Love and Money Sung in a Medieval Key: “Cantigas: Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems,” translated by Richard Zenith

Reviewed by Jacob Abell 

For scholars working in the academic humanities, troubadour poetry will likely call to mind the roving bards who scribed love songs in medieval Occitan. Specialists working in medieval French studies will know the seminal work of Michel Zink on the troubadours; others may recall Julia Kristeva’s speculative engagements with these songs which have always disclosed more philosophical depth than meets the eye (or ear). 

Anglophone and Francophone readers may be less familiar with the Iberian troubadour tradition represented in Richard Zenith’s new collection Cantigas: Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. For newcomers to this later troubadour legacy, Zenith’s introduction provides a helpful orientation to the complex cultural politics in which these poems were written and performed. As Zenith recounts, the cantigas were composed in Galician-Portuguese, largely during the second half of the thirteenth century; however, many of these poems were written and sung in the Spanish court of Alfonso X of Castile to whom several of the poems are actually attributed. These cantigas therefore attest to a long history of cultural diffusion from the original troubadours of langue d’oc regions to western Iberia to artistic patronage in medieval Spanish courts. 

Reading the original text of the poems alongside Zenith’s translations, one can observe the broad interconnectedness of medieval Romance languages and literary cultures. In a barbed poem addressed to a rival, Pero da Ponte wrote that his enemy’s gifts are difficult to possess, which he expresses with the verb haver (78). The similarity to the Latin habere as well as the French avoir throws into relief the commonalities of medieval Romance languages well before our own time. Terms recognizable in contemporary Portuguese such as posso (“I can”) still attest to the morphological similarities between the Romance languages in the Middle Ages (as in the identical io posso in Italian). Reading the Cantigas in their original Galician-Portuguese text provides an invigorating example of this dynamic phase in the medieval development of languages evolving along distinctive but overlapping pathways out of Latin.  

The Cantigas also point to the porous influences of diverse medieval literary traditions across time and political boundaries. Readers of Dante may be delighted to find discernable seeds of thematic and formal elements that later became crucial for the Commedia, a poem whose extreme fame often conveyed disparate medieval literary traditions to later generations. For example, one poet included in Zenith’s edition sings of the luminosity of his lady’s eyes: “But I’ve been forced by my eyes / and the beauty in hers that shine…” (35). In these and the surrounding lines, the poet describes a reciprocal abyss of gazes. The lover looks into the brilliance of the beloved’s eyes whose luminous intensity compels the affections and actions of the lover. This precise arrangement of gazes and light would become one of the fundamental literary tropes by which Dante constructed the relationship between his literary self-representation (Dante the pilgrim) and Beatrice throughout the Paradiso. Obviously, the significance of this feature of the Galician poems does not depend on its later reprisal in Dante. Nevertheless, it is exciting to recognize some earlier antecedents of the Commedia in this less widely appreciated poetic tradition. 

In a similar vein, Joam Garcia de Guilhade’s “Song for a Distraught Lover” provides evidence of a widely shared culture of poetry and prose narratives across medieval geographies. In the course of the poem, the poetic subject contrasts himself and his lover to “Brancafrol e Flores,” another pair of lovers well known in medieval France through the tales of Floire et Blancheflor. These two figures also appeared in vernacular story traditions across medieval Europe beyond Portugal and France. In this way, the cantigas and their translations valuably remind us that the “Middle Ages” were always more culturally interconnected and complex than popular stereotypes of the medieval period usually suggest. 

Thematically, the cantigas also provide a case study of a particular variety of medieval masculinity, one that expressed romantic attraction through song craft. Seen from this angle, many of these poems show evidence of inescapably pathetic songsters. One can almost imagine the authors of the cantigas singing a bit too loudly as they opine the psychological burden of their unrequited love, chanting woe and despair in the face of their ladies’ indifference (see Paio Soares de Taveirós’s entry, 48-49). This pathetic quality is sometimes amusing. Other times, it is plainly disturbing. Many of the poems manifest the harmful consequences that can so easily erupt when men feel themselves to be slighted by the objects of their romantic pursuits. Whatever the varied intentions of the cantigas’ authors, their alternately playful and woeful descriptions of romantic rejection strike an occasionally treacherous note. 

