The Old Talks Series: “The ‘Trobairitz’ and ‘Flamenca’ “

47th International Congress on Medieval Studies
University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo
May 2012

Société Guilhem IX: Session 93, “Women and the Troubadours”


Women figure in the large majority of Troubadour poems, whether as the erotic focus, object of mystery, speaking voice, invoked saint or patroness. The Trobairitz corpus has gone from obscurity to possible overexposure in recent decades with the rise of feminism and interest in women’s studies. This panel invites scholars to take stock of the many places of women in Old Occitan studies. Contributions may consider literary, cultural, linguistic, musical, lexicographical, or biographical questions. Many women have contributed to Occitan studies, and this would be an opportunity to take account of their legacy, as well.


The paper pulls together two main threads associated with Flamenca scholarship.

The first is the word trobairitz and feminine trobar: further on which see the work of Angelika Rieger and other, and the theme of this panel.

The second is the double conundrum that is the attribution of authorship to this romance, and the approximation of its date of composition. Attempts at finding answers have moved from an earlier expectation of a single male author, as exemplified by Grimm (1930) and the “finding” of the clerc Bernardet; to Solterer and Grossweiner and a shift towards multiplicity, including composition by two or more hands; and work (Bynum, Kay, Vitz, and others) on the creative contributions of a range of participants in the poetic process: patrons, very hands-on patrons, collaborations, performers, adapters, and so on. To assist in this quest, we may add in Spearing on narratorless narrative; Jewers and Kay and others on play and playfulness and games; gender-ambiguity and gender-play in trobador lyric, and—another of today’s Guilhem IX topics, of course—the linguistic play of dialogic composition, as witness the tensos and partimens.



This paper will look closely at trobairitz in Flamenca; that is, the area around line 4577 in the eponymous anonymous 13th-century romance. That’s the first item on the handout; most of the rest of that first page provides the fuller context of that episode. The second item on the page is the tenso that is produced by the young lovers, Flamenca and Guillem, over the course of their extremely brief encounters. Very rapid plot summary: Flamenca’s husband Archimbaut has gone mad with jealousy at the thought that some young fenera d’amor cortes might rob him of his lovely new wife, so he locks her up in a tower, from which she is only allowed out to attend mass and to take the waters at the local hot springs. Flamenca does, however, have the company of two maids, Alis and Maragarida. Of course, Archimbaut’s worst fears are fulfilled, in the person of Guillem. In disguise and acting as sacristan, he is able to make contact with Flamenca at the brief moment when he gives her the peace. Besides the bonus of some light book-fetishism, this also enables Guillem to speak to Flamenca, replacing the two syllables of the peace with two others of his own devising. He starts out with the classic non-starter ai las, to which Flamenca will eventually respond with a question once she has returned to her tower-prison and consulted with her maids. Eventually, a poem results from these interactions; its production occupies the central portion of the text, indeed around half of it. The romance of Flamenca as a whole is as much about the central tenso‘s composition, viewed in extreme close-up and slow motion, as it is about love (or anything else).

I’m going to be doing three things with this trobairitz here: one, looking at feminine-voice composition in Flamenca: that is, a poetic activity that parallels, or is in some way a feminine version of, trobar. Two, looking at feminine poets: versions or parallels to trobadors; whence three, looking not just at trobairitz but at trobar in Flamenca, and wondering why the anonymous Flamenca has always been supposed to be by a male poet. A thought in homage to the other speakers in this session and their work on questioning attribution in the troboador/trobairitz lyric corpus…

The paper pulls together two main threads associated with Flamenca scholarship.
The first: the word trobairitz and feminine trobar: Rieger et al, and the theme of this panel.
Second: the conundrum that is attribution of authorship to this romance, and approximating the date of its composition. From an earlier expectation of a single male author, as exemplified by Grimm (1930) and the “finding” of the clerc Bernardet; to Solterer and Grossweiner and a shift towards multiplicity, including composition by two or more hands; and work (Bynum, Kay, Vitz, and others) on the creative contributions of a range of participants in the poetic process: patrons, very hands-on patrons, collaborations, performers, adapters, and so on. Adding in Spearing on narratorless narrative, Jewers and Kay and others on play and playfulness and games, and gender-ambiguity and gender-play in trobador lyric and—another of today’s Guilhem IX topics, of course—the linguistic play of dialogic composition, as witness the tensos and partimens.

