Bernart de Ventadorn: Uncommon Courtoisie (From Occitan)

Today's guest of honor is the Felonious Monk: the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn. Because when else do I have an excuse to quote from both Eminem and the Latin Bible in the same post?

Bernart has become a posthumous paragon of the amorous troubadour. His prolific work is attested in the form of 44 extant lyrics, mostly canços, of which 18 retain musical notation. But his contemporary reputation rests mostly on a literary fiction fabulated by the authors, medieval and modern, of his vida.

The best way to introduce Bernart is to begin not with what we know of him, but what we don't know. We do not know what century he died in. We do not know which women he did or didn't fall in love with. We do not know if he was a commoner or an homme de qualité. We do not know that all of the lyrics attributed to him are his compositions.

Very little can be known for certain of Bernart's life or background, and evidence from his compositions is often ambiguous, beyond generalities such as the courtly environments he operated in. The first mention of him by someone else is in a satire by Peire d'Alvernhe dated to the 1170s:

E'l terts, Bernarts de Ventadorn,
Qu'es menre de Bornelh un dorn!
En son paire ac bon sirvent
Per traire amb arc nanal d'alborn,
E sa maire escaldava'l forn
Et amassava l'isserment.

(The third, Bernart of Ventadorn, is smaller by a hand than Bornelh. His father was a good servant who  bore the laburnum bow, and his mother heated the oven and bundled up vineshoots. )

This has often been used as evidence of Bernart's humble origins. It should not be. Peire's poem is a  catalogue of barbs directed at other troubadours, each verse roasting a different singer. One ought not to take the statement at face value, anymore than if Peire had claimed Bernart's mother was a hamster and that his father smelled of elderberries. We don't recognize the joke right away, probably because the context necessary to fully get it has been lost. But this is something like a 12th century courtier's equivalent of saying that Bernart's mamma was so stupid that she stood out on a street corner with a bag of potato chips yelling "free lays" till a truck-driver knocked her up with Bernart.

All that can be known of Bernart from Peire's satire is that Peire knew of Bernart's existence, that songs attributed to Bernart were in circulation, and that the toponym of Ventadorn was associated with him. (The land of Ventadorn figures prominently in two poems of Bernart's, in which is own given name does not appear.) This latter fact should already make one question the idea of humble origins.

Over the past few hundred years or so, many have taken Bernart to have been a commoner, based not only on Peire's satiric jab, but also on his self-portrayal in his songs. But troubadours generally operate as unreliable narrators, in order to fit the conventions of their lyric universe. Stylized self-abasement is also a common feature of courtly lyric in feudal, monarchic or autocratic societies where the beneficiary of a poet's praise tends, first by definition and then by tradition, to be a person in or close to power. This is as true of medieval Europe as it is of medieval China or medieval Persia.

A singer's self-portrayal is only that. In illustration of this point, the following is taken from a tenso between two cantadors who go by the senhals of "Dr Dre" and "Slim Shady." At one point Slim Shady gives this self-portrayal:

One day I was walking by
With a Walkman on, when I caught a guy
Give me an awkward eye
And I strangled him up in the parking lot with his Karl Kani
I don't give a fuck if it's dark or not
I'm harder than me tryin' to park a Dodge
When I'm drunk as fuck
Right next to a humongous truck in a two-car garage
Hoppin' out with two broken legs, trying to walk it off

Fuck you too, bitch! Call the cops!
I'ma kill you and them loud-ass motherfuckin' barking dogs
And when the cops came through
Me and Dre stood next to a burnt down house
With a can full of gas and a hand full of matches
And still weren't found out

So from here on out, it's the Chronic II
Starting today and tomorrow's anew
And I'm still loco enough
To choke you to death with a Charleston Chew
Slim Shady, hotter than a set of twin babies
In a Mercedes Benz with the windows up
When the temp goes up to the mid-80s
Callin' men ladies, sorry, Doc, but I been crazy
There's no way that you can save me
It's okay, go with him, Hailie!

From this, one could comfortably deduce, based on the reference to a Walkman, that this passage either dates to the 1990s or is meant to evoke the decade. That's it. Lacking context, a historian from the distant future might conclude that the cantaire who goes by the senhal of Slim Shady was actually a sociopathic arsonist who confessed to some of his crimes in verse. Yet the same historian might well never guess, correctly, that "Hailie" is the name of this singer's real-world daughter. Point being: the relationship of song to reality is not transparent. As much as anything it depends on audience expectations and on how the singer wishes to react to those expectations.

Bernart does seem to imply in one lyric that he learned the art of songcraft from an Eble, presumably also of Ventadorn. He claims to aspire to the standards of the "School of Eblon." There is independent evidence for this. Eble II (known also as "Ebolus Cantator") the legendary rival of Guilhem de Peitieus, was indeed known for his love of song, and his songs of love (which have probably not survived.) The Chronicon Gaufredi Vosiensis remarks on it, and Marcabru roundly abuses him for it. Eble II might be the same Eble that Bernart implies he learned from. But he could just as well have learned from his son, Eble III. 

