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History of the Troubadours

The nature and origins of the troubadour repertoire hold a remarkable place in the history of music. Its origins are remarkable because they seem to have burst forth as an already developed form with no antecedents. Its nature is remarkable because its fortunes are so closely linked to the fortunes of its homeland in the south of France, known as Occitania.

The man credited with the genesis of the troubadour tradition is Guilem de Peitieu, 9th Duke of Aquitaine and 7th Count of Poitiers, one of the most powerful feudal lords of his day. He was the inspiration for most later poets who were to follow in the troubadour tradition.

The troubadours were by their nature itinerant performers. They could come from either noble families or common stock, but neither would have an effect on their reputation. There were even female troubadours, called trobairitz, though very little of their music remains to us.

The troubadour tradition was already waning by the time of the Albigensian Crusade, but this turned out to be the death knell. Many of the nobles who had welcomed troubadours in the past were displaced. Some troubadours managed to find their way to the court of Alfonso X, and the trouvères and minnesingers who were both highly influenced by the troubadours continued on, but in Occitania at least, the troubadours were a thing of the past.

Today the poetry of over 1000 troubadour songs remains, over 300 of which still have their musical setting. These are recorded in thirty five manuscripts known as chansoniers.

Poetic Style

There were three styles used by the troubadours for their lyrics, although by the end of the 12th century only the first two remained.


The poetry of the troubadour songs covered many topics, from the profound to the humorous and from war at home to the crusades. However, they are best known for expounding on the theme of fin' amors, or courtly love.

Musical Style

Over the thirty or so troubadour chansonniers that have survived to this day, only four contain music. They are not written in modern musical notation, so much of their style must be inferred. The two song structures used were vers and canso.

Melodic Style

Academic opinion is divided on the nature of troubadour melody. Some claim that the troubadours used the church modes, albeit with some significant deviations, whilst others claim that these deviations prove that the troubadours were not working with the church modes, and that they may not have been using any sort of unified system at all.


The musical notation in the troubadour chansonniers is not metric, meaning that they either performed it without strict timing or that timing must be inferred from elsewhere. Early 20th century interpretations sought to adapt theories on rhythms from the Ars Nova school in Paris. Current theory however supports a non-metric interpretation.


No written accompaniment exists for the troubadour melodies, but both iconographic and written evidence suggests that the troubadours used musical accompaniment. Most modern early music performers base their accompaniments on traditional Arabic styles. Chords are played without thirds, and phrases from the melody are echoed between verses.


Most of the details on the lives of the troubadours come down to us from the vidas. These are a short description of a troubadour and have come down to us in the chansoniers.