Study Guide for Medieval Love Songs


Using this Guide

List of other study guides

Although modern Western ideas about romantic love owe a certain amount to the classical Greek and Roman past, they were filtered through the very different culture of the European Middle Ages. One can trace the concepts which dominated Western thinking until recently to the mid-12th Century. Before that time, European literature rarely mentions love, and women seldom figure prominently. After that time, within a decade or two, all has changed. Passionate love stories replace epic combat tales and women are exalted to almost god-like status. Simultaneously, the Virgin Mary becomes much more prominent in Catholic devotions, and emotionalism is rampant in religion.

The pioneers of this shift in sensibility seem to have been the troubadours, the poets of Provence (now Southern France). Provençal is a language related to French, Italian and Spanish, and seems to have facilitated the flow of ideas across the often ill-defined borders of 12th-Century Europe. It has often been speculated that Arabic poetry may have influenced their work by way of Moorish Spain. Although this seems likely, it is difficult to confirm.

Once the basic themes are laid down by the troubadours, they are imitated by the French trouvères, the German Minnesingers (love poets) and others. Thus, even though the disastrous 13th-Century Albigensian crusade put an end of the golden age of the troubadours, many of their ideas and themes persisted in European literature for centuries afterward.


Guiraut de Bornelh: Leu chansoneta, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 2

An unromantic but obvious fact is that much if not most troubadour poetry consists of artificial compositions, sometimes commissioned, sometimes written for competitions, rather than being private outpourings directed to the poet's lady-love. This is particularly obvious in this poem where the poet mentions the lady almost offhandedly in the final stanza, although he does claim that he is dying for love of her. The competitive nature of this poem is made clear when the poet hopes it will travel to my Lord of Eblo, a rival troubadour who wrote in the obscure trobar clus style. The second stanza continues with Guiraut bragging that he knows how to tell a true noble from a base man by his wit. He should be able to speak eloquently when necessary and know when to stop. The third stanza says that only nobles willing to engage in duels should get involved in poetry contests with him. The reference to God turning water into wine is an allusion to Christ's miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2: 1-12). True wine (great poetry) is pleasing only to the great. After all this bragging, the final stanza devoted to his lady seems almost an afterthought. The conventional language of courtly love requires that the lover present himself as the feudal inferior of his Lady, whom he serves humbly. The ideal lover keeps his love affair a secret, so the poet cannot name her publicly. In fact, she may be wholly imaginary. Unconsummated love can theoretically lead to death; but the poet darkly hints at a more serious loss: of his ability to write.


Bertran de Born: Ges de disnar , from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 5.

Bertran was one of the most famous troubadours, especially renowned for his passionate devotion to combat. Yet even he wrote love poetry. Like much troubadour verse, this poem is a loose collection of images whose connections are somewhat obscure. The introduction, defining what good service is at a proper inn, tells us that he is a connoisseur who knows quality when he sees it; therefore his praise of Lady Lena can be trusted. The standard form which courtly love took involved the admiration of a single man for a married woman. Whether such affairs were really as common as the poets implied in questionable, but the idea becomes so standardized that Bertran can write this love poem to the Lord of Poitou's wife without worrying that he will be upset, even mentioning her underclothes! In the second stanza he praises her in traditional terms as noble, but takes time to praise himself as well as the best of poets. Since he has deigned to praise her, she is all the more worthy. Her husband was heir to the throne of Provence, and he anticipates her elevation to the rank of queen. In the last stanza, he describes his love for her in intimate detail and says that he would rather have her than the city of Corrozana. All of this is the rankest flattery, and would not be taken seriously by any of the parties.


Raimbaut de Vaqueiras:Kalenda Maya, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 11.

