The Troubadours: Geography & Language
This paper is necessary to supplement the Gypsy Scholar’s musical essays on the Troubadours, since there are technical issues of geography and language that cannot be dealt with in these essays without taking up too much time to explain (not to mention being tedious on radio). These issues of geography and language are confusing to the average person with no background in the literature of the troubadours. Thus, the GS has tried to present here more detailed “academic” information, which he hopes will serve to make clearer the terms used in the musical essays.
The troubadours wrote and sung not in classical Latin, but in the vernacular dialects. As far as pinning down the exactly dialect is concerned, scholars vary on this, depending how where one draws the line between Southern and Northern dialects. It’s complicated, but simply put the vernacular Southern dialects were those of Languedoc and Provence; north of the line were the Limousin and Auvergne Northern dialects. At the present day these dialects have diverged very widely, but in the early middle ages the difference between them was by no means so great. Moreover, a literary language grew up by degrees, owing to the wide circulation of poems and the necessity of using a dialect which could be universally intelligible. Thus scholars hold that it was the Limousin dialect that became, so to speak, the backbone of this literary language, now generally known as Provenćal, just as the Tuscan became predominant for literary purposes among the Italian dialects. It was in Limousin that the earliest troubadour lyrics known to us were composed, and this district with the adjacent Poitou and Saintonge may therefore be reasonably regarded as the birthplace of Provenćal lyric poetry. In any case, linguists and philologists today, ever since Dante (De vulgari eloquentia—”On the Eloquence of Vernacular”), recognize all these dialects under the designation of “romance languages.”
This issue of language gets rather confusing, since this north-south demarcation actually encompasses what was one cultural-linguistic region of the South of France, then known (an area south of the river Loire) as the Occitan. Furthermore, the main division of language is north and south of the river Loire; two distinct linguistic and cultural areas, with ėc language (Occitan) and of the south and the oēl language (medieval version of modern French) of the north, the language that the trouvŹres (the later northern troubadours) wrote in. In other words, France was then two distinct cultural-linguistic regions. A further confusion for the layman comes in because terms like “Occitan,” “Provenćal,” and “Langue d’oc” designate both a language and a region. Simply put, language of the troubadours was Occitan (also known as the langue d’oc, or Provenćal); the language of the trouvŹres was Old French (also known as langue d’oil).
Today, the term “Troubadours of the Provence” is used identify and to locate the home of the troubadours as equal to the entire south of France. By the same token, the term “Provenćal” is used to cover the vernacular romance language of the troubadours. However, to be more accurate, the terms “Provence” and “Provenćal” are not entirely appropriate to describe the region and the literary language of the troubadours, as they may be restricted to denote only one single region and dialect spoken in what is called “Provincia” or the Provence. (And it should be noted that what divided the north from the south of medieval France is roughly the Loire river. Thus Occitania was demarcated at the Loire River to the north, the Atlantic Ocean at its western boundary, the Mediterranean Sea at its eastern boundary, and the Pyrenees mountains at its southernmost boundary. Aquitania, or Aquitanica, was also name used since medieval times for Occitania.) The term Provenćal is especially misleading given that the earliest of the troubadours all came not from the Provence, but from Poitou and Gascony (provinces of west-central France near Aquitaine), whose dialect was Limousin. It was not in fact until past the middle of the twelfth century that we find troubadours in Provence proper.
This difficulty in terminology was felt at an early date. It is a difficulty because the southern region of “Provincia” was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries only one of at least 9 other southern regions of provinces that made up Occitania, which also included (looking at a map from north to south) Poitou, Limousin, Auvergne, Aquitaine, Languedoc or Toulouse, Gascogne, Vavarre, Aragon, Roussillon, and Catalunya (or Catalonia). Occitania was united by a common culture, which used to cross easily the political, constantly moving boundaries. This terminology is all the more confusing, since both the provinces and the dialects have the same names; for instance Occitan and Languedoc denote both.
The first troubadours spoke of their language as roman or lingua romana, a term equally applicable to any other romance language. Lemosin was also used, which was too restricted a term, and was also appropriated by the Catalonians to denote their own dialect. A third term in use was the lingua d’oc, which has the authority of Dante and was used by some of the later troubadours; however, the term “Provenćal” has been generally accepted, and must henceforward be understood to denote the literary language common to the south of France and not the dialect of Provence properly so-called. For obvious reasons Southern France during the early middle ages had far outstripped the Northern provinces in art, learning, and the refinements of civilization. Roman culture had made its way into Southern Gaul at an early date and had been readily accepted by the inhabitants, while Marseilles and Narbonne had also known something of Greek civilization.
