Review of John Rutherford’s The Troubadours

The Troubadours: their Loves and their Lyrics. By John Rutherford. Smith, Elder, and Co. Examiner (15 November 1873): 1145-46.

[NOTE: Blind had been interested in the Troubadour poets since the late 1860s, when she read Walter Pater’s discussion of Provençal poetry in his unsigned 1868 Westminster Review essay on the poetry of William Morris. She was especially drawn to the fact that these poems, though “coloured through and through with Christian sentiment,” in Pater’s words, “are rebels against it. . . . Of religion it learns the art of directing towards an imaginary object sentiments whose natural direction is towards objects of sense.”  Like Pater, she emphasizes the extent to which these poems embody the persistence of pre-Christian ideas.: “we . . . find that Pagan civilization had struck such deep root in this genial soil that even in its decay it profoundly affected the alien Christian element which usurped its place.” She also brings a cosmopolitan outlook to her discussion of the influences that nurtured it, noting that a “strong Arab influence . . . may be detected in the literature of the Troubadours,” since the “fierce incessant warfare” between the Moors and the Provençals “made the latter acquainted with the science and art of the Moslems, then far in advance of Christian Europe.” Of Rutherford’s treatment of these materials, Blind has nothing but scorn, asking in dismay “what shall be said in his extenuation for having mangled their Loves and marred their Lyrics?”]

     There are few epochs, perhaps, in the history of literature that more irresistibly charm the imagination than that brilliant development of poetry which, from the end of the eleventh to the end of the thirteenth century, made the name of Provence almost synonymous with that of Song. Song, too, that seemed, as if by magic, to burst on the world in full-grown perfection. In reality, however, many and various had been the causes which silently prepared the country south of Loire to become the native home of mediæval poetry.

     In attempting to trace these back as far as possible, we shall find that Pagan civilization had struck such deep root in this genial soil that even in its decay it profoundly affected the alien Christian element which usurped its place. Thus the Church found no other means of weaning the people from its heathen predilections, while at the same time conciliating its favor, than by transforming the games and dramatic farces (the mutilated remains of the ancient drama) to which it was passionately addicted, into religious spectacles. This was the origin of the Miracle Plays. Many of these pieces, chiefly composed between the ninth and eleventh centuries, are still extant, and they contributed not a little to promote the growth of a popular literature. Besides these dramatic performances, the Provençals delighted in listening to Jongleurs and wandering singers, who were probably in the habit of reciting fragments of epic poetry now unfortunately lost.

     It was not, however, till the enthusiasm kindled by the Crusades had thrilled Christianity from end to end that Provençal poetry emerged in complete artistic form. It was essentially, as Fauriel remarks in his ‘Histoire de la Poèsie Provençale,’ “the expression of chivalrous ideas, feelings, and actions,” which were all stimulated to their utmost in the wars for the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre. And as in chivalry itself the fierce delight in fray and bloodshed went hand in hand with the tenderest reverence for women, thus Provençal poetry seems likewise, broadly speaking, to subdivide itself into the Sirventes and the Canzon, the song of hate and love.

     The Sirventes was especially the medium for expressing feelings of a combative or satirical nature. In it the Troubadour did not scruple to attack, often with astonishing daring, the abuses of the great Church and State. Nor was his keen invective confined to a literary coterie. The wandering minstrel learnt the Sirventes by heart, singing it to eager crowds in the market places, by the fountains of villages, till every tongue became a lash from whose strokes the offender not rarely sought to shelter himself behind the walls of a convent. But this terrible weapon was not merely wielded pro bono publico. In it the Troubadour, often with merciless virulence, attacked his brother poets, and, worst of all, those ladies who had refused to give ear to his suit. Endless stratagems were resorted to by their fair antagonists when apprehensive of such attacks, to extract the Troubadour’s sting, by being beforehand with him in showing him up in a ludicrous light.

     This harsh realism was perhaps a necessary corrective of the transcendental aspirations of which the Canzon, chiefly the expression of high-wrought and ideal love, was the representative. The form of this kind of poetry was of consummate elaboration, both as regards the metrical structure of the stanza and the intricacies of rhyme, each being subject to rules of absolute stringency.

