Peire Cardenal: Advice to Frederick of Sicily (From Occitan)

After Marcabru's Crusade song, let us head to the lavador of an anti-war Troubadour. Here we have Peire's solemn reaction to a boast-poem by Bertran de Born.

First let me say a bit about Bertran's poem, which I'm not translating because I don't hate myself enough to do that. Bertran de Born was lord of Autafòrt which he held jointly with his brother Constantin. In 1182 he joined King Enric II's revolt against his brother Ricard Còr de Leon, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitania. Constantin took Ricard's side, and Bertran drove him out of Autafòrt. In 1183 in the aftermath of the revolt, Ricard besieged Autafòrt, captured it and gave it to Bertran's brother Constantin who had sided with him. Enric II however returned it to Bertran, and Ricard confirmed his father's grant. Bertran gloated and boasted in his poem of having snatched Autafort back by legal chicanery from his brother, and expressed gratitude for Enric II's willingness to suspend Ricard's law to this end. Bertran — as was his way — also beautified war in the poem, and its implements, saying things like "Qu'amb aiço·m conòrt / e·m tenh a depòrt / guèrra e tornei" (I take comfort and have a lot of fun in war and tourneying) and "patz no·m fai conòrt./ Amb guèrra m'acòrt/ qu'ièu non tenh ni crei/ neguna autra lei."  (Peace doesn't put me at peace. I'm in synch with war, for I do not keep or hold to any other law.) It ends with the words "No·m cal d'Autafòrt/ mais far drech ni tòrt / que·l jutgament crei / mon senhor lo rei." (I don't give a hoot any more about doing right or wrong over Autafort, for I believe in the judgment of Milord the king.)

In 1212 Pèire Cardenal wrote the song translated here, in the same meter and rhyme pattern as Bertran's, as an appeal to Frederick the Great of Sicily (candidate for, and soon to be, Holy Roman Emperor) in which he rejected Bertran's bellicosity, and took France to task on several counts — even roping in the heroes of French epic legend like Roland, and old Frankish kings like Charles the Hammer (grandfather of Charlemagne), as well as the Burgundian Chief Girard of Roussillon.

I've known for a while that, at some point in my series of translations from Occitan, I was going to have to discuss the Occitan War (also badly and commonly known as the Albigensian Crusade). Since this poem was written during that war by a man probably privy to details of the front line as they reached the Tolosan court, it looks like that point is here and now.

Like the Battle of Roncesvaux, a minor skirmish between one of Charlemagne's vassals and some Basque guerrillas which was magnified to literally epic proportions in French and Italian literature, the Occitan War is far more important in retrospect and as a memory than anything else. Understanding the Occitan War is a bit like understanding Michael Jackson in his later years. It is best to forget everything you thought you knew.

Here are a few things the Occitan War was not.

The Occitan War was not the the main (or even a secondary) cause for the decline of Troubadour literature, contrary to popular belief and defunct scholarly opinion. Then as now, the Midi was a big place. Toulouse actually witnessed a population boom afterward, and troubadour culture if anything grew more vibrant and varied than it had been before, perhaps precisely because the status of the troubadours as a social class was much changed.

The Occitan War was also not remarkably brutal. Though terrible and destructive, as war is almost by definition, it was not unusually so. In fact as Medieval European wars go, it was more or less par for the course.

Nor was the Occitan War at all genocidal. Comparisons by modern Occitan nationalists to what was done to American Indians are a tactless fantasy.

So much the Occitan War was not. Here is what it was. It was a major blow to the political autonomy of Occitanian lords and barons, and thus may be seen in retrospect as the first stage of a long process which made a nation of France and a region of Occitania. Before the French Revolution, that process was largely unplanned. Nobody, not even the French King, in the 1200s had any idea or intent that Occitania would become culturally French, let alone linguistically.

The Occitan War was also unprecedented from the perspective of Occitanians. While similar (and indeed far worse) wars had been, and would be, waged throughout the European Middle Ages, the people of Occitania had neither seen nor possessed any historical memory of this scale of violence on their own soil. For well over a century, the Midi had been relatively placid, all told, compared to the wars that had raged to its north and south. The sort of war-making hymned by Bertran de Born in the 12th century over Autafort, though more destructive than war had been in the previous century, was relatively mild, compared to much medieval warfare. (And to a time-traveler who had seen the technologized mass-combat of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it might not even feel like "real" war at all so much as a glorified gangfight.) The worst of war that Occitanians had then seen was when they traveled elsewhere, whether on crusade or for some other reason. And commoners seldom traveled.

It is not unlike how Americans perceive 9/11 which was, all told, not especially remarkable either in its tactics or in its body-count. The world had seen, and some parts of it were seeing, far worse than that. But 9/11 was unexpected and unprecedented and shocking for Americans, who had not seen large-scale organized terrorism, nor in fact any act of war, on mainland soil for almost a century and a half. I can say that it completely changed the trajectory of my life, as an American. (For one, were it not for 9/11, I would probably not know Arabic.) The Occitan War had a similar psychological effect on Occitanians, both while it happened and in its aftermath.

