Beyond Love Songs: Troubadours and Cathars

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By Sonja Maurer-Dass

One of the most important topics to emerge in musicological research is that which concerns the relationship between music and politics. Thinking about music in relation to such issues is probably reminiscent of some popular 20th-century musicians who held up the metaphorical mirror to society while advocating for political change (like the protest songs composed by Bob Dylan). While popular music has certainly addressed and brought attention to various social and political concerns, for centuries Western art music has also been used as a tool to express socio-political ideals and condemn injustices. This is evident when we travel through the history of Western art music to the Middle Ages.

From the beginning of the 17th century, music and theater came together to form an opera that was often allegorical and served to underline the majesty of the reigning monarchs. This was exemplified in the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose works contained many references to the splendor, might and martial prowess of Louis XIV. Going back further to the 15th century, we see that Henry V used his Chapel Royal to showcase the glory of England. Going even further back to the early Middle Ages, a time when religion and politics were strongly intertwined, Charlemagne used Frankish (Gregorian) chant to unify the liturgical practices of his territories and thus merged them under a single faith.

It is perhaps unsurprising that music was deployed by powerful rulers like Louis XIV, Henry V and Charlemagne to further their political and religious ambitions; however, we also see many examples of poets and musicians who composed works commenting on contemporary political climates influenced by both church and state. Among these artists were the troubadours, the poet-musicians of medieval southern France.

Musicological analyzes and discussions of troubadours tend to focus on their poetry and songs related to courtly love. Indeed, while the theme of love certainly figured prominently in the works of these musicians, troubadours were also known for composing pieces expressing their political and religious views. This is exemplified in the crusade song genre. Crusade songs were often written to encourage fellow citizens to support the Crusades in the Holy Land; however, from 1209 to 1229, the troubadours witnessed another crusade closer to home in southern France – the Albigensian Crusade.

There are a number of troubadour compositions related to the Crusades in Jerusalem, but did the troubadours also compose songs reflecting their views on the Albigensian Crusade taking place in their own area? To date, several theories conjecture about the presence of Cathar influences in the poetry and songs of the troubadours (and some trouvères); however, today most researchers say there is evidence to indicate otherwise. For the most part, the troubadour verses do not explicitly indicate Cathar sympathies (and are at best ambiguous on the subject). This article will present thoughts on both points of view. First, the beliefs of the Cathars and the history of the Albigensian Crusade will be briefly explained. This will be followed by an exploration of some theories that support and negate the Cathar influence in troubadour compositions.

The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade

From the 12th to the 13th century, a heretical sect of Christianity flourished in southern France and northern Italy – the Cathars. The first record of the Cathars dates back to 1143 in Cologne, to a religious group that observed an ancient doctrine believed to have originated in Greece. By the 1160s, this belief system – whose adherents were recognized by several names including “Albigensian” – had spread throughout northern Europe but flourished in Lombardy and Languedoc.

Fundamentally, Catharism differed from the beliefs of Catholicism and in some ways was reminiscent of the beliefs associated with Manichaeism. For the Cathars, the material world was fundamentally evil and was seen as a creation of Satan and the institutionalized structure of the Catholic Church was vehemently rejected. While the physical world was seen as negative, the spiritual world was seen as God’s creation and was accepted as inherently good. Because the physical world was evil, the Cathars did not believe the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ was possible. Additionally, Cathars were forbidden to engage in certain activities that included sexual intercourse and anything that would result from such unions. This meant that the consumption of eggs, meat and milk was also prohibited as they were considered products of sexual activity.

Detail of a miniature of the Pope excommunicating the Albigenses, while on the right the Albigensian Crusade is launched – British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 374v

In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade in response to the heretical beliefs of the Cathars. The military campaign involved Catholics in northern France who were strongly opposed to the prevalence of Catharism in southern France. In fact, a number of Southern nobles tolerated Cathar beliefs. At the time of the crusade, troubadours were actively composing poetry and music in the south of France, which led to disagreements between authors and scholars regarding their possible affiliation with the Cathars.

Cathar influence on the compositions of the troubadours?

