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The poetry of the troubadours

In the Middle Ages, the southern half of present-day France, spoke the varied dialects which had grown out of Latin (Gascon, Limousin, Auvergnat, Languedocian, Provençal), and which made up the Occitan language. This Romance language served as the vehicle for the first poetry with lofty ambitions that western Europe had known. We are defining troubadour poetry as the courtly lyric poetry produced in these territories in the 12th and 13th centuries for the use of the nobility: the troubadours composed the music and wrote the lyrics; the minstrels were its professional performers. The closeness between Occitan and Catalan facilitated the incorporation of the poets of the Crown of Aragon into the new musical and literary explosion, which also accumulated adepts in Piedmont, Liguria and Lombardy. The first Count of Barcelona and King of Aragon, Alphonso (1162-1196), who also became Marquis of Provence (1166), maintained political interests in Occitania and acted as one of the great patrons of courtly poetry. The first Catalans to have vernacular literacy, therefore, can be dated to the middle of the 12th century and, having been educated according to a recent and growing musical and literary tradition, they expressed in Occitan their competence as creators of new products (Berenguer of Palou, Ponç de la Guàrdia, King Alphonso himself, William of Berguedà, Hugh of Mataplana, William of Cabestany, Ramon Vidal de Besalú). The Catalan royal house protected the troubadours and minstrels throughout the entire 13th century, up to the time of Ramon Llull, who was a contemporary of Cerverí of Gerona (1258-1285), court poet of James I and Peter the Great.

Troubadour poetry had a political and warlike side, expressed in the ‘sirventes’, or satirical variety, and an amorous side, which gave rise to the ‘canso’, the ‘alba’, the ‘pastourelle’ and the ‘dance’. The troubadours’ discourse upon love was governed by a precise code. They tried to evoke in the first person the effects— generally painful—of an absolute dedication of the lover to the cultivation of his passion for an unapproachable lady who was seen as socially and morally superior. To write about love under these conditions implied a rigid scale of values and the training of sentiments: (disinterested and complete) service of, and submission to, the lady; the secrecy of love (the lady was married and had to avoid the anger of her husband, the ‘jealous one’, and the accusations of her flatterers, the ‘slanderers’); the silent torment of the lover (unto death if necessary); the expectation of ‘joy’ (a reward of a sexual nature, though not usually stated explicitly in poetry of more elevated tone, which brought happiness); the plea for her ‘favour’ (compassion); the extreme excellence of the lady’s qualities (they recalled the uniqueness of those of the Mother of God); the social prestige which derived from the cultivation of a love of this sort. This group of conventions was called ‘pure love’ (pure, faithful or true love, these days also known by the expression ‘courtly love’), conventions to which one must add the presence of a melody which enabled the verses to be transmitted in song.

In the Book of Contemplation and the Vita coetanea Ramon Llull explained that, prior to his conversion, he had been a troubadour. There remains no trace of this activity of his youth: only the radical condemnation to which he subjected it. The worldly purpose of troubadour poetry was seen as being diabolical: to encourage men to kill each other and women to ‘prostitute themselves’. The idealised love of lyric poetry was, for Ramon, nothing but brute lust, and the troubadours (he always called them minstrels in an effort to demean them), sinister and dangerous characters. Ramon, however, in keeping with a well-known tendency of troubadour poetry in the 13th century, knew how to retrieve the rhetorical and prosodic techniques of lyric poetry for the sake of man’s first intention (which was to honour, praise and love God). Thus in the Book of Evast and Blaquerna (1283) we find a lyric to the Mother of God and a prayer-poem. He also invented the figure of the ‘worthy minstrel’, namely, the troubadour who renounced the world and its vanities and exalted Truth. Llull considered himself a ‘worthy minstrel’ and a ‘troubadour of the written word’.

Later he wrote a Plany de la Verge at the foot of the cross, and the Cent noms de Déu and the Medicina de pecat, in which metrical forms acted in the service of theological disclosures. The mnemnotechnical value of language in verse enabled Llull to give metrical form to a treatise on logic (a well-known expedient in the Middle Ages), the Logica Algazelis. Llull was at his most creative and original, however, in his employment of poetry for the purposes of propaganda, using the spirit of the ‘sirventes’ in a fresh way in order to present the character of ‘Ramon’. Thus the Cant de Ramon (1300) was a versified autobiography which sought the adherence of the reader to the author’s cause. The Desconhort (1295) was a carefully written debate between Ramon and a hermit who, initially was reticent, finally to become enthusiastic towards the former’s artistic project. The Concili (1311) was a contribution to the unity of the Church concerning the notion of crusades.

See: Ramon Llull, Poesies, Josep Romeu i Figueras (Barcelona: Enciclopèdia Catalana, 1988); and Martí de Riquer, Història de la Literatura Catalana(Barcelona: Ariel, 1984), Vol. II, pp. 326-336.

See the complete text of the 13 poetic compositions of Ramon Llull(author 89).