positive view of women, sexuality and eroticism (at a “sacred” level), puts it in the social context of their time, and sees it all as a revival of the “old religion” of the Goddess:


Also during the Middle Ages in the same south of France where woman’s sexual power was once venerated in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries, there flourished the poets known as troubadours and trobaritzes [female singers], whose songs of courtly love honored woman as man’s spiritual inspiration and celebrated erotic love between woman and man. . . . But their main import is the celebration of women and of romance—and the ritualistic courtship between a noble lady and her chosen love. In terms of the old religion, this was certainly a toned-down version of earlier myths of the sacred union of the Goddess and her divine sexual partner. But in terms of medieval life it was a radical challenge to prevailing norms. . . .

       It is a powerful legacy, this legacy of romance and ritual that the medieval troubadours and trobaritzes left us despite the condemnation of the pleasures of sex by the Church.  And it is a legacy that, as we have seen, stems from more ancient roots: from a time when sexuality was associated with the sacred rather than the profane and the obscene.




4.       The Cathar Connection: The Matriarchal Theory of Troubadour Origins Revisited


With the Cathar theory of Troubadour origins, we can find a door that opens into the hidden extent of the subterranean currents of the Troubadour phenomenon. [5]Thus we come here to the fringe theory (first formulated by Ezra Pound in the early twentieth century and still persistent) that the Cathar-Troubadour cult of love—amor—was really a survival of a an pagan fertility religion which, of course, was opposed to the asceticism of the Church.  This underground and counter-religion of the High Middle Ages was supposed to teach an esoteric doctrine, which some identify as an Hermetic/Alchemical one.  Hidden in the verse of Troubadour poetry (trobar clus) is a sacramental vision of nature, a sort of eroticized perception, in which nature and the body is affirmed as the way to the Goddess. [6]  Here we can find agreement between Campbell and Pound in that both reject the identification of the Cathars as “Manichaean,” and, therefore, ascetics (though Campbell, because of de Rougemont and the accepted stereotype, must look for the Troubadour affirmation of the body and nature in an alternate heresy, the Pelagian).

Again, here is the problem that vexes the interpretation of the Troubadour phenomenon: there was a popular, heretical religious movement in Provence contemporaneous with the Troubadour and Courtly Love phenomena is beyond question.  However, little is known about the movement’s beliefs and practices, and less is known about whether these two cultural phenomena were interrelated in any significant way.  On the surface, the answer would seem to be no: the Albigensian heresy was labeled “Manichaean”—meaning radically dualistic, life-denying, the ultimate in pathological otherworldliness—and few things would have seemed, at the time, more worldly than the courtly love and its code.  Certainly there was dualism—or perhaps we should say there were dualisms—in medieval Europe. But it seems far from clear that the heretics of Languedoc were dualists in any significant sense, and even less clear that they had any familiarity with Manichaeism proper. 

Here is where Ezra Pound’s theory on the Troubadours comes in; for decades ago Pound reached the same conclusion:


The troubadours are also accused of being Manichaeans, obviously because of a muddle somewhere. They are opposed to a form of stupidity not limited to Europe. that is, idiotic asceticism and a belief that the body is evil.



Pound found the life-denying asceticism attributed to the Albigensians incompatible with the world-embracing tone of troubadour poetry.  The Troubadours were in fact opposed to what he called “idiotic asceticism and the belief that the body is evil.”  Eventually, he came to believe that the Albigensian heresy had a great deal to do with affirming the body and nature, which it viewed as “the gate of wisdom.”

Pound found Provençal culture differed radically from, and was alien to, the exhausted European civilization.  The Troubadours, as he saw them, represented the survival of a pagan fertility religion. Pound wrote about the two persistent themes of the “Provençal mysteries”:  first, in medieval Provence the life-affirming spirit of classical paganism was able to survive the Church’s domination (this was explainable by the fact that Provence had remained under Roman rule much longer than the rest of Europe); secondly, troubadour poetry involved visionary states of consciousness, and probably reflected a cult which affirmed the body and the senses as vehicles of mystical experience.  Such a cult would have been diametrically opposed to asceticism.  This notion had two appealing corollaries for Pound.  It meant that (1) Provençal religion was about an experience of heightened perception; and (2) its natural hierophants were artists, whose specialty is intense experience and its communication.  But what was the essence, of this Provençal religion—this “religion of love,” as the Andalusian Sufi, Ibn Arabi, called it?  According to Pound,


If there were any Manichaeans in Provence they have at any rate left no trace in troubadour art. On the other hand, the cult of Eleusis will explain not only general beauties but particular mysteries in [various troubadour poets].


