J-Term Class Explores the Troubadours – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

J-Term Class Explores the Troubadours

Several students in the J-term course “Troubadours: Songs of Love, War and Redemption in Medieval Southern France,” participated in a Q&A about their studies for the HWS Update. The students major and double major in a variety of subjects, including Dance, Economics, English, French and Francophone studies, International Relations, and Critical Sexuality and Queer Studies.

During winter break, students in the J-term course “Troubadours: Songs of Love, War and Redemption in Medieval Southern France” closely studied the medieval artists who composed lyrics and music in the Occitan language. To study the troubadours, students learned how to pronounce Occitan and understand the language’s meter and form.

Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Courtney Wells, an expert in medieval Francophone and Occitanophone literary cultures, taught the class virtually. He led students through discussions on the history of Occitan culture during the Middle Ages and how troubadour poetry interfaced regularly with the cultural, social and political forces of the time. As Emma Ibbotson ’21 explains, troubadour songs could be great love songs, sermons or propaganda for the Crusades.

“The troubadours practiced the art of trobar,” Wells says. “That is the composition and performance of lyrics and their melodies. In other words, the troubadours’ art was as much musical as it was poetic.” Over the course of the semester, students listened to many recordings of troubadour songs and performed pieces themselves in their virtual Zoom classroom, transporting songs from the Middle Ages into 2021.

The course included a virtual field trip to the Piermont Morgan Library in New York, N.Y., to examine a troubadour songbook and to learn about manuscript making.

In the photograph above, Prof. Miriam Cabré of the Universitat de Girona (Spain) speaks to students about the Catalan troubadours.

Students respond to questions about their coursework.

What did you enjoy most about the course?

Julia Cilano ’23: I enjoyed the course content, group discussions and how every day was different from the last. At first, having three hours of class everyday worried me, but we always did something new with the material and Professor Wells kept us on our toes.

Johanna Golden ’23: This class is Professor Wells’ specialty. He is so passionate about medieval poetry in France.

What is your favorite phrase from a troubadour poem?

Emma Ibbotson ’21: My favorite phrase is from Marcabru’s song titled “The Other Day I Found a Shepherdess” or “L’Autrier Jost’una Sebissa” in the original Occitan. The quote I appreciate is “Gape wide, you fool, and take the road; you waste your wait in the noonday sun!” because it is the first moment we really see an independent and strong female character who does not succumb to the pressures of a man. It’s also humorous in the way she tells him to leave her alone, and who doesn’t appreciate a good sense of humor?

Julia Cilano ’23: The line “gape wide, you fool!” meaning, “go away,” makes me laugh, too!

What was it like to hear the troubadours perform?

Emma Ibbotson ’21: The troubadours are complex and multidimensional. There is disagreement as to who the songs were for (the elite or the common people), and the audiences depended greatly on the period and the style of song. The Canso or “love song” was designed to be sung to one noble lady, where some of the latter sirventès (“laments”) were meant to be sung as a sort of sermon to the public, acting as a type of propaganda for the Crusades. 

What social constructs did the troubadours break down?

Peter Burke ’21: The troubadours normalized vernacular forms of expression and broke free from the strict elitist use of Latin. Their poetry addressed politics, religion and love. Their work made people understand that there is freedom in expression, and that they shouldn’t feel weighed down by the colloquial guidelines and strict rule of religious authority.

Who is a modern day troubadour?

Emma Ibbotson ’21: It depends on which aspects of troubadour life you focus on. There is no documentation of any instrumentation used by the original troubadours, and although some troubadours were poor wanderers, many were knights and noblemen themselves. Many people consider Bob Dylan to be a type of modern troubadour.

Johanna Golden ’23: People often call Bob Dylan the “modern troubadour” because of his literary lyricism that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. For my final project, I compared Dylan’s lyrics to poems by the troubadours.

Peter Burke ‘21: I agree. A modern Troubadour is someone like Bob Dylan, creating everyday music out of normal words but when analyzed closer, there is a lot of social commentary and depth entwined into his lyrics.

Julia Cilano ’23: There is a concept in troubadour poetry called amor de lonh, or ‘far away love,’ that is a perfect, distant and unattainable love. We first read about amor de lonh in a poem called “When days grow long in May” by Jaufre Rudel, and I thought that the theme of amor de lonh was prevalent in the contemporary song “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s. For my final project, I made a manuscript of the song similar to medieval manuscripts.

In the photograph above, Wells teaches “Troubadours: Songs of Love, War and Redemption in Medieval Southern France” from his office in Smith Hall.