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The trobairitz were the female counterpart of the troubadours of the medieval Occitan court. Like troubadours, trobairitz composed songs, wrote verse, and performed in the court. The most famous of these female composers is probably Beatritz, also called Bieiris de Romans, who is only known because she clearly identified herself in a poem she wrote for another woman. The works which can be confidently attributed to the trobairitz were all composed between the 11th and 12th centuries.
These women were remarkable for a number of reasons. Celebration of the trobairitz marked the first time in European history when women could openly claim authorship of musical compositions, and also the first time when women composed secular music. Prior to this period, women wrote only sacred music, and they were forced to publish under the names of men if they wanted their work to be distributed and played.
Unlike the troubadours, the trobairitz were born into the nobility. Their careers probably started with the basic education provided to noblewomen, all of whom were expected to be able to sing, play instruments, and dance. Over time, they began establishing themselves as composers in their own right, writing works about courtly love, a popular theme in medieval Europe.
It is difficult to find out much about the life of the trobairitz. Although women in Occitan enjoyed comparatively more freedoms than women in other parts of Europe, they still lived very isolated lives, and wrote about themselves only rarely and often in romanticized accounts. Many of their contemporary authors put the names of men to works composed by women, or failed to acknowledge the role of a woman in an exchange of poems and songs between two people. At least 50 works from this era were composed by trobairitz, and it is possible that there are more.
These female medieval poets composed both cansos, or lyric songs, and tensos, or so-called “debate poems” which featured an exchange between two individuals working in collaboration. Some of these works were undoubtedly intended for private distribution only, making it extremely fortunate that they have survived into the modern day, while others were more widely shared and distributed, making multiple copies available for modern perusal.
The lyric works of the trobairitz are sometimes difficult to translate, as indeed all poetry and song can be challenging to translate in a way which scans, conveys the original intent, and sounds aesthetically pleasing. In this stanza from Azalais de Porcairagues, you can get an idea of the type of work composed by the trobairitz: “Now we are come to the time of cold/when the ice and the snow and the mud/and the bird's beaks are mute/for not one inclines to sing.”
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