History of Literature

French literature


Bertran de Born

Bertran de Born (1140s – by 1215) was a baron from the Limousin in France, and one of the major Occitan troubadours of the twelfth century

Bertran de Born was the eldest son of Bertran de Born, lord of Autafort (Occitan: Autafòrt, French: Hautefort), and his wife Ermengardis. He had two younger brothers, Constantine and Itier. His father died in 1178, and Bertran succeeded him as lord of Autafort. By this time, he was already married to his first wife, Raimonda, and had two sons.

Autafort lies at the border between the Limousin and Périgord. As a result, Bertran became involved in the conflicts of the sons of Henry II Plantagenet. He was also fighting for control of Autafort.

According to the feudal custom of his region, he was not the only lord of Autafort, but held it jointly with his brothers. Other cases of co-seigneuries were known among the troubadours, the most famous being that of the "four troubadours of Ussel", three brothers and a cousin, and that of Raimon de Miraval and his brothers. A typical strategy employed by the major territorial principalities (such as the duchy of Aquitaine or the county of Toulouse) to decrease the influence of the local lords of the manor was to encourage feudal conflicts within their families. Bertran's struggle, especially with his brother Constantine, is at the heart of his poetry, which is dominated by political topics.

His first datable work is a sirventes (political or satirical song) of 1181, but it is clear from this he already had a reputation as a poet. In 1182, he was present at his overlord Henry II of England's court at Argentan. That same year, he had joined in Henry the Young King's revolt against his younger brother, Richard, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine. He wrote songs encouraging Aimar V of Limoges and others to rebel, and took the oath against Richard at Limoges. His brother Constantine took the opposing side, and Bertran drove him out of the castle in July.

Henry the Young King, whom Bertran had praised and criticised in his poems, died on campaign in June 1183 in Martel. Bertran wrote a planh (lament), in his memory, Mon chan fenisc ab dol et ab maltraire. (Another planh for Henry, Si tuit li dol e.l plor e.l marrimen, formerly attributed to Bertran, is now thought to be the work of Rigaut de Berbezill). In his punitive campaign against the rebels, Richard, aided by Alfonso II of Aragon, besieged Autafort and gave it to Constantine de Born. Henry II, however, is reported to have been moved by Bertran's lament for his son, and returned the castle to the poet. Constantine seems to have become a mercenary.

Bertran was reconciled also with Richard, whom he supported in turn against Philip II of France. At various times, he sought to exploit the dissensions among the Angevins in order to keep his independence. He gave them senhals (nicknames): Henry the Young King was Mariniers (Sailor), Geoffrey of Brittany was Rassa, and Richard, Oc-e-Non (Yes-and-No). He commemorated Geoffrey's death in the planh, A totz dic que ja mais non voil. He had contact with a number of other troubadours and also with the Northern French trouvère, Conon de Béthune, whom he addressed as Mon Ysombart.

Although he composed a few cansos (love songs), Bertran de Born was predominantly a master of the sirventes. Be.m platz lo gais temps de pascor, which revels in warfare, was translated by Ezra Pound:

“ ...We shall see battle axes and swords, a-battering colored haumes and a-hacking through shields at entering melee; and many vassals smiting together, whence there run free the horses of the dead and wrecked. And when each man of prowess shall be come into the fray he thinks no more of (merely) breaking heads and arms, for a dead man is worth more than one taken alive.
I tell you that I find no such savor in eating butter and sleeping, as when I hear cried "On them!" and from both sides hear horses neighing through their head-guards, and hear shouted "To aid! To aid!" and see the dead with lance truncheons, the pennants still on them, piercing their sides.

Barons! put in pawn castles, and towns, and cities before anyone makes war on us.

Papiol, be glad to go speedily to "Yea and Nay", and tell him there's too much peace about.”

When Richard (by then King) and Philip delayed setting out on the Third Crusade, he chided them in songs praising the heroic defence of Tyre by Conrad of Montferrat (Folheta, vos mi prejatz que eu chan and Ara sai eu de pretz quals l'a plus gran). When Richard was released from captivity after being suspected of Conrad's murder, Bertran welcomed his return with Ar ven la coindeta sazos. Ironically, one of Bertran's sources of income was from the market of Châlus-Cabrol, where Richard was fatally wounded in 1199.

Widowed for the second time c. 1196, Bertran became a monk and entered the Cistercian abbey of Dalon at Sainte-Trie in the Dordogne region. He had made numerous grants to the abbey over the years. His last datable song was written in 1198. He ceases to appear in charters after 1202, and was certainly dead by 1215, when there is a record of a payment for a candle for his tomb.

His œuvre consists of about forty-seven works, thirty-six unanimously attributed to him in the manuscripts, and eleven uncertain attributions. Several melodies survive, and some of his songs have been recorded by Sequentia, Gérard Zuchetto and his Troubadours Art Ensemble, and the Martin Best Mediæval Consort, who released an album of songs by "Dante Troubadours".


Youth and Age

I love to see the previous order turning,

when the old leave all their property to youth:

it's this, not buzz of bee or flowers returning,

that makes me feel the world has found its truth;

and if a man produces sons enough,

the chances are at least one will be tough;

and a younger loyalty in love or war

will make the heart and sword arm young once more.

A woman is old who sets no warrior yearning;

she's old, if she keeps faithful to her spouse;

old, if she uses black and sorcerous learning,

or lets more than one lover in her house.

She's old, if her hair's a mess of ragged stuff,

or if she takes a lover who is rough.

She's old, if she thinks that music is a chore,

and she's old when all her talk becomes a bore.

Women are young, whose hearts remain discerning,

whose actions show the values they espouse,

who do not look with scorn on merit's earning,

whose virtues are a light no scandals douse.

A woman is young, whose manner is not gruff,

yet gives impetuous youths a wise rebuff.

She's young, if her figure's nothing to ignore,

and she doesn't pry and listen at every door.

I call a man young who's passionate concerning

jousts and courts, considering thrift uncouth.

He's young, when he thinks that money is for burning;

when, ruined, he smiles without a trace of ruth.

He's young, when he stakes his fortune on a bluff,

and feels that no extravagance is enough.

He's young, if he is skilled in lovers' lore,

and he's young, if he judges risk what life is for.

Though a man be rich, I say that he's old, if, spurning

pillage and war, he wastes away his youth

piling up bread and beef and wine, then turning

monkish, serves eggs, as if we'd nary a tooth.

He's old, if he muffles himself in woven stuff,

and can't command a horse and ride him rough.

He's old, if he rests in peace when battles roar;

old, if he shirks the field and bars the door.

Poet Arnaut, go take this song of youth

and age to Richard, that he may feel its truth

and never wish to heap up worldly store,

since youthful daring enriches honor more.

Translated by Jon Corelis



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