Though this measure quaint confine me,
And I chip out words and plane them,
They shall yet be true and clear,
When I finally have filed them.
Love glosses and gilds them . . .
Arnaut Daniel, translated by Ezra Pound
The history of culture affords few absolute beginnings, but the temptation to posit them can be irresistible. The notion that there might have been a first vernacular love song is counterintuitive, however: how could there ever have been a time 'before' romantic love? The Greeks and Romans knew all about tragic passion, sophisticated flirtation and sexual farce. But the mode of idealism that posits erotic bliss as the chief source of personal happiness appeared in European history at a particular moment. In most other histories it never appeared at all, except as a bizarre anomaly. For this reason, few cultural origins have been so intensely debated as that of troubadour lyric. This great outpouring from Occitania, or southern France, began in the late 11th century and continued up until the mid-13th, eventually succumbing to the brute force of the Albigensian Crusade. The new erotic culture promulgated by the troubadours was compounded of many elements, among them the emergence of a leisured aristocracy, the sexualising of feudal relations, the patronage of such privileged women as Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Arabic love songs of Spain, echoes of classical and medieval Latin poetry and, not least, the Christian concept of love as sacrifice, service and boundless longing. But the troubadours did not merely theorise love: they and their jongleurs performed their exquisitely crafted lyrics in the courts and towns of France, Italy, Spain and eventually all Europe.
LRB 25 May 2006 | PDF Download