In this poem, mention of Simon de Montfort and Picards evokes Montfort's army (containing quite a lot of peasant soldiers from Picardy) which had massacred men at Béziers three years earlier, followed by a number of other acts of cruelty as part of what may have been a deliberate policy of terrorism. Peire was present at Count Raimón's court in Toulouse during the Occitan war, and would have been privy to developments on the front line as they reached the court. At the time of this song's writing, in late 1212, Count Raimón had lost control over most of his former territory. When Peire says "The Count of Montfort" in this poem, one must understand that he was talking about someone he had reason to be terrified of.

The impression I get is that Peire has in mind a takeaway something like this: "Fuck the French. No, seriously. Don't look to the damn Frogs as an example to follow. They're a barbaric, bellicose people who just like singing of war and making war. Believe me, I know. Those Frenches just love to sing war-epics about people like Roland on campaigns in the Midi. And then they come at Milord Raimón with people like Simon. And what was that asshole Bertran de Born thinking, glorifying war like that? This shit is not glorious. He didn't know what the hell he was talking about back then."

Peire, in rejecting Frenchmen as lords, is also obliquely advising Frederick not to become a pawn of Philip Augustus of France, on whose support Frederick was depending. Longobards and Lombards are here to be taken as northern and southern Italians. Sicilians are mentioned in reference to Frederick's home kingdom.

He ends with the common warning of what the hereafter entails for one who puts all their effort into worldly acquisition and none into kindness. Given that Frederick II seems to have cared for religion scarcely more than I do, I can't imagine this played as well with Frederick as Peire's trashing of the French as cheese-eating murdermonkeys.

Fear the Gallos 
By Peire Cardenal 
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I take for fools the Longobards 
Sicilians, Germans and Lombards  
If they want Frenchmen or Picards  
For lords or friends or bodyguards. 
  They murder and they maim 
  And take it as a game.
  And I will praise no liege
  Who does not keep the peace.

A liege would need good men to start, 
A harder strike than Roland's hand, 
Have cunning to outfox Reynart 
And gold to outbid Corbaran,  
  And fear death less in war
  Than Simon de Monfort,
  Before all acquiesce
  To him in sheer duress.

And know you what will be his share 
Of plundering war and bloody rain?  
The danger, anguish and the fear 
He causes. Torment, grief and pain 
  Will be his destiny.
  I warn His Majesty
  That in the tourney lies
  Only that heavy prize.

Man, small worth are your wit and skills  
If you lose your soul for an heir,  
Or burn in frying someone else   
When their deathrest is your despair, 
  Thus you reach a threshold
  Where all who pass must hold
  The weight of their intrigues
  And lies and heinous deeds.

Not Charles the Hammer nor Girart 
Not Agolant nor Marsilen  
Not King Gormond nor Isembart 
Managed to kill so many men  
  On earth that what they got
  Was worth a garden-spot
  I truly envy none
  Of all that wealth they won.

  I believe everyone
  After his death holds none
  Of all the wealth he's won,
  Only what he has done.
Per Fols Tenc Polhes 
Peire Cardenal 

Per fòls tenc Polhes e Lombarts 
E Longobarts et Alamands 
Si vòlon Francés ni Picarts 
A senhors ni a drogomans, 
 Car murtrir a tòrt
 Tenon a depòrt,
 E ièu noṉ lau rei
 Qui noṉ garda lei.

Et aura·lh òps boṉs estendarts 
E que fèra mièlhs que Rolands 
E que sapcha mais que Rainarts  
Et aia mais que Corbarans 
 E tema mens mòrt 
 Que·l coms de Monfòrt, 
 Si vòl qu'amb barrei
 Lo monds li soplei.

E sabetz qual sera sa parts 
De las guèrras e dels masans 
Lo cels e·l paors e·l regarts 
Qu'el aura fach e·l dòls e·l dans 
 Seran sieu per sòrt!
 D'aitant lo conòrt
 Qu'amb aital charrei
 Vendra del tornei.

Om, petit val tos sens ni t'arts 
Si perts t'arma per tos enfans, 
Per l'altrui carbonada t'arts 
E l'altrui repaus t'es afans: 
 Puòis vas a tal pòrt
 Ont cre qu'us quecs pòrt
 L'engan e·l trafei
 E·ls tòrts fachs que fei.

Anc Carles Martèlls ni Girartz  
Ni Marsilis ni Agolants 
Ni·l reis Gormons ni Isembartz  
Non aucisèron d'omes tants 
 Que n'aion estòrt
 Lo valent d'un òrt,
 Ni noṉ lor en vei
 Aver ni arnei.

 Noṉ cre qu'a la mòrt
 Neguṉs plus en pòrt
 Aver ni arnei
 Mas los fachs que fei.

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