Women’s Work — Trobairitz, the First Female Composers of Western Secular Music
In the High Middle Ages the Occitan speaking world – of which Provence was a part – brought Europe a group of poet composers called troubadours. These musicians and their tradition of composing songs of courtly love, chivalric bravery, and bawdy humor quickly spread throughout much of Europe. The influence of troubadours and their work-product can hardly be overstated. Their verses were a stepping stone for virtually all of western literature that followed. Without the troubadours it is unlikely we would have Dante or Chaucer just to scratch the surface.
Who were the troubadours? Probably not who most people think.
Popular imagination tends envision troubadours as itinerant. In fact, they often attached themselves for long periods of time to a single court, enjoying the patronage of a nobleman or woman.
Nor were they vagabonds (romantic as that might seem). The earliest troubadours were members of the nobility, including the highest ranks. Ruling Dukes and Counts could be troubadours (e.g. William IX of Aquitaine a very early troubadour, and grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a Duke). Even Kings—including Richard I of England; Thibaud I, King of Navarre (and Count of Champagne for good measure); and Alfonso X, King of Castile—were known to dabble as poet-musicians. Only gradually did individuals of the lower classes (merchants and tradesmen generally, rather than the truly poor) join their numbers. This makes sense given the fact that troubadours wrote a type of sophisticated verse that would be greatly facilitated (and may arguably have required) the writer to be a “person of letters” (educated).
Contemporary audiences also tend to think of troubadours as exclusively male. They were not. In medieval Occitania composing original poetry and setting it to music could be and was women’s work as well as men’s. The women who pursued this occupation were called trobairitz and they were the FIRST female secular poets and female composures of secular music in the western world.
Of the more than four hundred troubadours whose names are still known to scholars today, about twenty–or roughly 5%–can be positively identified as women, but women may well have been a higher percentage (is not always easy to distinguish the work of a trobairitz from that of a troubadour and it is also possible that some women used male pseudonyms for their work).
Like my Sister Queens, the female trobairitz came almost exclusively from the Occitan cultures (there are know trobairitz from Provence, Auvergne, Languedoc, Dauphine, Toulouse and Limousin). This is likely not a coincidence.
Circumstances in early 13th century Occitania created the perfect storm for the emergence of these secular women poets. Women of this region administered great estates—dispensing justice and defending property—at a time when such roles were far less common elsewhere in Europe. Why? First, they were able to inherit and govern territory in their own right. But perhaps more importantly, a nearly continuous string of crusades resulted in a large loss of Occitan men either temporarily or permanently (when a nobleman died or simply decided to stay in the Crusader States). And while their fathers, husbands and brothers were absent women throughout Occitania were left in charge of administering family holdings.
What the trobairitz wrote is as startling as the sudden emergence of these woman poets. Trobairitz used their voices to emphasize their desires and to assert their right to have love and passion in their lives. Consider this excerpt from a work of the most well known trobairitz, the Countess of Dia:
I should like to hold my knight
Naked in my arms at eve,
That he might be in ecstasy
As I cushioned his head against my breast . . .
I grant him my heart, my love,
My mind, my eyes, my life.
These are the words of noble women with enough self-assurance to express and defend not only their actions in taking lovers but their emotions and their passions. They also often emphasized feminine values both setting forth ideal love and in defining the valorous male. Pretty remarkable for the 13th century.
The period of the trobairitz was fleeting. They first appear in the literature early in the century and most of their writings are dated up to and through the 1260s. By 1280 they had disappeared entirely. While this may seem sad, it can be taken as a more positive reminder that history is not linear—even those periods when the roles of women were heavily circumscribed have been punctuated by moments of female progress and power.
If you are interested in hearing the words of the trobairitz as they were meant to be—sung—there are a number of excellent recordings (e.g. In Time of Daffodils: Songs of the Trobairitz, The Sweet Look And The Loving Manner – Trobairitz, Love Lyrics and Chansons de Femme from Medieval France or The Romance Of The Rose – Feminine Voices From Medieval France)
I will leave you with one of my favorites–a rendition of a poem by the Countess of Dia