Troubadours, medieval erotica and the myth of a national language

Bill Burgwinkle

Prof Bill Burgwinkle studies Occitan culture, the parallels between saints' images and pornography, and the movement of manuscripts across Europe in the Middle Ages.

The troubadours of Occitan

Bill is best known for his work on Occitan Literature in the 12th and 13th centuries. Occitan was the language of what is now the south of France.

"If you imagine cutting France in half, then the southern half spoke a language which is very close to modern Catalan, In fact, at the time Catalan and Occitan were basically the same language."

A troubadour

A troubadour (from a 13th century manuscript)

Troubadours were travelling songwriters who emerged in the early 12th century from the Occitan region. Their influence spread rapidly throughout Europe. "Within about 50 years there were Northern French, German, Italian, Catalan and Portuguese poets all writing songs that were sometimes just translations of troubadour songs."

Bill argues that the troubadour influence on European culture has been overlooked, partly because of centuries of oppression. Successive kings based in Paris set about conquering the provinces of what is now France to create a single kingdom.

"The French state, especially after the Revolution, wanted to see France as a unified country and made it illegal to speak Occitan. It wasn't until 1981 they were allowed to have radio stations that could play music in Occitan."

UNESCO now classify Occitan as a 'severely endangered' language. Bill is working to reveal the importance of Occitan culture, and sees the influences of troubadours today. "These are the first vernacular, erotic lyrics in the West", he says, "and it is not surprising that many of the songs we hear on the radio today sound just like the lyrics of troubadour songs.

"We don't know much about how these composers (including some women) got by on their music and poetry but many were also clerks, political commentators or even monks, and they often worked as well as compilers of literary and historical material, or as musicians and performers."

Pornography of the Middle Ages

Thirteenth and fourteenth century illustrations of the saints is another line of Bill's research. "There were a lot of illustrations of saints at the time", he explains, "but they don't get much attention because they precede the Italian Renaissance".

St Agatha having her breasts cut off

St Agatha of Catania having her breasts cut off

They were also seen by very few people. "A lot of them were done for very wealthy patrons because they were incredibly expensive books. To get a manuscript the size of the one we're talking about you'd have to kill about 100 sheep or cattle. "

Most of the patrons seem to have been secular. "They could have been wealthy people who are sincerely religious or are just scared of dying, and their priests have said 'Spend an hour or two communing with the saints'. They'd look at these pictures, and read the life of the saint if they were literate."

The images depict saints being martyred or getting their tongues and eyeballs cut out or, in the case of St Agatha, getting her breasts cut off. "There's a gruesome element to all this", says Bill, "that I've tried to argue is also erotic and part of what we could call the pornographic.

"They show how people suffered for their faith but at the same time you're seeing tons of nude bodies, which must have had a huge charge in that period because there weren't images of naked bodies, and women dressed more or less like nuns."

French as an international language

A new project Bill has started looks at how manuscripts such as these travelled around Europe in the Middle Ages. It is a joint project with UCL and King's College London.

"A manuscript didn't remain in one place once it was made. It was almost always taken places. If you go back 1000 years a manuscript might have travelled quite a bit and what we're trying to do is follow where the big centres were for the production but also the consumption of manuscripts."

London circa 1450

London, circa 1450

The project will make explicit parallels with the modern period. "Boundaries were very fluid at that time. People moved very freely around the European continent, just as they do now."

The project will challenge the idea that a language belongs to a nation. "One of the arguments we're making is that French at that period did not actually belong to France because there was no such thing as France. There's a smallish kingdom around Paris, and there are semi-independent counties and duchies, which are speaking varieties of French. The south of France didn't speak French at all."

The earliest French literature was produced in England, and much French literature was written in Naples and the Crusader port of Acre (now Akko in Israel).

But historians in the nineteenth century categorised literature by the language it was written in, and attributed it to the modern state where that language predominated. "French Literature came to mean stuff that's in French," Bill explains, "and because it was in French then it meant it was produced in France, which is simply not true."

According to Bill, "Whether it's politics, art, literature or philosophy, the roots of the modern world are right there in the learning, architecture, stories and institutions of the Middle Ages."

September 2014

Prof Bill Burgwinkle is Professor of Medieval French and Occitan Literature at the University's Department of French. His interest in French began in high school. He enjoyed studying the language and despite not having travelled out of New England before, he took the opportunity to live for a school term in France. It was in this term he first learned about troubadours.

After doing a degree and teaching for a few years in schools, he won funding to do a PhD at Stanford University on troubadours. It was little-studied area in Stanford at the time, and he struggled to find an appropriate supervisor. At Cambridge he has found a place where there is a longer tradition of studying Occitan and Medieval French. For a list of his publications see his department web page. There is also a Wikipedia page about Bill.

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