The longer version of this paper also deals with connections to Ramon Vidal de Besalú’s work. But that’s not for the here and now.

Preambles over. Onto the first close reading of line 4577.

“Margarida, trop ben t’es pres
e ja iest bona trobairis.”
Romance of Flamenca, lines 4576-77 (Text: Concordance of Medieval Occitan)


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De que is part of Flamenca’s poetic co-composition with Guillem: that central poem, made through their bisyllabic interactions. The poem only exists in its fixed final form through its performance; what makes any part of it part of the poem is its utterance at Flamenca and Guillem’s next meeting, after which it will join the other words repeated, recited, and analysed and over-analyzed by Guillem (on the one side) and Flamenca and her ladies (on the other).

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Following the pattern initiated by Guillem with his first utterance, hai las!, barely more than an audible sigh, Flamenca’s contributions are in the form of questions: not making statements (note that most of the active verbs are from Guillem) or adding new material to the poem, but rather, guiding the course it takes; not making declarations, but maintaining a neutral or ambiguous position; keeping face yet keeping the game going. (Kay: “Derivation, derived rhyme, and the trobairitz”)

Some other typical characteristics of Flamenca’s contributions and of the kind of composition, the process, engaged in by her with her ladies: a “finding” may be derivative but found by agreement of her ladies, or it may be found by one of her ladies but agreed to by Flamenca.

Flamenca’s echoing poetics parallels a lazy eroticism, in the poem and the affair with Guillem as a whole: passive, of minimal effort; in which both sides simply play it out just enough for the game to continue, in a necessary sequence of next steps weaving a flirtatious dance. While both Guillem and Flamenca partake of the above patterns in their va-et-vient, they employ slightly different methods and styles. Guillem makes statements of first-person existential state while Flamenca asks questions. But in addition she twists in as much new content as can safely be manoeuvred, produces leading questions, and goes beyond an echo of his statements. Flamenca tries to push the questioning form to its limit, through a derivative creativity of ingenuity.

As you can see, once “de que?” has been found, we’ve reached the end of the first line. Reaching the end of what will turn out to be the first line is an important step: potentially setting a rhyme-scheme; and, as Margarida puts it, se i ave, if it fits well with the rest. De que picks up on Flamenca’s own earlier que in a symmetrical device, and brings the new element de into play, which will enable and might even have been intended to trigger Guillem’s d’amor (drawing on the de of de que and on his own previous contribution, mors mi). Remember: this is by necessity an extremely short poem, must be easy to remember, and is part of a game. For the ladies, at least, as is clear from their conversations around analysis, commentary, and composition.

We know that Margarida bon mot trobat. This fits nicely with what we know of her punmistress wit:

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We don’t know whether Flamenca had found a bon mot of her own, or if she found one that was the same one: being near the start of the game, with a two-syllable rule and few sounds thus far available, the possibilities are limited. A new game is started within the main one, as Flamenca persuades Margarida to reveal what she has found. Once the word is out, and once it has been performed by Flamenca, it becomes part of her part of the jointly-composed poem. But it’s clear from Margarida’s response, the sarcastic mellor non vist, daus vos e dau Alis en fora, that the attribution of the role of trobador is far from a clear matter (especially here, where compositor and performer overlap, and are also simultaneously the primary audience). What counts as trobador activity may very much be open to question and, perhaps, reception and audience interpretation. We are reminded that Flamenca’s first contribution to the poem, que plans, was found by Alis (4310: item 4 on your handout),

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approved as trop ben si fa and its finder duly praised as ben ai qui cest mot chausi before Flamenca, coached by Alis & Margarida, practised her two words over and over in preparation for her grand performance. I leave it to the audience’s good judgement as to whether that practice is over-the-top, some comment on Flamenca’s aptitude for learning, or simply a sign of how bored the three ladies might be.

