Thursday, May 18, 2023

What Makes a Troubadour?

In the years 1100 - 1350, a type of musical performer arose called a troubadour. They did not call themselves troubadours; that term was first used in 1575 to refer to court poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. They almost always referred to themselves as chantaire, "singer." The term "troubadour" is assumed to come from Occitan trobador, from trobaire, "composer," which may be from Late Latin tropare, "to compose, to invent a poem."

The earliest known troubadour whose work has survived was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine). He may not have been the first troubadour: it is possible that his political prominence helped him appear to be the start of a tradition, but he may instead have been just one example of an already thriving cultural event. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis records that William composed songs about his experience on the First Crusade. Order also gives us a first-hand account of William performing "many times ... with rhythmic verses and witty measures."

The troubadour phenomenon rose and fell. The 12th century began with few examples of activity, but the final decades saw a burst of output: almost half of the almost 2500 pieces (from a total of about 450 known names) that have survived come from the years 1180 - 1220. Beginning in western Aquitaine, it spread to eastern Aquitaine, then down to Toulouse and Provence. In the early 1200s it reached Italy and Spain.

Duke William was probably the highest-ranking member of society who could be designated a troubadour. Most described themselves as "poor knights," although there was Jaufre Rudel, prince of Blaye in southwestern France.

The troubadours had an "enemy" in the jongleur. The jongleur was not the juggler that the word has become, but was actually a minstrel. The difference is that the minstrel plays songs he has heard from others, although there may be an element of dancing and acrobatics. The troubadour is a poet-composer, a much higher calling requiring skill. Troubadours often wrote attacks on jongleurs. There were, however, many troubadours who also entertained in the manner of the jongleur.

The word troubadour is masculine; a female troubadour is a trobairitz. It would make sense to look at the phenomenon of the female composer in the troubadour tradition next.

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