On the other hand, the intimations of humble origin found in Bernart's songs are probably more generic than post-romantic readers would like to believe. The scholarly consensus that Bernart was active in the early-to-mid 12th century is also quite fragile. More so than most have been willing to admit.

Nothing can be said with certainty, but William Paden's article questioning the traditional dating of Bernart's activity offers a possibility that I find both intriguing and compelling. Namely, that Bernart the Troubadour was the son not of a lowly baker but of a lordly viscount. We know at the very least that there was a Bernart of Ventadorn, son of Eble III of Ventadorn. This Bernart, first attested in a Tulle donation charter in 1214, became a monk and then an abbot of Tulle, before dying in 1234. (Bernard appears to have been a popular family name among the viscounts of Ventadorn, and was used for a few other members of that line in previous and succeeding generations.)

In any case, when it comes to a phenomenon as courtly as trobadoristry, one should as a rule look to old and established noble families before looking either to the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick-maker. Let alone taking a comedian's "Yo Mamma" joke literally.

What to make of a monk and subsequent abbot writing (or, at least, having written) the sort of songs attributed to Bernart the Troubadour? It would put the singer's floruit a generation later than has generally been thought, which may upset some scholars, or at least some applecarts. But, apart from that, the answer is: probably not much. By the time he is mentioned in the Tulle monastic records, Bernart must have been in his late 50s at least, and one is free to speculate about what he was up to before then. More importantly, taking monastic vows in the 12th and 13th centuries didn't mean quite the same thing then that it does today. It was not an uncommon thing for noblemen to do, especially if the family lands lay in the hands of an older brother. In any case, two centuries later, His Holiness Pope Pius II would die leaving behind a body of obscene poetry, a pornographic novel, and a number of illegitimate children. It would be best to spare the Right Reverend Bernardus our anachronistic incredulities. Though I reserve the right, on cosmic principle, to give him the posthumous senhal of Monge Felho "Felonious Monk."

I decided to write this introduction in English alone this time, rather than the Occitan prefacing my translation of Guilhèm de Peitieus' Ab La Dolchor. Because that was a stupid way to introduce a translation. As a matter of principle, I do continue to write textual notes in Modern Occitan, as those are of little use to anyone who does not have some familiarity with Old Occitan. But my translation notes, meant for readers who may only know English, are in that language.

Uncommon Courtoisie
By Bernart de Ventadorn
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Now, singing hardly can be strong
Unless the chords move in the heart
But heartstrings make no moving song
Unless good loving plays its part.
My singing is the head of art
Since in love's joy I have consigned
My eyes and mouth, my heart and mind. 

God, don't grant me serenity
To quit jonesing for love, I say.
Even if that love eluded me
And left me more ill every day,
I'd still have a good heart that way.
It gives me greater happiness
To have a heart and hope for Yes.

They rag on love in ignorance.
It does no harm, but they reprove.
Dumb folk! There is no decadence 
Save in the cheapest vulgar love.
And that's not love, with nothing of
The real thing but the form and name,
That does not give without a gain.

Now to be frank here, I can say
Where the deception starts and why:
It starts with girls who love for pay,
Who whore it up for men who buy.
I wish this were a dirty lie,
But I am candidly uncouth.
I hate that I am speaking truth. 

The love of two good lovers lies
In pleasing and in yearning's thrill
From which no good thing will arise
Unless they match each other's will
The man was born an imbecile
Who scolds her for her preference
Or bids her do what she resents.

I've set my high hopes well indeed 
As she has turned her smile to me
Loyal and good, sincere and sweet,
The one I want, and want to see.
A king's redemption she could be,
With such a body, face and grace.
I was nothing. She made me great.  

I fear no thing, love nothing more,
And not a thing can burden me
If it please Her whom I adore.
It is like God's Nativity
Each day Milady lays on me
Her moving spirit eyes, to gaze
So slow that one day lasts for days

song is natural and true
A good man understands its turn
A great man waits for Joy's return

So does Bernart of Ventadorn
Know, say, and wait for Joy in turn.
Uṉs Chants Qui Mòu Dins La Cort 
Bernat de Ventadorn

Chantars noṉ pòt gaires valer
si dins del còr noṉ mòu lo chants;
ni chants noṉ pòt dal còr mover
si no·i es fin' amors corals.
Per çò es mos chantars cabals
qu'en jòi d'amor ai et entend
la boch' e·ls uòlhs e·l còr e·l sent.

