A Name is Not Enough: the Trobairitz and the Problem of Medieval Women Poets

By Kate Travers, New York University.


BnF Fr. 854, also known as Occitan Chansonnier I, taken from f.125r. (Source: Gallica)

Medieval lyric poetry, a genre used throughout western Europe that often focused on love and erotic desire, is often imagined to be a genre of lovelorn poets petitioning for favours from silent, unforgiving ladies. For those interested in women’s contribution to literary history, the question of whether the ladies of lyric ever composed poetry, instead of being the object of it, proves fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. For me, nothing exposes the problems and possibilities of studying women in medieval literary culture better than the trobairitz.

The term trobairitz is taken from a medieval narrative text, the Roman de Flamenca, where it is used to describe women who sing or perform poetry. It’s the feminine form of a more familiar term from the Occitan language: “troubadour”. Why do the trobairitz pose such a challenge for scholars of women in literary history? As previous blog posts have pointed out, the question of whether women read, let alone composed poetry, remains a vexed subject. Even when women are named in manuscripts as the originator of a poem, the question of whether or not we can associate the grammatically feminine voices found in the manuscript record with the bodies of historical women remains fraught.

The troubadours and trobairitz, poets and singers writing in Occitan, a language originating in what is now Southern-France, popularized the version of lyric poetry that we associate with lovelorn knights and their ladies. Troubadour poetry spread far outside the regions in which Occitan was spoken day-to-day, into what is now Catalonia, Northern-France and Italy. Its indirect influence was felt even further-afield, notably in Sicily and in German-speaking territories, where the Minnesänger drew heavily on the Occitan poetic tradition. While some of the most famous troubadour poetry is indeed about larks, spring-time and love, some is satirical, some is political, and some is down-right scandalous: see Count Guilhelm IX’s “Farrai un vers [de dreg nien]”, where the Count is willing to be mauled by a cat in order to sleep with two women.

Texts attributed to trobairitz span a range of genres, and some are pretty overtly sexual, too. Take for example the Comtessa de Dia’s declaration that she would like her knight to use her as his “pillow” (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”). We have a surprisingly large number of named trobairitz in the manuscript record; they constitute one of — if not the — largest body of vernacular poetry attributed to women in the European Middle Ages. Bruckner, Shepard and White list 21 named trobairitz in their edition of the corpus, their texts often accompanied by rubrics (the name of a poet, usually written in red ink) and sometimes supplemented with miniature author portraits and biographies, known as vidas.

One of the most significant stumbling blocks for scholars hoping to write about women in medieval culture is a relative paucity of sources. Though the literary sources for the trobairitz might be intriguing, the lack of historical, biographical information about them presents a significant obstacle for anyone who would like to claim that the trobairitz can be used as evidence for the composition of poetry by women in this period. If historical and biographical information on these women remains in short supply, then our attempts to ground the grammatically feminine lyric voice in a woman’s body find only moderate success. We are then limited to the discussion of the literary presentation of the idea of women reading, composing lyric, or writing.

Only three of the named trobairitz are widely considered to have been historical women. François Zufferey, in his essay “Towards a Delimitation of the Trobairitz Corpus” (pp. 31 -44), states that Azalais de Porcairagues (b. c. 1140), Castellosa (c.1155 – 1235) and the Comtessa (Beatriz) de Dia (c. 1150 – 1200) could be regarded as historical women who did author the poems attributed to them in Occitan songbooks. The rest are considered to be fictions. There are several good reasons why we might question the historical existence of these trobairitz.

First of all, the earliest extant manuscript that records Occitan lyric was made in 1254 (Chansonnier D). The earliest recorded trobairitz were thought to have been born around a hundred years before in the mid-twelfth century, but possible dates associated with Gormonda de Montpeslier suggest that she may have been active in the mid-to-late thirteenth century. Whether a trobairitz is thought to have lived nearer the date of compilation of an extant manuscript is not a crucial factor in whether or not we consider them to have existed historically, however. Zufferey’s three historical trobairitz were established based on the validation of their identities in archival records and the number of manuscripts that record their texts. Unfortunately, many of the extant trobairitz texts we possess are recorded in one manuscript alone.

Secondly, the earliest extant manuscripts we possess, along with the manuscript the preserves the greatest number of trobairitz texts (known as Chansonnier H), were produced in Italy. In the medieval Italian poetic tradition, it was common for male poets to invent a female interlocutor. Even though the way in which manuscripts present most trobairitz is very different to the presentation of invented feminine voices in the Italian tradition, it remains very difficult to prove that certain trobairitz were not, in fact, similar literary inventions.

Thirdly, some trobairitz are recorded under pseudonyms, such as “Domna H” or “Lombarda”. This makes the possibility of ascertaining the historical identity of these poets almost impossible. David Bowe, however, has recently re-examined the manuscript context of texts attributed to another pseudonymous feminine voice, the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, the first known example of an Italian manuscript attributing lyric texts to a woman poet. Bowe argues that the likelihood the Compiuta Donzella was the product of a game of textual drag remains slim. Perhaps the manuscript context of trobairitz with veiled identities can, in a similar way, tell us more about how their poetry circulated or was received.

And so, there were three. Three trobairitz who can be said to have existed, who composed poetry. Can we definitively say there were not more? No, we cannot. Therein lies the contention. Those who would argue the trobairitz can be seen as example of women’s literary production in the Middle Ages feel as if they are left with the difficult task of proving a negative, of proving that they were not inventions by men. Others would maintain that unless sufficient historical evidence can be found, the argument in favour of their existence cannot be successfully made.

The biggest challenge for those who want to explore the trobairitz’s role within the history of women in literary culture is this: how do we create a space in which the possibility of these texts having been written by women is not shut down? How do we keep that possibility open, whilst admitting the difficulty of discovering further biographical evidence that can link their lyric voices to the historical bodies that produced them?

If we close our minds to the possibility of medieval women poets unless significant biographical information can be found to support their existence, not only do we shut down the possibility of female authorship of anonymous texts, but even of those texts which are attributed to women in the manuscript record. We cannot choose to ignore women and their contribution to literary culture in the Middle Ages, yet unless we are willing to extrapolate from the small number of trobairitz for which we do have historical evidence, we will continue to struggle to reconcile literary sources with the historical record. We will continue to describe the trobairitz we can verify as exceptions, as aberrations. In this regard, we remain trapped by the same rhetoric of exceptionalism that medieval commentators themselves used to describe women writers.

I can’t prove the trobairitz all existed, but here’s what I can say for sure: the figure of the woman poet is a very real phenomenon in collections of medieval Occitan lyric, whether or not we can always tie the feminine voice of the poet to a woman’s body. Understanding how the figure of the women poet was represented and shared throughout Occitania, and across linguistic boundaries is definitely something we can achieve. Appreciating this could constitute a major step in deepening our understanding of women’s role in medieval literary culture.