     This naturally leads us to speak of the strong Arab influence which may be detected in the literature of the Troubadours. Provence, at that time comprising not only the south of France, but some of the adjacent portions of the Spanish Peninsula, was brought into close proximity with the Mahommedans, and the fierce incessant warfare kept up between them Moors and Provençal made the latter acquainted with the science and art of the Moslems, then far in advance of Christian Europe. There can be little doubt that he Troubadours learnt from them the use of rhyme and the rhythmical structure of their verse, which was afterwards more or less copied by the other nations of Europe. It seems equally certain that some of the customs most characteristic of the age of Chivalry were generally known in the south of France by Arab appellations.[1]

     More captivating even than their poetry is the gay, varied, romantic existence of the Troubadours themselves. Characters more pregnant with individuality than the valiant Bertram de Born, the gentle Guillem de Cabestaing, or Peire Vidal, as pre-eminent in eccentricity as in genius, are rarely found. Living in a time when the feebleness of public opinion allowed a wide margin for the exuberant play of individuality, these powerful natures developed unchecked, and if they gave loose to their passions in a [1146] manner that is now hardly conceivable, there was a color verve, and full blooded energy about their lives whose fascination it is impossible to resist.

     If we now ask what Mr. Rutherford has made out of materials possessing so much of intrinsic beauty and historical interest, we shall find ourselves obliged to give a very unsatisfactory answer.

     His work does not aim at any scientific classification of his subject, but although he does not attempt to trace the origin and growth of the Langue d’Oc, or of Provençal poetry, surely he ought to have drawn, at least in outline, the religious and political bias of society in which that poetry flourished, and the proximate and eventual causes of its sudden extinction. Admitting, however, that even this was unnecessary for the scheme he had in view—a faithful delineation of the “loves and Lyrics” of the Troubadours—what shall be said in his extenuation for having mangled their Loves and married their Lyrics? Yet that such is the case will be proved by a few extracts from his efforts at biography and narrative.

      We refrain from telling the touching story of Guillem de Cabestaing in Mr. Rutherford’s words, preferring to follow the version of Dr. Franz Hüffer, given in his pamphlet, Ein Trobador des 12. Jahrhunderls, which aims at being a faithful rendering of the story as found in the old manuscript.[2] But in order to show the style in which it has pleased Mr. Rutherford to render Provençal stories, we shall afterwards, though with reluctance, quote some sentences of the version as emphatically his own.

     Guillem, a well-born but impoverished knight and troubadour, was received as page into the household of the wealthy Count Raymon of Roussillon, who had to wife Margarida, the most beautiful woman of her time, justly renowned for her gentle manners and virtuous conduct. The Countess thus brought into daily contact with the gracious ways, words and looks of the poet, was at last irresistibly impelled to ask him,—“Tell me, Guillem, if a lady were to reveal her love to you, would you dare love her in return?” Guillem, who confesses in one of his canzons that he loved Margarida before he had ever beheld her, now made answer,—“Certainly, if I were assured of the sincerity of the lady’s behavior.” Their love for each other after this interview soon grew the all-absorbing passion of their lives, and the rapturous poems which Guillem now composed on his mistress soon revealed the secret to the people of the castle, nor did rumours in time fail to reach the Count of Roussillon himself.

     His suspicions, however were diverted by Guillem, who, on being importuned by the Count to acquaint him with the name of the lady whom he addresses his canzons, informed him at last, in his perplexity, that they were written for love of Agnes, wife of Robert of Tarascon and sister to Margarida. This lady, whom the Troubadour acquainted with his perplexity, did all in her power to foster the delusion in the mind of her brother-in-law, who, relieved of his apprehensions, promised Guillem all the aid in his power to prosper him in his love affair.

     The Count took the first opportunity of informing Margarida of the interesting discovery he had made, which of course, plunged her into the profoundest grief. Having sent for Guillem to upbraid him with his treachery, she learnt what was the true state of the case, but declared that she would not be satisfied till he had composed a poem in which he should make it manifest that he loved none other than her. This Canzon of incomparable sweetness, which has fortunately been preserved, reached the ears of Raymon, who was by it exasperated to fury. Having appointed Guillem to meet him before the gates of his castle, he struck off his head, tore the heart from his bosom, and having had it roasted, it was served at dinner to Margarida. No sooner had she partaken of it than her husband, uplifting Guillem’s gory head before her, inquired whether she had found the heart to taste. Recognizing her lover’s countenance, she made answer that it had been so pleasant to her taste that henceforth she would neither partake of food or drink. Raymon, on hearing this, drew his sword and rushed upon her, when, flying from before him, she fell from a balcony and broke her neck. A thrill of indignation ran through Provence at the tragic fate of the lovers. King Alfonso of Aragon, being told the sad story, came to these parts, made Raymon  prisoner, and destroyed his castles. All true lovers made pilgrimages to the grave of Guillem of Cabestaing and Margarida.