Occitania has been recognized as a linguistic and cultural concept since the Middle Ages, but has never been a legal nor a political entity under this name, although the territory was united in Roman times as the Septem Provinciĺ and the early Middle Ages (Aquitanica or the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse) before the northern French conquest started in the early 1200s. Under later Roman rule (after 355 C.E.), most of Occitania was known as Aquitania, itself part of the Seven Provinces with a wider Provence, while the northern provinces of what is now France were called Gallia (Gaul). Gallia Aquitania (or Aquitanica) is thus also a name used since medieval times for Occitania, including Provence as well in the early 6th century. (Thus the historic Duchy of Aquitaine must not be confused with the modern French region called Aquitaine: this is the main reason why the term Occitania was revived in the mid-19th century.)
Occitania was often politically united during the Early Middle Ages, under the Visigothic Kingdom and several Merovingian and Carolingian sovereigns. Charlemagne, in 805, vowed that his empire be partitioned into three autonomous territories according to nationalities and mother tongues: along with the Franco-German and Italian ones, was roughly what is now modern Occitania from the reunion of a broader Provence and Aquitaine. But things didn’t go according to plan, and at the division of the Frankish Empire (c. 9th century C.E.) Occitania was split into different counties, duchies and kingdoms, bishops and abbots, self-governing communes of its walled cities. Since then the country was never politically united again, though Occitania was united by a common culture that used to cross easily the political, constantly moving boundaries. (A good example of this is the southern-eastern province of Occitania, Catalunya or Catalonia, which is now a Spanish province, with its capital of Barcelona. Under Visigothic rule for four centuries after Rome’s collapse, it came under Moorish al-Andalus control in the 8th century. After the defeat of Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi’s troops at Tours in 732, the Franks conquered former Visigoth states that had been captured by the Muslims or had become allied with them in what today is the northernmost part of Catalonia. Charlemagne created in 795 what came to be known as the Marca Hispanica, a buffer zone beyond the province of Septimania made up of locally administered separate petty kingdoms which served as a defensive barrier between the Umayyad Moors of Al-Andalus and the Frankish Kingdom. However, Catalonia was to become politically and culturally linked with Southern France or Occitania, when, in 1137, Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona married Queen Petronila of Aragon, the province to the northwest, establishing the dynastic union of the County of Barcelona with the Kingdom of Aragon that was to create the Crown of Aragon. It was not until 1258, by means of the Treaty of Corbeil, that the king of France formally relinquished his feudal lordship over the counties of the Principality of Catalonia to the king of Aragon James I, descendant of Ramon Berenguer IV. This Treaty transformed the region’s de facto autonomy into a de jure direct Aragonese rule.)
The names “Occitania” and “Occitan language” (Occitana lingua) appeared in Latin texts from as early as 1242-1254 to 1290 and during the following years of the early 14th century; texts exist in which the area is referred to indirectly as “the country of the Occitan language” (Patria Linguae Occitanae). This derives from the name Lenga d’ėc that was used in Italian (Lingua d’ėc) by Dante (De vulgari eloquentia) in the late 13th century to denote the vernacular romance language of the troubadours. Occitan or langue d’oc (lenga d’ėc) is a Latin-based Romance language in the same way as Spanish, Italian or French. There are six main regional varieties with easy intercomprehension among them: Provenćal (including Nićard spoken in the vicinity of Nice), Vivaroalpenc, Auvernhat, Lemosin, Gascon (including Bearnés spoken in Béarn) and Lengadocian. All these varieties of the Occitan language are written and valid. Standard Occitan is a synthesis which respects soft regional adaptations. Catalan is a language very similar to Occitan and there are quite strong historical and cultural links between Occitania and Catalonia. Written texts in Occitan appeared in the 10th century: it was used at once in legal then literary, scientific and religious texts. The spoken dialects of Occitan are centuries older and appeared as soon as the 8th century, at least, revealed in toponyms or in Occitanized words left in Latin manuscripts, for instance. Actually, the terms Lenga d’oc, Occitan, and Occitania appeared at the end of the 13th century. Occitan literature was glorious and flourishing at that time—in the 12th and 13th centuries, the troubadours invented courtly love (fin’amor) and the Lenga d’oc spread throughout all European cultivated circles.
Thus, to speak of “troubadour culture” entails not just the south of France, but also south into Spain (Catalonia) and east into Italy. The earliest lyric poetry of Italy is Provenćal in all but language; almost as much may be said of Portugal and Galicia; Catalonian troubadours continued to write in Provenćal until the fourteenth century. The lyric poetry of the trouvŹres and the romances of Northern France were deeply influenced both in form and spirit by southern troubadour poetry, and traces of this influence are perceptible even in early middle-English lyrics, the most prominent of which being Chaucer’s. Finally, the German minnesingers knew and appreciated troubadour lyrics, and imitations or even translations of Provenćal poems may be found German works. Eventually, the troubadours became a pan-European phenomenon and are credited with the birth of modern European poetry.
All this said, the terms “Provence” and “Provenćal” have, nevertheless, been generally accepted to locate the region at large of the troubadours and to denote the literary language common to the south of France respectively (and not the dialect of Provence properly so-called). Therefore, it should be kept in mind that when the GS uses these terms he does so only because they have been accepted as normative to describe the geography and language of the troubadours.