The “light of Eleusis” refers to the Eleusinian mysteries, the great pagan fertility cult of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Pound suspected that “if the Eleusinian influence survived anywhere it would have been in Provence.”   This is, in fact, a validation of my earlier suggestion about the “Matriarchal” origins of the Troubadour phenomenon, first written in the Introduction to my opening essay of the series “The Troubadours and the Beloved: the Religion of Love & the Cult of the Eros-Rose” (Valentine’s Day, 2009) and then in this essay (pg. 14-15 above).  I repeat them both here:


I believe this new paradigm is essentially about the rebirth of the feminine principle in Western, patriarchal civilization.  Feeling, relatedness, and soul-consciousness, and other “feminine” values have been virtually driven out of our culture by the reigning patriarchal mentality.


Farther away from the geographical epicenter of Troubadour activity in Southern France, there is textual evidence of other prominent influences, going as far back as the Greek Eleusinian Mystery cults for the underlying religious elements in the romances.  We should remember here that the Eleusinian Mystery rites were about the Great Goddess, Demeter, and her daughter Persephone.


Just recently, I came across the following passage, which comments on Ezra Pound’s interest in the Troubadours and relates its significance to writers such as D. H. Lawrence: “In the work of . . . D. H. Lawrence, modern Europe is often cast as sterile and in need of revivification by an infusion of primitive ritual. . . . In his Provençal studies, though, Pound . . . came to see troubadour poetry and its emphasis on spiritualized eroticism as reflective of a pagan-style nature religion.”

Therefore, in conclusion, I come full circle to my first posted essay (on my website), which was intended to serve as a polemical introduction and overview—a theoretical and philosophical underpinning—to this series of essays begun for Valentine’s Day.  Here’s a passage from that essay:


Both Nietzsche and Lawrence thought that the world needed changing—and both cast their thoughts back, like poet Ezra Pound, after them, to the Troubadours.  The key concept they discovered was “Le Gai Saber,” which was Provençal language for the art of the Troubadours.


Gypsy Scholar



[1] Some clarification is needed with terminology here. The terminology for the regions and dialects of the technically pre-French Middle Ages is confusing to the layman. Basically, there were two language groups: the Old French of northern France, then known as the langue d'oïl to distinguish it from the langue d'oc (the Occitan language, also then called Provençal) of the southern territory.  Now here’s where it gets confusing.  According to some experts, two common errors (repeated in the modern literature by scholars) are that all Troubadours wrote in Provençale (or Lemosin) and that Provençale is a dialect of French. The first error arises presumably because the name Provençal is occasionally used, confusingly, to refer to the Occitan language.  The second error is due to the blind acceptance of French propaganda perpetrated by the same people who promote the fiction that Occitania was always part of France (the Occitanians were fiercely independent from both the French King and Roman Pope).  The fact is that Provençale is a dialect of the whole Occitan language and not of French. Most troubadour works date from a time before the Languedoc (Lengadoc), Provence (Proveça), the Aquitaine (Gasconha) or much of the rest of Occitania were annexed by France.  While Occitan was the vehicle for the influential poetry of Troubadours, with the gradual imposition of French royal power over its territory, Occitan declined in status from the 14th century on. After 19th century, Provençal achieved the greatest literary recognition, and so became the most popular term for the Occitan language.  The confusion seems to arise from the fact that nowadays the terms Provençal and Lemosin are used to refer to specific varieties within Occitania, whereas Occitan is used for the language as a whole.  However, many non-specialists continue to refer to the language as Provençal for the whole Occitan language or use Occitan, Langue d'oc, and Provençal interchangeably, causing some confusion. Keep in mind that the terms Occitan, Languedoc, and Provence, each refer to both the Romance language or dialect and to a region of Southern France.  Also keep in mind that the Occitan (or Occitania, sometimes Aquitaine) is the greater region that includes both Languedoc and the Provence. (Occitania is the territory where Occitan is the traditional language in use. Nowadays this cultural area is mostly located in Southern France and includes Monaco, parts of Italy, and Spain. As a cultural concept, Occitania is not a legal nor a political entity.)  In these essays, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the Troubadours from Provence, since it is the popular designation.