Ja Déus no·m don' aquell poder
que d'amor no·m prenda talants;
si ja reṉ no·n sabí' aver
mas chascuṉ jorn m'en venguès mals,
totz temps n'aurai boṉ còr sivals;
e n'ai molt mais de jauziment
car n'ai boṉ còr e m'i atend.

Amor blasmen per noṉ-saber,
fòla gents, mas lei noṉ n'es dants;
qu'amors noṉ pòt ges dechazer
si non es amors comunals.
Aquò non es amor; aitals
noṉ n'a mais lo nom e·l parvent,
que res non ama si noṉ prend.

S'ièu en volguès dire lo ver
ièu sai beṉ de cui mòu l'engants;
d'aquellas qu'amon per aver,
e son marchazandas venals.
Mensongièrs en fos ièu e fals!
Vertat en dic vilanament,
e pesa me car ièu noṉ ment.

En agradar et en voler
es l'amors de dos fiṉs amants;
nulha res no·i pòt proṉ tener
se·l volontatz non es egals.
E cell es beṉ fols naturals
qui de çò que vòl la reprend
e·ilh lauza çò qu no·ilh es gent

Molt ai beṉ mes moṉ bon esper
quand cella·m mostra bèlls semblants
qu'ièu plus desir e vuòlh vezer,
franch' e dolça, fin' e leials,
en cui lo reis sería sals.
Bèll' e conhd' amb còrs covinent,
m'a fach ric ome de nïent.

Reṉ mais non am ne sai temer,
ne ja res no·m serí' afants
sol midons venguès a plaser,
qu'aquells jorns me sembla Nadals
qu'amb sos bèlls uòlhs esperitals
m'esgarda - mais çò fai tant lent
qu'uṉs sols días me dura cent.

Lo vèrs es fiṉs e naturals,
e boṉs cellui qui beṉ l'entend;
e mièlher es que·l jòi atend.

Bernartz de Ventadorn l'entend,
e·l di e·l fai, e·l jòi n'atend!

Translation Notes:

Line 1-7: The original uses wordplay as well, though there it involves the heart as analogue for a church choir.

Line 46: The original simply says "that day seems Christmas to me." I avoided the word "Christmas" because its connotations in modern English made it wholly unsuitable. When we say "each day was like Christmas" or "it was like Christmas" in English, we generally have in mind a profusion of gifts. But the line actually has nothing to do with gift-giving, which was not, and to a degree still is not, a Christmas tradition in France. (Traditionally, children received gifts on December 6th, Saint Nicholas' Day. Adults exchanged gifts on New Years Day.)
Rather, for Bernart, Christmas is cause for rejoicing because it is the day when, according to Christian mythology, God made Himself human. Christmas evokes, and invokes, the divinity condescending into flesh.
What to make of this is best left up to the reader. Personally, my sense is that Bernart's connection to his Lady thus enacts a meeting of heaven and earth, of the profane and the sacred, of the carnal and the cosmic. (And a century later I can imagine Hafiz going "now THATS what I'm talking about!") Is the Lady the carnal vessel of the Sacred, like the Blessed Virgin? Or is there yet another level on which sacred and profane merge in the paradox of a woman who stands lordly in persona Christi?
I cannot help hearing in this poem the faintest of twists on the Gospel of John. John has the spiritual sons of God who neque ex voluntate carnis, neque ex voluntate viri, sed ex Deo nati sunt (are born not by will of the flesh nor by will of man, but of God.) For Bernart, the voluntat (line 32) "will, desire" is carnal and spiritual at once. Verbum caro factum est.
This shouldn't be taken to mean that this is a purely "spiritual" love. Most courtly love in the 12th and 13th century had a quite carnal aspect to it, whatever was going on in people's heads. 

Nòtas textualas:

1-7: Se tracta d'un calambor perlongat. Per còr lo sens de "organ dins lo còs" e lo de "grop de cantadors, lòc dins una glèsia ont se tròban los cantadors" son ambedós relevants. Idem pel tèrme derivat c(h)oral. A notar tanben l'antitèsi parallèl qu'efectua lo poèta per la juxtapausicion de cabal (<- cap) amb coral (<- còr). Pel que fa a cabal, soi pas segur se lo sens de "bens, proprietat" es relevant. Mas probablament pas.

18: Comunal vòl dire aici "non refinat, plebèu, banal." Cf. lo sens modèrne de "vulgar."

40: Me sembla pauc probable que lo reis aici se referisca a un monarca especific.

42: M'a fait ric ome. Es possible, e mai probable, que "ric" aici vòl dire quicòm coma "poderós" puslèu que lo sens modèrne de l'etime. Voliài lo revirar coma "rich" en anglés per de rasons purament artisticas, mas aquò me semblava un pauc excessiu.  

47: L'adjectiu esperital dona plusors senses aici, tals coma "espiritós", "espiritual", "expressiu" e  "inspirant."

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