     This story, which exists in various versions, is very characteristic of the manners of the period; but we venture to say that Mr. Rutherford’s may claim that of perfect originality. A few sentences will suffice to prove this:—

     The scene of question-popping, which the romance people appear to think tender in the extreme, we find comic, “There was a page on the watch at the top of the stairs, another stood at teach end of the corridor, and the trustiest of damsels kept the entrance to the chamber. Inside stood a beautiful lady, in magnificent attire and graceful attitude, and by her side was a handsome young man, blushing to the tip of his ears, keeping his eyes fixed on his toes, and seeming sad at a loss what to do with his legs and arms.

     “William,” said the charming Viscountess in the sweetest of voices, “suppose a lady—such as myself—happened to fall in love with you, do you think you could respond to her affection?”

     After many hums and haws, and many trials of the strength of the floor with his toes, the bashful youth managed to reply that he might possibly do the thing of which the lady inquired, provided he were quite sure that there was no intention to jest at his expense.

     “Quite right, replied the Viscountess. “But tell me now, are you really—ah—so—ah—so inexperienced that you cannot distinguish between jest and earnest in such a matter?”

     William said not a word, but he looked as if he really were verdant, even to that extent.

     After this specimen of the author’s manner of handling the loves of the Troubadours, it will hardly be necessary to quote any of his translations of their lyrics, which are throughout defaced by the most intolerable slang.

     Mr. Rutherford devotes much space to the Cours d’Amour, and following in the main Raynouard’s account, describes them as having been recognized tribunals where questions of gallantry were debated and lovers’ quarrels adjusted, and which, although possessing an almost unlimited sway over the noble ladies and knights who appealed to their judgment. Mr. Rutherford seems to not know that the very existence of the Courts of Love during the period of the Troubadours has been seriously called in question by so great an authority as Diez in his ‘Beiträge zur Kenntniss der romantischen Poesie.’ The careful research with which the latter investigated this subject has led him to the conclusion that although the Troubadours were in the habit of mentioning an arbiter or arbitress to whom they would submit a disputed point referring to love or love songs, yet that there is not a single authentic passage in their writings in which a Court of Love as consisting of a president and regular council is mentioned. And he further pleads that he very stringency with which secrecy in these matters was insisted upon is a strong argument against their having been the subject of public debate.

     But be this as it may, it is very evident that Mr. Rutherford’s work on the Troubadours is grievously deficient both as regards its matter and manner of treatment. The fact is, we cannot imagine what reason the author can have had for selecting a subject with which he seems to have no points of contact or of genial sympathy on the one hand nor capability or desire to critically investigate it on the other; and can therefore only account for it by that rage for book making which at present seriously threatens to undermine the respect for the literary profession.



[1]For the contemporary scholarship on this relationship, see Gorton, T.J., “Arabic Influence on the Troubadours: Documents and Directions,” Journal of Arabic Literature 5 (1974): pp. 11-16.

[2]Franz Hüffer (Francis Hueffer), born in Münster, Germany in 1845, studied modern philology and music in London, Paris, Berlin, and Leipzig. He earned a Ph.D. in 1869 from the University of Göttingen for a critical edition of the works of the 12th-century trouadour Guillem de Cabestaing (which Blind cites here). The same year he moved to London in 1869 and became a writer on music; he soon made friends with the painter Ford Madox Brown and his family (he married Brown’s daughter Catherine in 1872). Blind first met him at one of Brown’s weekend salons, and they quickly became friends. Hüffer wrote a number of books on music, most notably Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (1874; reprinted by Cambridge UP, 2009)). He also translated the correspondence of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt into English, and wrote the libretti for several English operas, including Alexander Mackenzie’s Colomba and The Troubadour and Frederic Hymen Cowen’s Sleeping Beauty. He became music critic for the Times (London) in 1877, and in the same year editor of the New Quarterly Magazine (where Blind published her Mary Wollstonecraft essay). He would later become editor of The National Review, where Blind’s essay “The Tale of Tristram and Iseult” would appear. Huefer also twice reviewed Blind’s first volume of poetry, The Prophecy of St. Oran and Others Poems–first in the Pall Mall Gazette (22 August 1881), and then in the 26 October 1881 Times, where he was then serving as head music critic (both were unsigned, but William Michael Rossetti revealed Hueffer’s authorship in a 17 September 1881 diary entry).