This poem is extremely popular because of the light, lilting tune it is set to. The troubadours were composers as well as poets, though they sometimes reused older melodies when they set their lyrics. At first we might look at this poem and feel that at last we have encountered a genuine love poem, filled with heart-felt emotion. But no, the final lines reveal that it is just as artificial as the others. In ancient times May Day was the festival day of Venus, and it continued to be associated with love in the Middle Ages. The usual signs of spring in poetry are leaves on the trees and birds singing. Both are mentioned here, but instead of bringing joy, they only reinforce the loneliness of his beloved. The lovers have been separated by "the jealous one," a stock figure who is sometimes the lady's husband, sometimes just an envious meddler who has discovered and publicized the secret affair. In the second stanza he begs with the lady not to allow the jealous one to succeed in the plot of separating the two of them. Grace is of course an important theological term in Christianity, but in courtly love language it is applied to the willingness of the lady to grant favors (usually in the form of love-making) to her suitor. Since the lover presents himself as suffering from love-longing, he asks for her "pity" (which has roughly the same meaning as "grace"). The message is the same as such old blues lines as "Ooh Baby, I need you so bad!" but expressed in more pretentious language. We now learn that despite their intense relationship, they have not yet actually made love (and neither, the poet reassures himself, has she taken any other lovers). Whoever does not love this lady leads a worthless life. Note the insistent repetition of terms relating to her nobility. In this class-bound society, beauty, virtue, and nobility were supposed to go hand-in-hand, though it was widely acknowledged that sometimes they did not. Then we are shocked to find the concluding lines addressed, not to the mysterious, marvelous lady, but to the poet's patron, Lord Engles. Alas, the poem is yet another set piece written to please a patron and not the outpourings of a romantic soul in love.


Anonymous French: L'autrier m'iere levaz, from Medieval Songs and Dances, CRD 3421, track 3.

Up to this point all of our poets have been Provençal. This one is written in 12th-Century French, a quite distinct language, but differing substantially from modern French (in which the title would be something like L'autre jour je me levais). This is a pastourelle, a common poetic form which makes different use of the class structure of Medieval society than the poems we have read earlier. The theme of these poems is that knights can find attractive lovers among the common people, especially shepherdesses. The courtship is depicted as much more crude and rapid than the elegant and prolonged maneuverings required for a courtly affair. Today pastourelles would be considered little more than poems of sexual harassment, and this one ends in what is essentially a rape. Part of the appeal of such poems for noble (male) audiences was the thrill of the forbidden: crossing class boundaries, slumming. I don't know how the melody of this song struck Medieval listeners, but it has always seemed oddly sinister to me. The translation here is in prose, but it effectively conveys the poem's message.

Like most love poetry it is set in spring, beneath the flowering trees. Just as in ancient pastoral poetry there is a conventional set of names by which the rustic characters are identified, so Ermenjon is recognizably a peasant name. She is addressed not as Lady, for only noblewomen qualified as ladies. "Sister" is a much more casual, commonplace term. She has been raised well enough to know that she should have nothing to do with her social superiors and tries to escape his unwanted attentions to reminding him of his status and hers. But he claims to have broader views. His praise of her sense (intelligence) is insincere, since they have obviously never spoken before this moment. Like many pastourelle heroines, Ermenjon already has a shepherd-lover, this one named Perrin (another typical peasant name). When she tells him how afraid she is, the knight deliberately misinterprets her as saying that she is afraid of Perrin's jealousy, when in fact she had been threatening the knight with the shepherd's vengeance. She makes clear her rejection of him by saying her body cannot be bought even for all the rich goods displayed in the great market at the city of Limoges. The response of the knight is then to rape her. Fulfilling standard male fantasies of the time, she is much pleased and glad that he ignored her resistance. The message is clear: "No matter what women say, they all want it. Just be firm." Modern attempts of women to tell men directly and repeatedly how stupid and revolting this point of view is have been only partially successful, so it is not surprising to find it widely accepted in the Middle Ages. What is surprising is that in about half the pastourelles the young woman succeeds in rebuffing her noble suitor and sending him on his way. In such poems she is clearly the smarter of the two, and the more virtuous. The existence of both traditions side by side should keep up us from over-generalizing about Medieval attitudes.


In order to balance things a bit, you will find in your class packet an example of such a pastourelle. Why is the knight's attempt flatter the woman by claiming she must be of noble descent actually insulting? How does the shepherdess answer him? Note that although he begins by praising the young woman, he ends by cursing her. This hostility lurks not too far beneath the surface of many love poems in which the man professes himself to be the slavish servant of his beloved. Her final reply is rather obscure, but it seems to say he will get as much pleasure out of her as a hungry man gets out of painted food, and he can hope for as much cooperation from her as someone who expects to be miraculously fed by God, like the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.


Anonymous Italian: Lamento di Tristano, from Medieval Songs and Dances, track 1.

After Lancelot and Guinevere, the most famous fictional lovers of the Middle Ages were Tristan and Iseult, another adulterous pair who were often separated. (One episode from their story is told by Marie de France in the lai of Chevrefoil). Tristan is portrayed as an outstanding musician, and is imagined here as having composed this lament during one of these separations. Although the story is set in Cornwall, its most famous retellings were Continental, and it is not at all surprising to find this title turning up in 14th-Century Italy.