[2] Before proceeding to describe the alternative theory of Troubadour origins, I should explain why I used the epithet “chauvinist” to refer to the dominant theory, which has been so since the beginnings of the specialized field Romance scholarship, or “philology,” in the eighteenth century, despite the fact that there was an equally valid contending theory also proposed in the eighteenth century.  This has been called the “Arabist theory,” and it actually may have been the earliest.  It was championed by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in the early twentieth-century, but its origins go back to the Cinquecento and Giammaria Barbieri (died 1575) and Juan Andrés (died 1822).  Even The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the largest single reference work on Western music, contains the following entry: “. . . a body of song of comparable intensity, profanity and eroticism [existed] in Arabic from the second half of the 9th century onwards.” Thus, we can see that the Arabist theory did not come late in the academic controversy, nor did it lack qualified adherents. 

But here I should also explain the other reason why I put “Western” in parenthesis; for it is just here one discovers the foreign fly in the “Occidental” soup: “Western” origins, by definition, rules out the Arabs of Al-Andalus.  These Moors, through they were in Spain for over 700 years and through their culture was more advanced than their European counterparts, are non-Western.  In other words, the cultural chauvinism that has created the reigning “myth of Westernness” will steadfastly not admit to any formative origins outside its cultural boundaries.  This is significant, because the Troubadour/Courtly Love literature, along with the other great works of the “Western Canon,” is a defining phenomenon of our Western heritage, one that demonstrates the absolute superiority of this tradition over all others, and its cultural watchdogs will not allow it to be multi-culturalized into some kind of postmodern relativity.  Nonetheless, the Ur-model or paradigm of “Western literature” and its underlying cultural assumptions has, in the last few of decades, been challenged by a growing number of dissenting studies.  Yet the academic establishment has basically marginalized their work and/or denounced it as spurious.  They know what’s at stake in re-assessing the “origins” of medieval Troubadour/Courtly Love literature. 

So what is at stake if the reigning paradigm of “Westernness” is overturned? Allow me to summarize the dire consequences to our notions of “Western” identity if these new studies in Romance philology in particular and medieval literary history in general were to be given their due. First, in redefining the “Western Canon,” it would positively blur the dividing line between what was popular (vulgar) and what was classical (high culture).  Secondly, it would probably lead to a re-visioning of commonplace view of the “dark” and “backward” Middle Ages, which would replace the radical discontinuity between this period and the Italian Renaissance with a more contiguous and progressive view.  Thus what has been called “European Awakening,” and the “renaissance of the twelfth century,” would finally acknowledge the cultural revolution instigated and propagated by the Hispano-Arabic Andalusians.  But overall, this new medieval paradigm would cause a realignment of what is included as “Western” (and, thus, “European”) resulting in a major re-orientation of the cultural identity of the West by including the exiled cultural Other  (the Arabic/Persian Other).  However, this kind of paradigm revolution will probably, because of these very prospects, be some time coming.  Indeed, given the events of 9/11 in this most “Western” of countries, we can be certain that our cultural watchdogs—the very same ones who cry the loudest about the degeneration that dreaded multiculturalism brings—will not now be the least inclined to give up their learned chauvinism in favor of broadening the scope and definition of “Westernness.”  In terms of the theory of the origins of courtly love, the Non-European Other, who has been exiled from the “West” and its literature—the Moors and their Andalusian multi-culture—, is, because of ideological assumptions, definitely not a viable candidate for “Western” origins. Truth be told, “Westerners” have a great difficulty in considering the possibly that they are in some fundamental way indebted to the Arab world, a world that flourished in the heart of the “Western” Middle Ages, one that was superior in intellectual and material ways to Latin culture.  Any minor breech in the intellectual fortress wall that keeps the Arab Other stuck in the Byzantine medieval world would open a historical can of worms that could end up demonstrating that the Arabs were singularly instrumental to the construction of what we recognize as the “West,” not to mention serving a the midwives of the cultural enlightenment and rebirth that goes by the name of the Italian Renaissance. (If this information were factored into the paradigm of the Middle Ages, it would cause the date of the recognized and celebrated European Renaissance to be pushed back some 400 years.  And it would mean that the European discovery or rediscovery of our ancestral and hereditary culture really began in the twelfth century, and that a general secular cultural revival of considerable proportions followed on in its wake—of which the Troubadour phenomenon is the one of the most popularly known.)  These, then, are main ideological assumptions that operate below the surface of the official “Western” historical narratives.

