Courts of Love, Castles of Hate: Troubadours & Trobairitz in Southern France 1071-1321 by Aubrey Burl

The time period in question — 1071-1321, as the book’s title states — was a time of great upheaval.  Kings and nobles vied for power and status.  England and France were at war more often than not.  The Crusades were a part of the culture, which included the Albigensian Crusade wherein the Catholic Church sent forth the Inquisition to stamp out the Cathar heresy.  As brutal as people were, there was a concept gaining popularity in the upper echelons of society known as courtly love: chivalry, by any other name.

The concept of courtly love wasn’t just for knights.  For two and a half centuries, the troubadours and the trobairitz (female troubadours) combined the ideals of a knight with poetry and music in a cultural firestorm that spread from Southern France across the whole of Europe.  But who were these bards, really?

The author outlines the basic history of the time period in question and overall attempts to offer a more complete look at this particular subject than I’ve seen in a great many other sources.  The bulk of the book deals with biographies and extant legends of some of the troubadours we know about.  Their lives and the translated lyrics to their songs and poems are offered in context against the backdrop of combat, both political and religious.  The appendices for the book provide resources for further exploration, from CD recordings to more information regarding specific pieces of music.

For the ever-curious medievalist like myself, this book is a public service.  It’s less of a scholarly beatdown than other books on Early Music I’ve acquired, which is to say I had little problem wrapping my head around the material.  Its focus is history and biography rather than music theory.  In short, I’m in my natural element there.  Narrowing the scope of the book to this particular subject and time period means, obviously, more focus and expansion than a larger overview on the music of the Middle Ages can provide.  It is also, sadly, in need of an editor as the enthusiasm the author put into this has overtaken the presentation.  Readers may also want to keep their Wiki-scholar credentials polished, as the author readily assumes the reader is more familiar with names, places, and events, than the average enthusiast might be able to claim.  If you’re willing to do a little work and meet the author halfway, the book will be far more enlightening.  An appreciation of history and poetry will carry the reader the rest of the way through.

4 stars

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