Guillaume de Machaut:Foy porter

Besides being a famous poet, Machaut was one of the greatest composers of the 14th Century. Working in Paris, he was at the heart of the development of polyphony. This first song, however, is monophonic, a love song with typically intricate rhyming. My translation doesn't aim at poetry, but does get the essential theme across: the irresistibility of love. It was believed that gemstones could be used to heal various sufferings. Only the lady can heal his suffering. How does the poet claim loving the lady has made him a better person? The idea that courtly love improved one's character was a crucial part of the whole tradition.

Refrain:
Foy porter, honneur garder I want to stay faithful, guard your honor,
Et pais querir, oubeir Seek peace, obey
Doubter, servir, et honnourer Fear, serve and honor you,
Vous vueil jusques au morir Until death,
Dame sans per. Peerless Lady.
I.
Car tant vous aim, sans mentir For I love you so much, truly,
Qu'on poroit avant tarir that one could could sooner dry up
La haute mer the deep sea
Et ses ondes retenir and hold back its waves
Que me peusse alentir than I could constrain myself
de vous amer. from loving you,
Sans fausser; car mi penser, without falsehood; for my thoughts
Mi souvenir, mi plaisir my memories, my pleasures
Et mi desir sont sans finer and my desires are perpetually
En vous que ne puis guerpir n'entroublier of you, whom I cannot leave or even briefly forget.
II.
Il ne'est joie ne joir There is no joy or pleasure
N'autre bien qu'on puist sentir or any other good that one could feel
N'imaginer or imagine which does not seem to me worthless
Qui ne me samble languir, whenever your sweetness wants to sweeten my bitterness.
Quant vo douceur adoucir vuet mon amer: Therefore I want to praise
Dont loer et aourer and adore and fear you,
Et vous cremier, tout souffrir, suffer everything,
Tout conjoir, Tout endurer experience everything, endure everything
Vueil plus que je ne desir Guerredonner. more than I desire any reward.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful . . .
III.
Vous estes le vray saphir You are the true sapphire
Qui puet tous mes maus garir et terminer. that can heal and end all my sufferings,
Esmeraude a resjoir, the emerald which brings rejoicing,
Rubis pour cuers esclarcir et conforter. the ruby to brighten and comfort the heart.
Vo parler, vo regarder, Your speech, your looks,
Vo maintenir, font fuir et enhair et despiter Your bearing, make one flee and hate and detest
Tout vice et tout bien cherir et desirer all vice and cherish and desire all that is good.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful. . .

Translated by Paul Brians


Dame, je suis cilz/Fins cuers doulz/Fins cuers doulz, from The Mirror of Narcissus, Hyperion CDA66087, track 2.

The multitextual motets of the 14th Century seem very strange to modern ears, but in that time it made sense to create polyphony by layering one verse of a monophonic song on top of another to produce harmony. Here there are three voices. The Tenor is repeated over and over while the other verses are sung. The whole idea of courtly love was for the lover to present himself as a loyal servant to his lady. If he obeyed her every wish and loyally kept secret their connection, after a long period of trial she might legitimately take pity on him and console him with love-making. However, if she postponed this healing consolation too long, he might die; and poets often used the threat of such a death to exert pressure on the ladies to whom they were supposedly utterly submissive. It was a not uncommon form of emotional blackmail to tell a woman, "You can either commit adultery with me or effectively commit murder by refusing; which is it to be?" One wonders whether this worked in real life, but in poetry it is routine. Note how in the Motetus the poet says that all his good qualities come from loving her. How does the Triplum present the poet as a martyr?