Argument for Flamenca as trobairitz, in both cases: someone else may do the brute donkey-work of the finding, but that’s been done silently in one’s head, an abstract finding. But hers is the editorial and executive decision to judge it good and fitting, and—after seeing how it rolls on and off the tongue in practice—to include it in the composition; as she bears the weighty responsibility of performance, and it is the performance that makes the poem, makes it “a poem”, and makes it “that poem” of Flamenca and Guillem.

Item 5 on the handout provides some more evidence for her maids’ irritation at Flamenca’s slowness, as well as what “the right words” should be: ambiguous and ingenious.

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The next citation, on the composition of conssi?, shows Flamenca’s poetic process in extreme slow motion.

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It forms a comic pair with earlier musings by Guillem on a tenuous link between amans and diamans, which, like this conssi piece, is rife with word-play. In Guillem’s case, there is no poetic end result: this is sterile solitary activity, seeds falling into emptiness. In Flamenca’s case, with conssi, the result is different: she is not talking to herself (or to some imaginary other) but with others, who poke her in the right direction, pulling conssi out from what Flamenca had been saying, as she had been circling around it. She had found the right word; she just didn’t know it yet, and the three figure it out together. The end result is a contribution to the central poem that’s in process of being composed. Quite different from Guillem’s situation.

The Guillem amans/adamans/diamans piece and Flamenca’s “finding” of conssi are two of the best cases of derivative ingenuity to be found in this work: that is, the creativity of making something new out of something old; of putting something that exists already to a new purpose. And trobairitz might be the most famous and obvious case of derivative ingenuity in Flamenca: that is, the “finding”of a clever new word. Deriving trobairitz from trobador, as woman from man via the spare rib; also, it’s made out of trop benbona trob, and with –airitz echoing iest and the ending ida to Margarida’s name.

Derivation is all too easily a false and perverse mockery of creativity and “proper” reproduction, a sterile scattering of seed on stony ground. It’s a curious quirk of historical irony that Flamenca is more famous for coining this neologism than for all her other utterances put together, including her participation in the tenso at the heart of this romance, and her own later canso in response to Amors.

Later, subversive poetic composition and performative decomposition (7140-71)—the big lacuna scene. Decomposition: contrary motion to the usual poetic process:

  • feminine beauty a.k.a. Woman’s body–> lust –> inspiration –> poem
  • poem–> absorbed into woman’s body–> prayer-poem to Amors (who inspired & co-wrote with Guillem: weird circle, or seducing and unisson with her?)

But here’s another thing: while there’s a quick pun with ben trobat / trobairitz, looking elsewhere in Flamenca you see a buildup towards that trobar joke and later echoes (in item 6 again); this running joke functions as one of the threads weaving the work together as as whole. In this joke-network: trobairitz / truphairitz and link to fenera d’amor cortes (1197): fakery and jokes, Flamenca as a joke about cunning fakery. However: the paper’s title, you’ll note, was actually “the trobairitz and Flamenca.” Moving on, therefore, to the actual trobairitz at work here, who are plural and not Flamenca…


Literate characters: we have three gentlemen of the cloth. Bernardet (1732): makes complaints about patrons and money, the sort of thing one often hears from poets. We will see another parallel in a moment, who is at least as bitchy. Bernardet is usually seen as the usual suspect, perhaps as the first “author-looking” named clercly figure encountered, placed—truly or falsely, bearing in mind that the MS foliols may have been rearranged— closer to the start therefore more likely to be the poet.

But: there’s another clerc too, and he’s sent packing almost as soon as he is introduced; he looked like a likely contender for the authorial role: yet another instance of play with audience expectations? Not the first time, in the romance of Flamenca. This clerc is Nicolaus (2505 et seq), sent off to Paris to train as a clerc (and a parallel to Guillem’s squire Clari in a clergie/chevalerie pairing-split).

However: present throughout, and an observer of the first part of the action—the lovers’ meetings at mass: we also have the priest, Father Justin.

