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FR15: Voices of Desire, the Troubadours & Old Occitan Literature

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

An Introduction to the Troubadours and Medieval Occitan Literature

The troubadours were singer-songwriters in the Occitan language who invented the first independent lyric tradition to be preserved in a Romance language. They appeared about 1100 in the Limousin and Poitou, then the heartland of the duchy of Aquitaine, but their songs were soon heard in courts throughout Languedoc, Provence, and Auvergne. Troubadours followed Eleanor of Aquitaine into Northern France and frequented the courts of her many children, and they crossed the Pyrenees into Iberia and the Alps into Italy, inspiring new styles of courtly lyric across Europe. In their persons, the troubadours were men and women ranging from great rulers to castellans to merchants, minstrels, and disaffected monks. In their lyrics, they experimented with a range of themes from erotic love to politics to religious devotion. They valued the invention of new poetic forms and developed a myriad of lyric genres and compositional styles. A study of the troubadours not only uncovers this literature and history, but also allows us to question common assumptions about who should be given a public voice, whose desires should be heard, and how those desires should be formulated.

This paper will introduce students to troubadour song in parallel with examples of other genres of medieval Occitan literature, many of which were given a distinct shape by the influence of the lyric. These texts will be chosen from among: the Song of Saint Faith, the short tales called novas, the Romance of Flamenca, and the Song of the Albigensian Crusade. Time permitting, we may also consider modern encounters with troubadour song: the American poets Ezra Pound (1885–1972) and Paul Blackburn (1926–71), whose practice and theory of poetry were influenced by their early attempts to translate the troubadours, and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose opera L’amour de loin premiered in 2000.




Voices of Desire

Theories of the voice will constitute the paper’s special topic in 2019–20.

What is the relation between voice and the body? Between voice and gender? Between human and animal voices?

What voices are heard in public spaces, and in what sense are questions of the voice also ethical and political questions?

What is the relation between voice and poetic form? Between voice and writing?

By what vehicles have the lost voices of the troubadours been transmitted to us?

Students will have the opportunity to test scholarship on medieval voices (Paul Zumthor’s study of vocality, or recent work on soundscapes) against theories of the voice and listening elaborated by philosophers of the present day.



Occitan is a Romance language, most closely related to French and Catalan, but also accessible to readers of Latin and speakers of Italian, Spanish, or other related languages. All students of languages are welcome and many will find relevant scholarship in their languages of expertise. The paper will introduce students to the reading of Old Occitan, but it is not a language paper and the focus will remain on literary, historical, and theoretical questions. Students with particular interest in questions of linguistics should consider following CS1: The Romance Languages in Part Ib.


Preparatory reading: 


We strongly encourage students to begin exploring the material over the summer. It is also particularly important to begin studying the Occitan language, using the resources indicated below.

You should commence your search for books in the library or a local bookshop. If the books in question are not available there, you should know that Blackwell’s online offers some of these texts. Beyond that, we encourage students to explore, for French-language books,, which offers good prices. Books are searchable by author, title, or ISBN number (EAN13).

Please find the list and details of preparatory materials here.


Teaching and learning: 


The paper involves 20 hours of lectures/seminars at the Faculty and 10 supervisions in College. Supervisions are assigned to faculty members according to individual topics. This is coordinated by the paper convenor, so students/DOSs should contact that individual to arrange supervision for the year.




The paper is assessed through a three-hour written exam, composed of three sections, each of which will have a selection of essay topics from which you will choose one to write your essay (3 essays in total). Section A consists of broad questions relating to the Special Topic (see above). Section B questions deal with individual authors or genres or alternative approaches to the corpus. Section C offers a selection of three passages for commentary. Alternatively, students can choose to submit an Optional Dissertation.


Course Contacts: 
Dr Mary Franklin-Brown