There is then a “myth of Westernness,” one which precludes any incorporation of the world of the medieval Arab (and, to a lesser extent, the Persian) into its cultural identity.  And the function of European and European-based scholarship, with its a priori view of, and set of assumptions about, its medieval past, is to maintain the ideological front in the war against this rejected and exiled Other.  As always, the victor in the culture wars gets to tell the stories, write the histories.  The history of Al-Andalus and its significance to the rest of Europe and its legacy to today is found in most “history books.”  (Most medievalists, in fact, begin their study of medieval literature with the first texts in Romance and assume Latin, or even Greek, to be the necessary classical languages, while Hebrew and Arabic are normally considered superfluous, despite the fact that Arabic was clearly also the language of the learned in the medieval period.  General anthologies of European medieval literature do not, as a matter of course, include examples of literature written in Arabic or Hebrew, nor do they even, in most cases, acknowledge or discuss its existence as part of the general historical background. Once more, courses in medieval literature, with few exceptions, perform the same excision.) Granted we are informed on the step-by-step defeat and dismantling of this unique cultural complex known as the Reconquista, but the inside story of what it represented as part of the “story” of Western civilization is not told, or rather it is told by the ideological descendents of those who made sure that they got rid of the heterodox reality that challenged either their Christian-European orthodoxy.  (And, speaking of the Spanish Reconquista, the backlash that generated the mono-cultural institution of the “purity of blood” doctrine of the Catholic monarchs, who presided over the final defeat of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada in 1492, seems to be revived in the modern ideology of the myth of Westernness, which is designed to perpetuate the notion of a singular, racially pure identity and to stifle any corrective multicultural perspective.  Thus the polymorphic culture of Al-Andalus, which had given the world the treasures of many kinds—artistic and architectural, linguistic and literary, intellectual and scientific, spiritual and material—are forgotten in the histories of the Europeanist historians, as is its multicultural community, where a mix of peoples, languages, and religions—pagan, Moslem, Jew, Christian—lived together in relative harmony for centuries.  In other words, the ideological story of the non-Western “Moors” is told by the historical winners and not by the Andalusian “Beautiful Losers” of the ancient culture-wars.

So let me put plainly what I have found out in my investigations into the origins of courtly love and its issues in the disciplines of medieval philology and history: (a) that ideology shapes the telling so-called objective history; in this case the pervasive ideology of Westernness, and (b) that the culture wars between Western monoculture and bilingual multiculturalism didn’t just begin in the 1980s; no, this fight has, like the current political “crusade,” a long, long history.  Therefore, in spite of the fact that the notion of a “value-free,” objective scholarship persists in many academic disciplines, its high time to recognize that the images and paradigms of historical research are not at all free of political and ideological factors that are cultural prejudices pure and simple.  In more technical terms, the ironclad distinction between “pure” knowledge and “political” knowledge is not absolute, as has been assumed by the academic establishment, and that the liberal consensus that knowledge is fundamentally apolitical obscures the highly organized political circumstances obtaining when this so-called “value-free” knowledge is produced.  This issue of political ideology shaping the structure of knowledge is probably nowhere more pertinent than in the field of literary scholarship when it comes to the Middle Ages and the Muslim-Arabic question. 