Indeed, there is something undeniably troubling about the experience of reading the poems focused on women but written by men. Throughout the cantigas, the relative silence of female voices can be unnerving (a fact that Zenith discusses at length in his introduction). What is more, that silence is often filled by disquieting epithets from the male troubadour, one of whom addresses his cantiga to a “dona fea ([u]gly lady” (98, 99). Other times, the silence of women allows the male writer to ventriloquize female narcissism; Joam Soares Coelho’s “Song of the Beautiful Hair” imagines a young woman seeing to her madre about how beautiful she finds herself to be when gazing upon her own reflection while bathing. 

Despite the overwhelming centrality of romantic love, the cantigas explore other themes as well. We find ruminations on class hierarchies, such as Pero da Ponte’s “Song About a Nobleman up for Auction” (80-81). The sharp class consciousness on display in the poem echoes Rutebeuf’s Old French poem “Pauvreté de Rutebeuf” in which the poet laments the painful material conditions of his station as a poor artist. Instead of vocalizing the poverty of the poet, Ponte’s cantiga takes aim at the wealthy by imagining the sale of a nobleman who cannot fetch a price from the auction crowd since nobody finds the man of sufficient worth to purchase. Is this a politically charged critique of nobility? Or a subtle mockery of the resentment of the poor by the courtly rich (to whom the troubadour may have been tenuously allied)? Gil Peres Conde sustains the frank confrontation with poverty in his poem that Zenith has entitled “Song of an Unpaid Soldier.” As the English title suggests, Conde gives voice to a military man of the lower classes who is the victim of wage theft. The theme does not fail to resonate in our time. 

In addition to these economic themes, the cantigas also offer occasional glimpses of a self-reflective rejection of courtly life altogether. In the “descordo” of Nuno Anes Cerzeo, the poet takes a frank and uncompromising view of the courtly environment which has ostensibly shaped his songcraft: 

            Since I’m going, I’ll tell God the truth: 

            any affection I may have felt 

            for these people and this land

            was only due to that love I happened 

            to experience. I’ll be a happier man 

            once this place is in my past. (127) 

This perspective fills out a broader array of literary concerns beyond the dominant focus on romantic attraction. So, while these poets and bards inescapably present themselves as despondent lovers, they also found room to articulate moral hypocrisy, economic conflict, the relationship between artistic production and courtly finance, and the existential toll of composition and performance as a vocation. Such thematic diversity enriches the experience of reading the cantigas, serving as a valuable reminder that medieval artists were often unafraid to probe the fundamental personal and economic contexts that served as the conditions of their artistic practice. 

It is a cliché of book reviewers to note that a title will appeal to specialists as well as non-academic audiences, but this is notably true with Zenith’s collection. The English translations capture the varied pathos of the poems without any stuffy tone that would stand to alienate a contemporary reader. Zenith’s phrasing conveys the love-sickness, anguish, jealousy, danger and fear that pulse through the original poems–even when these masculine affective dynamics are at their most disconcerting. 

While reading these poems, I had the constant impression of the translator’s delight in ferreting out the most effective English formulations to capture the punchy poetics of these medieval songs. To wit, Zenith is unafraid to use idiomatic turns of phrase, scatological language, and figurative expression in order to best invite his readers into the world of the original poems. On this score, the translator’s introduction signals a range of specific formal features in the Galician-Portuguese language that the reader is unlikely to catch without the right preparation. Consequently, Zenith helps provide a roadmap to appreciate some of the idiosyncratic aspects of the medieval language (such as complex forms of repetition) while also allowing himself the freedom to interpret the cantigas without a priority for overly literal translation. The result is a collection that reflects the translator’s love of the translated material. And it is a love that many readers may find infectious, particularly those less familiar with the far-reaching influences of Occitan poetic traditions in Iberia. 

Cantigas: Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. Princeton University Press, 2022.

Jacob Abell is a Lecturer of French at Baylor University. His forthcoming book with Medieval Institute Publication is entitled Spiritual and Material Boundaries: Contemplating the Walls of the Earthly Paradise in Medieval French Verse. He has published articles on trauma in Dante and Aimé Césaire, the use of Haitian drama in the French language classroom, and Rwandan theater. 

Leave a Reply