Motetus
Dame, je sui cilz qui vueil endurer Lady, I am one of those who willingly endures
Vostre voloir, tant com porray durer: your wishes, so long as I can endure;
Mais ne cuit pas que longuement l'endure but I do not think I can endure it for long
Sans mort avoir, quant vous m'estes si dure without dying, since you are so hard on me
Que vous volés qu'ensus de vous me traie, as if you wanted to drive me away from you,
Sans plus veioir la tres grant biauté veraie so I should never again see the great and true beauty
De vo gent corps, qui tant a de valour of your gentle body, which has such worth
Que vous estes des bonnes la millour. that you are of all good women the best.
Las! einssi ay de ma mort exemplaire, Alas! thus I imagine my death.
Mais la doleur qu'il me me convendra traire But the pain I shall have to bear
Douce seroit, se un tel espoir avoie would be sweet, if I could only hope,
Qu'avant ma mort par vo gré vous revoie. that before my death, you let me see you again.
Dame, et se ja mes cuers riens entreprent Lady, if ever my heart undertakes anything
Dont mes corps ait honneur n'avancement, which may honor or profit my heart,
De vous venra, com lonteins que vos soie, it will come from you, however far you may be,
Car ja sans vous que j'aim tres loyaument, for never without you, whom I love very loyally,
Ne sans Amours, emprendre nel saroie. nor without Love, could I undertake it or know it.
Triplum
Fins cuers doulz, on me deffent Sweet noble heart, I am forbidden
De par vous que plus ne voie to ever see you again
Vostre doulz viaire gent your fair sweet face
Qui d'amer m'a mis en voie; which put me on the path of love;
Mais vraiement, je ne sçay but truly I do not know
Comment je m'en attendray how I can expect
Que briefment morir ne doie: not to have to die soon.
Et s'il m'en faut abstenir And if I must abstain
Pour faire vostre plaisir, to give you pleasure,
Ou envers vous faus seroie, or else be untrue to you,
S'aim trop mieus ma loyauté then I would rather keep my loyalty
Garder et par vostre gré and according to your will
Morir, se vos cuers l'ottroie, die, if your heart wishes it,
Qu'encontre vostre voloir, than against your will
Par vostre biauté veioir, to receive complete joy
Recüsse toute joie by viewing your beauty.
Tenor
Fins cuers doulz, joliete, Sweet noble heart, pretty lady,
Amouretes m'ont navré; I am wounded by love
Por ce sui mas et pensis, so that I am sad and pensive,
Si n'a en moy jeu ne ris, and have no joy or mirth,
Car a vous, conpaignete, for to you, my sweet companion,
Ay mon cuer einsi doné. I have thus given my heart.
Repeat Trans. Paul Brians


Douce dame jolie

A virelai is a lively dance form. Although the text of this poem reads as dolefully as the other Machaut pieces, its delightfully lilting music belies its text. Note again the tight and intricate rhyming of the original. Again the opening image is the feudal domination the lady exerts over her beloved. By now you know what the lover is asking for when he begs her "pity." What is the message of this last stanza?


From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Dante Alighieri: Sonnet

Lapo Gianni and Guido Cavalcante were friends of Dante's. In this poem from La Vita Nuova, he fancifully imagines that they might escape in a magic ship on an endless voyage of love. Tragically, his Beatrice died young, as did Guido's Giovanna ("Vanna" is a nickname). In the Divine Comedy Dante later imagined meeting her in an altogether more serious way when he described her guiding him through Heaven. The translation "whose name on the list is number thirty" is misleading: it should be something like "who is the best of the top thirty." Dante was influenced by the courtly love style, and carried on his life-long love for the married Beatrice while being himself married to another woman. According to his own account, they never consummated the relationship. It consisted entirely of his adoring her from afar and--most important--writing poetry about her. What effect does knowing this background have on your interpretation of the poem?


From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

La Comtesse de Dia: I Must Sing of That

There were few women troubadours (some twenty are known), but the most famous of them was the Countess of Dia. We know little about her life, but this song is the only female troubadour song to survive with music intact. Like much male troubadour poetry, this is a lament of unrequited love. Deceived and betrayed suggests that he has been unfaithful to her. Seguin and Valensa were the lovers in a now-lost romance. Like many other troubadour songs, it ends with a threat, this one rather veiled. Other translations render the fourth line of the third stanza as "it is not right that another love. . . ." What are the main arguments she uses to get him to return her love?


Anonymous:Dawn Song

A "Dawn Song" is a standard Medieval form common in Provence, France, and Germany, in which a pair of lovers lament the coming of the dawn, which means that they must part. Often the woman is married, but that does not seem to be the case here. What evidence is there, at least, that this couple is not married to each other?


Christine de Pisan: A Sweet Thing Is Marriage

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan), born in Venice to the chief physician of Charles V of France, was married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-five. She wrote extensively defending women and arguing for their intelligence and abilities. Her poetry consists of posthumous tributes to her dead husband. What qualities did she especially admire in her husband? His speech to her implies that his love for her is making him better: a common courtly love idea.


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: From A Satirical Romance

This Mexican nun actually belongs with the Renaissance writers, but her language is typically Medieval. What unusual image does she use to express the flowing of her love to her jealous lover?


From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

I can't hold you and I can't leave you

How does the poet propose to deal with her ambiguous feelings about her lover? The last stanza implies that if he would be wholehearted in his love for her, she could be equally wholehearted in loving him.


More about Medieval and Renaissance music.
Back to index.

Paul Brians' Home Page

This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997.

Revised May 16, 2013.