Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Peire d'Alvernhe, Poet and satirist

I mentioned that, for all our talk of courtly love in the Middle Ages, the only use of the actual phrase was in a single Provençal poem. The author of that poem was Peire d'Alvernhe, a troubadour born about 1130. He produced 21-24 poems (authorship can be difficult to determine) by 1170. He was known well-enough that Dante names him in the Divine Comedy.

An anonymous biographer tells us he was handsome and charming and wise, and that he spent time in Spain at the court of Alfonso VII of Castile and his son Sancho III. The biographer calls his poems the greatest poems ever except for the slightly later Giraut de Borneill. A contemporary of Peire's, Bernart Marti, wrote a poem in which he accuses Peire of entering a religious life but abandoning Holy Orders.

Not only did he abandon the religious life, he also abandoned the concept that brought us to this blog entry. The reference to courtly love is in a poem in which he praises love of the Holy Ghost over that of cortez amors de bon aire, "well-spirited courtly love." In this preference of spiritual over carnal love he (and others) followed the influence of one of the earliest troubadours whose name we can put to his poetry, Marcabru (active 1130 - 1150).

Of all Peire's poems, modern scholars have spent the most time and effort discussing a particular one: Chantarai d'aquest trobadors ("Song of wandering troubadours"), a sirventes or "service song" used by troubadours to address a particular subject for educational purposes. In this poem he describes a dozen known troubadours, criticizing their looks and their poetry before proclaiming himself their superior. Although critical, it is seen as a good-natured parody, and he ends by telling the listener that it was composed "while laughing and playing."

On the other hand, if the twelve other troubadours were not present to laugh along with their descriptions, would an audience be familiar enough with the others to understand that it was all in fun? On the other other hand, it does give us (as few pieces of medieval literature do) give us information about specific poets we might not otherwise have, allowing us opportunities to identify authorship for some of the troubadours' works.

Peire d'Alvernhe, Bernart Marti, Marcabru, Giraut de Borneill—we have many names of troubadours, but what did they have in common? What made a "troubadour" rather than just a poet? Let's talk about the troubadour life tomorrow.

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