But if we’re looking at characters with means and motive for composition, and who bear witness to the great events (teenage boy mopes in room, etc.), there are two more to take into account: the innkeeper and his wife, with whom Guillem is lodging. His wife is perhaps the more interesting of the two. She has language skills (see also: old jokes about “cunning linguists” and Margarida’s visual wit earlier). She and her husband are in on all of Guillem’s subterfuges. She has knowledge of, witnesses, and participates actively in disguising Guillem. She cuts off his hair, from which she later makes a loop for a mantle-sleeve, which will feature as a very Laüstic-style interesting symbolic device weaving the text together (but no more on that, that would be a major digression).

We have two final literate characters to whom I’d like to draw your attention now: Alis and Margarida.


Alis and Margarida do most of the actual finding. As we know, they’re capable and competent, and essenatz (item 3 on your handout).

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Of course they’re not clercs, but then again, no women can be: association with a lexical field concerning knowledge, wits, and skill is as close as they’ll get. Also, being a trobador isn’t restricted to being a clerc, and not all clercs are trobadors.

Flamenca only manages to come up with her third and fourth responses, per cui? (4913-18) and qu’en puesc? (5027-31) under heavy hints, goading, and even some impatience. In both cases, Flamenca proudly presents her composition to the ladies as very cubert (“covered,” “secret”) and the like, although the repliques found by the ladies were technically more so, offering nothing of the speaker, and attempting to make Guillem elaborate further on himself. Flamenca’s contributions are more revealing, moving away from him and directly to herself, showing vanity and a desire to be told she is desired, rather than a desire to engage in conversation with him. The commentary attached to each word composed lengthens.

While conssi? (l. 5120) comes from the mouth and mind of Flamenca, the proposition of the actual word is not by her, and the “finding” is by the ladies together, pensson eissamen … conseillon (ll. 5115-20). This reponse was crude and a tactical error. How far the ladies, given their clearly greater expertise in amorous composition, have let Flamenca lead herself astray is another matter. They may be bored and playing their own games; unsatisfied with a voyeuristic and catalyst role in the action. Fortunately, they will soon be paired off with Guillem’s squires, once events move into real action.

It is the ladies who advise, apparently separately, the application of pren li: one wonders whether they have been plotting behind the mistress’ back, as this replique is embedded in fine-tuned argument, quite a different presentation from their earlier spontaneity in the finding of the first two repiques. Alis and then Margarida each provides a sound reason for saying pren li; Margarida by appeal to Classical analogy and to the auctoritas of what fis amans – “true lovers” – would do (l. 5234). Decidedly an appeal to Flamenca’s “romantic” nature, inclinations, or pretensions, the ladies play with her delusions of grandeur, and self-delusion.

But back to de que and the trobairitz-coining episode. It’s Margarida who does the actual finding here. And with added snark.

She also presages a future key finding-moment (with further riffing on the finding joke): [see the end of item 2, the *PREN LI]

Margarida is named and identified as trobairitz by the “authority” that is Flamenca. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is the key distinction between being a trobador and being the named proprietor of a work; bearing in mind, carefully, that the “author-authority-auctoritas” concept is an anachronism and culturally inappropriate. But this is a curious text in its awareness of such issues, especially in Margarida’s archness: there’s a sense here of a kind of intellectual property, but also of its only having value when praised—literally, given a prize, prez—by her lady and patron.

A couple of other points on Margarida. One: pairing with Clari: the only refence to amor coral in this romance that’s not about Flamenca & Guillem (7641). Two: and this is true for Alis too: they are witness-voyeur-narrators, as are Guillem’s squires Oto and Clari (who are otherwise silent bystanders: might say something about their masters’ styles…) These other couples together enable a shifting point of view, and if it would be reasonable to assume that they chat, reporting of the full story from both sides, multiple views to show the full picture, complete with a combination of servant cheekiness and servant discretion.

We should add at least Alis and Margarida to the list of Flamenca‘s composers (Flamenca the romance, that is: well, possibly the character too). Some of their contributions are educational ones to do with teaching and learning the poetic arts, reinforcing an idea that the Romance of Flamenca is amongst other things a work about poetry and poetics, and its main protagonists well-chosen for their natural talent for acting in extreme slow motion. As well as providing lines for their mistress, Alis and Margarida aid in comprehension, interpretation, commentary, rehearsal, practice, and training.


