The poetry of the 14th century

The poetry of the 14th century

The poetry of the 14th century is not usually described as troubadour poetry for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was not normally copied into troubadour songbooks, and in Italy, where most of the songbooks were compiled, a new poetic tradition had emerged, with troubadour roots but already well differentiated. This was known as Dolce stil nuovo ('sweet new style') from Dante's Commedia. In Occitania and especially in the Crown of Aragon, on the other hand, we can still call the poetry being written there as troubadouresque.

Troubadour poetry certainly evolved from its original form, and the poetry of the first half of the 14th century descends directly from the development we see in the second half of the 13th century, which we can call late troubadour poetry. What were the characteristics of this evolution? Mainly, it reflects the changes in society and the interests of new readers. The aristocratic courts, like the royal court of the Crown of Aragon, continue to be the main focus of production and diffusion of this poetry, but we now start to see evidence of this poetry in new spaces: monasteries, professional guilds in France, and the Consistori ('poetry academy') in Languedoc and Barcelona. The language of courtly love persists and is still a central theme, as is politics, duly updated to the current situation, but other interests now come into play.

Joan de Castellnou’s reversible Canso in the cançoner Sg (Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, 146, f. 100v)

For example, we find there echoes of a new spirituality, focused above all on the figure of the Virgin, that had become widespread in the West thanks to the influence of St Bernard and the mendicant orders. The Virgin assumed an ever more prominent role in the songs, alongside praise of aristocratic women. And one of the characteristics of 14th-century poetry is in fact ambiguity: the Virgin is described using the same terms and erotic metaphors as in the fin'amors, and the woman is characterised as having the same divine attributes as the Mother of God to such an extent that the boundary between the two becomes blurred. The ambiguity is deliberate, and related to the taste for double meanings, so the same piece can be interpreted in different ways, thereby enriching the reading experience. Thus, for example, a song by Ramon de Cornet which appears to be a traditional poem in praise of the Virgin is at the same time a lunar calendar. And perhaps the example par excellence of this is Joan de Castellnou's reversible song composed in such a way that if it is read from left to right, it is a poem in praise of a lady, whereas if it is read from right to left, it is the opposite: a bitter invective against the lady.

This double reading gives rise to a completely new genre of troubadour poetry at the end of the 13th century and beginning of the 14th: the gloss. Only a few tantalising examples have survived: they are a kind of textual commentary that reveal a hidden reading, often with an allegorical key, or that offer a critical analysis. This practice is closely connected to another equally important phenomenon, widespread in the West in the 13th century: the emergence of universities. One of the subjects taught at university, dialectics, appears clearly in some poetic debates. Poetic forms that were vehicles for debate or controversy, such as tençons and partiments, already existed but they now became increasingly popular, and gradually started to introduce a range of technical terms and compositional norms similar to those found in scholastic disputationes, such as the quaestio. These debates centred on the key dilemmas of the time: for example, those that took place in the late 13th century in the milieu of Count Enric II of Rodez were about largueza ('generosity') and pretz ('honour' or 'reputation'). As we move into the early 14th century, the debates switch to issues such as poverty or the start of the 100 Years War, hot topics of the times. Poets vied with one another to show off their dialectic skills, and to establish who was the most convincing. Rhetorical skills were also important in this respect, because poets had to be able to argue their stance within the confines of a melodic, metric, and rhythmic formula imposed by their rival. At the end the victor was announced in a judgement by a third party.


Universities also affect the conception of poetry, which is increasingly understood as knowledge, as a science. The practice of writing troubadour poetry, of composing verse, is seen as a valuable tool for sharpening wits and maintaining an alert —rather than an idle— mind. For this reason, another new development of the 13th century, which proliferates in the 14th, is the production of poetic manuals. The first grammar in the vernacular is Ramon Vidal de Besalú's Razos de trobar ('Guidelines for composing troubadour poetry'). Several others follow, before the great compendium, Leys d'Amors, is released in the mid 14th century from the heart of the Consistori of Toulouse. This is a grammatical and poetic treatise on a vast scale, emulating the encyclopedic summæ coming out of universities. The internal organisation and protocols of the Consistori mirror those of the University of Toulouse, and the role of this institution is similar to that of an academy of language: grammar is discussed, new grammatical and poetic norms are debated, poetic texts are presented for correction, and the writing of poetry is promoted, in particular through a competition which is held every year. Later on this will be called the Jocs Florals.

As well as fixing the language of poetry, a corpus of authors and works that become the classics of vernacular poetry is also established. The compilation of songbooks also takes place in the 13th and 14th centuries. These are often luxurious manuscripts, an indication of the prestige that troubadour poetry had acquired. Some of these songbooks feature vidas and razos, thus giving rise to new genres, in prose, that provide information about the poets and serve as an aid to the interpretation of their work.

This conception of poetry as knowledge that can be learnt and taught was tied to a new vision of the figure of the troubadour as a master or teacher. As an expert in language, he became a good advisor on etiquette and a moral instructor. Consequently, didactic and sapiential poetry progressively gained ground, moral pieces and advisory sirventesos (at times like a Mirror of Princes), as well as proverbial poetry. All these genres and other new ones, like the letter or didactic poem known as the ensenhamen, enjoy widespread success from the late troubadour period on.

One genre that first emerged in the 13th century and that grew in importance throughout the 14th and later is verse narrative. From Ramon Vidal, through Cerverí de Girona, it will continue to be prominent in the Crown of Aragon until the 15th century. These novellas in verse are often allegorical, such as Bernat Metge’s Llibre de Fortuna i Prudència (Book of Fortune and Prudence) or Pere March’s Arnés del cavaller (Knight's Harness), and they frequently conceal a political message, as is the case with Bernat de So’s Vesió (Vision), Anselm Turmeda's Coblas per al regne de Mallorca (Verses for the Kingdom of Majorca), or Guillem de Torroella's Faula (Tale).

Arnaut Daniel, miniature from Chansonnier K (13th C, París, Bibliothèque national de France, fr. 12473, f. 50r).

Perhaps the most important characteristics of late-13th-century poetry, and the ones that rise to prominence during the first half of the 14th, are experimentation, formal complexity, and virtuosity, in particular in the rhyme schemes. In this respect, the model par excellence is Arnaut Daniel, whose influence on the poetry of the 14th century, and on Catalan poetry in the 15th (for example the work of Andreu Febrer) is considerable. We come across this intricate formal virtuosity above all in genres related to love, like the cançó, and in another genre that is highly prized in this late period: the dansa ('dance'). In this case, the content is sacrificed to a certain extent in favour of formal elements and the music of dance.

In the second half of the 14th century, poetry undergoes a more substantial change, directly related to the new musical polyphony of the Ars Nova and Ars suptilior from France. Especially from the reign of Joan I and his queen Yolande of Bar, the fashionable French poets, like Guillaume de Machaut or Oton de Grandson, rapidly penetrate the Catalan court, as do the best musicians, and their influence on the poetry of the second half of the 14th century becomes very noticeable. On the other hand, the influence of Dante and Petrarch, which begins to arrive in the Catalan lands at around the same time, can be seen more on prose works (for example Bernat Metge's) than on poetry, although Dante will exert influence on poets like Andreu Febrer or Melcior de Gualbes.

Marina Navàs (2019)



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