Thus, the colonial nineteenth century eliminated the possibility that the Middle Ages might be portrayed as a historical period in which a substantial part of culture and learning was based in a radically different foreign culture.  To do anything else but view an Arabic-Islamic component, even in its European manifestations, as positive and essential would have been unimaginable.  The relative lack of material wealth, the perceived cultural inferiority, and the demonstrable powerlessness of the Arab world in the nineteenth century, the period in which medieval scholarship was carefully delimiting its parameters, could hardly have suggested or encouraged a dramatically different paradigm.  The proposition that the Arab world played a critical role in the making of the modern West, from the vantage point of the late nineteenth century and the better part of the twentieth, is in clear and flagrant contradiction of the cultural ideology that assumes the cultural supremacy over the Arab world.  Admittedly, today, many medievalists have more complex and diverse views than their nineteenth-century predecessor’s simple paradigms.  However, the paradigms are nonetheless there, and they are formative factors that delimit the field’s parameters, define what is accepted as reasonable, or even worth considering.  While a cultural ideology may often remain unarticulated—its very unconsciousness being one of its essential traits—it is no less powerful for being unspoken.  A member of that culture, even a scholar who is supposed to comment on that culture, can scarcely operate outside it bounds.                  


       [3] Iberia was named by the Greeks. Occupied early on (7th century BC) by Celtic and pre-Celtic tribes, waves of peoples founded colonies there; Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Greeks.  As a Roman province, (212 BC), it was called Hispania. In the early 5th century, it was invaded by Germanic tribes, such as Vandals and Visigoths. In 711 CE, a North African Moorish Umayyad army invaded Visigothic Christian Hispania, renaming it Al-Andaluz—“Land of the Vandals.” From the 8th to the 15th centuries, parts of the Iberian Peninsula were ruled by the Moors (mainly Berber and Arab), who had crossed over from North Africa.


[4] It was a fateful invasion for the history of Europe and its culture, one that would provoke the alliance between the conqueror-mercenary El Cid and some of the muluk (city-states) and that would precipitate a long period of orthodox retrenchment that would eventually exile two of the greatest Andalusian philosophers, Maimonides and Averroes.  Yet it was also a fateful invasion in a long-term sense, since the internal Moslem rivalries, especially between the liberal and fundamentalist Islam, and the political machinations that involved the Christian warlord El Cid, the Crusades and Inquisitions, and the fall of the last Arab city, Granada, to the Castilian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the late fifteenth century—all these set the stage for the fixed nation states of Europe that we are still living with.   Moreover, history seems bent on repeating itself in culture wars between the mono-cultural purists and the multiculturalists, the class conflict between elite and popular culture, and, as we have also lately witnessed, the clash between the ultra-orthodox or fundamentalist and the heterodox in religion, both Christian and Muslim.


[5] Here, I’m specifically thinking of the subterranean current of esoteric traditions that flowed into the south of France during the High Middle Ages, beginning around the 12th century. This era witnessed perhaps a greater richness of esoteric activity than any other, and the list of tributaries and sub-streams which rose to the surface during the era is quite impressive, one which includes Hermeticism and alchemy, Kabbalism, Neo-Platonism, and Gnosticism.  This list also included Sufism, which had (as already mentioned above) incorporated many syncretic esoteric elements.  And here again require the “Arabist theory” of Troubadour origins, since both Arabic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalism probably emigrated from that hotbed of heresy, Andalusia.  In this sense, one could talk about the “Esoteric theory” of Troubadour origins (one that would have to include the “Matriarchal,” the “Arabist,” the “Catharist”).


[6] Even before Pound, there were those Neo-Romantics, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who speculated that the conventions of Troubadour poetry refer, obliquely (in its hermetic verse or trobar clus), to the beliefs and/or practices of some forbidden religious sect—a secret, mystic love-cult behind the Troubadours. Such questions fascinated some nineteenth century literary mystics, and in the early twentieth century they became the focus of Ezra Pound’s speculations about the vanished culture of the Languedoc.  I will in this essay only give the briefest of account of Pound’s esoteric theory—only enough to demonstrate that there have been theories of origins, ignored by the academic establishment, pointing to a spiritual mystery at the heart of the Troubadour phenomenon—, since a fuller account is planned for an up-coming on-air Essay-with-Soundtrack; the first of which in the series on the Troubadours and the Beloved (i.e. “The Religion of Love or the Cult of Eros-Rose”) began with the question: When I say “forgotten tradition,” how many of us have ever heard of the religious heresy and mystery cult that lies behind the Troubadour/Courtly Love phenomenon—one that may point to a mystic/esoteric origin of what we commonly know as “romantic love”?


бронирование авиабилетов