To conclude: I hope this paper may have opened up questions of authorial attribution, albeit not only by asking who an author is but by rehashing the now-old and not longer so hot potato of what an author might be (presuming she’s still alive): including women poets, multiple authors (and not always in harmonious concord), a fluidity in compositional roles. Besides being comic and playing with its readers, a work like Flamenca can also be a multi-layered joke. I’m not sure how far this is method-reading (like method acting), but treating as much as possible in Flamenca as a joke—admittedly sometimes a dark and paranoid one—does seem to help: reading and rereading it as playing along with its detection-games* for the literate.

(* Courtly game (see also: Andreas Capellanus; tensos and partimens and joc parti; judici d’amors) Whence see also Ramon Vidal de Besalú, Abrils issi et mays intrava. What it means to be a trobador as opposed to just a joglar. Sniffiness about mere performers and about dumb nobility. The noble heart, as opposed to nobility of birth. All of which may also be found—but played with light-heartedly—in the Romance of Flamenca. Not suggesting more than some kinship between this text and Ramon Vidal’s work; but looking to him for contemporary descriptions and definitions of the range of trobar-ly activities, so as to try to avoid the socio-cultural pitfalls of 19th-20th c. lit crit, at least of the pre-Bynum era.)

When I was first working on Flamenca, I looked into property and appropriation, subterfuge and subversion, and the creativity of theft, fakery, cunning, and derivative ingenuity. That kind of play. Further ideas coming out of subversion: wit, wits, smarts: a parallel structure and value-system to the main one in operation: power- relations in the real world, property, appropriateness / that which is proper, inheritance, wealth, and the “good” of generosity.

Now, in Flamenca, there’s no escaping the real world and its real political and social structures. This might be the most fundamental “realism” in this romance. I would tend to distinguish two main layers in operation, running the narrative:

(1) an external layer, and outer frame, controlled by the King and Queen and supported by the approval of the court: from driving Archimbaut mad with jealousy through the rumour that Flamenca might have given the King her sleeve as a favour at the tournament held for her own wedding, through to Flamenca’s final performance, or rather, punning re-performance: giving her sleeve, very publicly, but this time to Guillem and very publicly.

(2) an internal layer: here, it is textual persons who are outside the power/property structure who manipulate and orchestrate the mechanics and mechanism of the action: who run the game and keep it going. That is: Peire Guy & Bellapila, Guillem (disempowered through his disguise, s’apataris), Flamenca (who might herself be perceived to be property), and her ladies Margarida and Alis.

We’re seeing the same other, alternative system—not an anti-system, but a side-one (getting around the status quo rather than confronting and combatting it: much in common with feminisms?)—in Ramon Vidal de Besalú’s work: one of knowledge, information, gossip; ensenhamen, sen, saber; based not in inherited nobility (and all it entails, and not necessarily, as regards intelligence and understanding) but in the true inner worth of cor noble.

Implications for professional poetry and poetry as a profession (mocking Guillem and Flamenca as dilettante amateurs).

An analogy: one of the (many possible) lessons to be drawn from a near-contemporary work, the Roman de la Rose: there’s other ways to the good life besides wealth…



  1. trobar and physical proximity and combinations, in the text, to essenhatz
  2. saber e sen (inc. “wit”)
  3. bel saber
  4. bon sen e fin e natural
  5. scienzia/artz
  6. Revisiting the trobar-sen/saber-entendemen nexus

How Flamenca works as a joke: not just reading it as a work that is comical in tone, nor just analysing the odd individual joke (though it is indeed rich in jokes): but seeing how the work is constructed by and through jokes: using running jokes as further fils conducteurs within the network of threads that weaves the text together; and how the work is built as a joke writ large, akin to how another element in its construction is its being an expansion of a canso with accompanying vida and razo. That’s the larger context into which this paper fits: and parallels in contemporary (i.e. 21st century) work on how jokes work, mainly from stand-up comedy (see for ex.: Stewart Lee, How I Escaped My Certain Fate).

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