The troubadours (and their northern French counterparts, the trouvères), were renowned poet-musicians throughout southern France from the 12th to the end of the 13th century. Their social status was varied and several troubadours belonged to the nobility (female troubadours also existed and were called “trobairitz”). As mentioned earlier, much of the troubadour songs are about love in various forms; however, many of their songs draw inspiration from politics and religion in particular, and the Crusades in Jerusalem feature prominently in their poetry. That being said, were any of the troubadours associated with the Cathars, and did the Albigensian Crusade influence the content of their songs?

A few authors—particularly those of the 19th and 20th centuries—were convinced by their belief that the Cathar heresy was hidden in the verses of the troubadours. Specifically, authors Eugène Aroux, Joséphin Péladan and Otto Rahn argued that the language used in the poetry of the troubadours (and the poetry of the trouvère, Chrétien de Troyes) expressed an esoteric knowledge of the Cathars. According to these authors, it was inconceivable that the troubadours could live near the Cathars without being influenced by their belief system, especially since some patrons of the troubadours are believed to have supported the Cathars.

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Although troubadour poetry does not explicitly indicate a connection to Cathar beliefs, Aroux, Péladan and Rahn posited that troubadours intentionally wrote in an ambiguous style called included trobar (“closed style”) so that their affiliation with the Cathars is disguised, lest they be persecuted for associating with a heretical sect. According to Aroux, the troubadour jugglers traveled around France singing their songs and, during their travels, revealed the secret messages of the lyrics to certain listeners. Although interesting, the theories of these authors are highly speculative and suspect, and as stated by Karen Sullivan in her book The truth and the heretic: crises of knowledge in medieval French literature:

…in recent years, critics have tended to dismiss the possibility of a connection between Catharism and troubadour verse, to the point that two new surveys of medieval Occitan poetry don’t even bother to refute the notion.

Despite the consensus among most scholars that troubadour poetry does not indicate signs of Cathar influence, there are still controversies among some who insist that some troubadours harbored an affinity for the heretical sect, in particular Peire Cardenal. Certain verses in Cardenal’s works denounce and admonish the Catholic clergy – whom he thought to be hypocrites – leading some authors to believe that he was a Cathar sympathizer (since the Cathars were very much opposed to the Catholic church). Cardenal’s disdain for the clergy is illustrated in his poem “Clergues se fan pastors”. The poem reads as follows:Clergue se fan pastors, et son aucizedor, e par de gran sanctor, qui los vei revestirwhich translates to “ecclesiastics pass for shepherds, but they are murderers. Dressed in their robes, they look so holy.

Peire Cardenal of a 13th century Lombard chansonnier. – National Library of France MS French 12473

While Cardenal’s words forcefully express his disapproval of the clergy, they do not necessarily imply that he despised Catholicism as a religion in its entirety. In the book Lark of the morning: The verses of the troubadours, edited by Robert Kehe, the author observes that Cardenal’s poetry – although clearly anticlerical – “sometimes appears more Christian than Cathar”. The author supports this idea by drawing attention to the fact that Cardenal wrote a poem dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom the Cathars did not give the same theological importance as the Catholics.

Although the reputation of the troubadours as poet-musicians is largely linked to their courtly love songs, as seen in their songs of crusade, religion and politics were also important poetic subjects; however, the question of whether these religious subjects involved Cathar themes and symbols has yet to be definitively resolved, paving the way for further scholarly investigation.

Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in musicology at Western University where she studies 18th century French musical exoticism and its relationship to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In addition, she holds an MA in Musicology specializing in late medieval English choral music and York University’s Old Hall Manuscript. In 2019, Sonja presented her article titled Royal Authorship in the Old Room Manuscript: A New Approach to Investigating the Identity and Compositions of Roy Henry at the 9th International Medieval Meeting held at the University of Lleida in Lleida, Spain. This article has been peer reviewed and is being prepared for publication in Spain.

Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass

Further reading:

Barber, Malcolm. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Gaunt, Simon and Sarah Kay, eds. The Troubadours: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kehew, Robert, ed. Morning Lark: Worms of the Troubadours, a bilingual edition. Trans. Ezra Pound, WD Snodgrass and Robert Kehew. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McManners, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sullivan, Karen. The truth and the heretic: crises of knowledge in medieval French literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

This article was first published in The medieval magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top image: British Library MS Additional 62925 f. 48v



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