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FR15: The Occitan erotic and troubadour discourse

This paper is available for the academic year 2018-19.

Occitan is the name given to the languages (or dialects) spoken in the southern half of what is now France (including the Limousin, parts of the Poitou, the Auvergne, Toulouse, Languedoc, Gascony, Provence), and including most of Catalunya and areas of what are now Switzerland and Piemonte in Italy. In about 1200, vernacular, (i.e. not Latin) rhymed love lyrics appeared in Occitan and were copied across the European continent. The lyrics of more than 450 poets from the 12th and 13th centuries have survived, comprising more than 2500 songs. As for themes, they are concentrated either in erotic longing, with the woman as the unattainable object, or politics, with frequent criticism of a society (or a gender) that has fallen into decadence. Our readings will cover a range of cansos (love songs), sirventes (political and satirical songs), novas (short tales in Occitan and Catalan), and we will also discuss manuscripts and the transmission of this material. 

There are several mysteries involved in this poetry: a) why is it almost exclusively secular, rather than religious; b) how is it that all of the poets write in the same language rather than in their own particular dialects; c) why is the lady adored and the speaking poet debased; d) why is the imaginative and complicated form of the songs so important, especially since there are no identifiable antecedents for this work; e) why do we continue to rely on these topoi even today in writing our love songs? We will be examining how this poetry appeared, where, why, and how; as well as what it can tell us about regional identity, religious troubles, political antagonism, sexual politics, gender, and intellectual formation. Most importantly, we will be looking at this poetry as part of a discourse that went on to colour European thinking for years to come and represents the first determined effort to extricate poetry from the religious realm (though it is sometimes religious itself) and the control of the Church. Along the way, we will also be learning basic medieval Occitan, not through formal language classes but through the readings of the poems. No prerequisites required but knowledge of another romance language or Latin certainly helps.


Topics include a) the development of a troubadour discourse as a collection of topoi and manners of expression that quickly settle into a body of rules; b) love discourse as a plaint of absence and suffering; c) gender identity as constructed, not fitting with the cultural norms around it; d) Occitan identity as vague and fluid, not constrained particularly by political forces but rather in response to place, language, pleasure, and absence. 

The Section A Comparative topic is:

  • Inventing place, inventing discourse (description above)

Section B individual topics include the works of four poets:

  • Raimbaut de Vaqueiras
  • Jaufré Rudel
  • Arnaut Daniel
  • Bernart de Ventadorn

The following other material will also be covered in lectures and supervisions:

  • Epic
  • Saints’ lives
  • Novas
  • Didactic texts
Preparatory reading: 
  • Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, eds. The Troubadours: an Introduction (CUP, 1999). All of this relevant. 
  • René Nelli and René Lavaud, Les troubadours, 2 vols. (Toulouse: Desclée de Brouwer, 1960). Excellent introduction to the poetry, the saints’ lives, and the epic, et al.
  • William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours: the Occitan model’, The Cambridge History of French Literature, eds. Burgwinkle, Hammond, Wilson (CUP, 2010). Very short introductory piece.
  • Linda Paterson, The World of the Troubadours: medieval Occitan society, c. 1100-c.1300 (CUP, 1993). Very useful on social, political, and cultural background.
  • Daurel et Beton (can be downloaded at:; and also available in the Nelli & Lavaud anthology (see above).
  • Daurel e Beton, ed. Charmaine Lee (Parma: Pratiche, 1991). With notes and translation in Italian.
  • Daurel and Beton, trans. Janet Shirley (Felinfach: Llanerch Publishers, 1997). Trans. into English!
  • Nouvelles occitanes du moyen âge, ed. Jean-Charles Huchet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1992).
  • Troubadour Poems from the South of France, eds. William and Frances Paden, (Woodridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007). In English Translation.
Teaching and learning: 

The paper involves a mix of lectures and seminars, one per week during the Michaelmas and Lent terms, plus 8 supervisions during those same terms (some will be organised as seminar presentations), and 2 revision supervisions in Easter term. Some of the material will be online; some will be in book form, available at the UL or in College libraries; and some will be distributed. 

For the Fr.15 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


The paper is assessed through a three-hour written exam, composed of three sections, each of which will have a selection of essay topics from which you will choose one to write your essay (3 essays in total). Section A consists of broad questions relating to the Special Topic (see above); Section B questions are more specific, and are normally answered with reference to just one or two of the texts studied during the year; Section C offers a selection of passages for commentary. Alternatively, students can choose to submit an Optional Dissertation.

Course Contacts: 
Bill Burgwinkle
Dr Mary Franklin-Brown (from Lent Term 2019)