The Old Talks Series: “Richard the Lionheart and the poetics of imprisonment”

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Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Trinity College Dublin
Cultures of War Research Network Inaugural Conference: TCD CMRS / IMEMS (Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Wales) / associated with CARMEN (Co-operative for the Advancement of Research through a Medieval European Network)


This was a talk to an interesting audience: Medievalists but not Occitanists, literary scholars and historians. Consider it an experiment in juggling the four, and as an exercise in Occitanist Outreach. It’s a short piece, padded out somewhat as my original talk notes were somewhat telegraphic or, at times, verily gnomic. There are still a few patchy bits. It was put together at speed but may have a few good ideas; it was fun to do, the geeky puzzle-solving fun of comparing multiple versions of a poem and hypothesising about things to which there are no factual answers (and maybe there can be none). It’s an exercise in the limits of editing, and the frustrations of limiting oneself to a (modern) single edited text, in comparison with the extra joys to be derived from keeping a poem multiple and open and true to itself, as a moving living thing. I hope it might have communicated some of that fun, in an introductory manner. Next piece to go up here, a companion from even earlier, is on a related poem by Guilhem de Peitieus…


There may, as ever, be typos. There are, as ever, holes and other navigational hazards needing to be mended. Further footnotes and references. The usual nonsense to be tweaked into sense. But I’m still posting this up, in its current state. May it be useful to someone!


“The poetics of imprisonment: A reading of Richard the Lionheart’s Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa raison / ja nuls hom pres non dira sa razon (1192)”

Richard’s best-known poem may be Ja nus hons pris…, supposedly written while imprisoned Austria on his return journey from the 3rd Crusade. (Sung by, amongst others, Bryan Ferry.) Richard’s family poetic connections already tie him to the Occitan “Troubadour” lyric tradition: great-grandson of the first known Occitan trobador, William, 9th Duke of Aquitaine and 7th Count of Poitiers (c.1071-1126); son of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1202), patron of further troubadours – e.g. Bernart de Ventadorn – and of some of the early French poets – e.g. Benoît de Sainte-Maure; half-brother of Marie de Champagne (1145-98), who continued a similar patronage pattern, including for example Chrétien de Troyes.

Ja nus hons pris… is best known in its French version, and has usually been read in its immediate historical context. An Occitan version also exists. After a brief comparison of the two versions, this paper shows how the poem may be read in its literary context, a poetic culture in France that is both French and Occitan.

While the trope of imprisonment is part of the amorous topical canon, 12th c. Occitan Troubadour lyric also plays with ideas of trobar (“composition,” and “finding” in the broadest sense) and formal elements of the canso (“song,” lyric poem) to produce what may be termed a full poetics of imprisonment. Richard’s poem offers a nice culmination of a century’s cross-pollination, composed as it is towards the end of the Troubadour “golden age” and after three Crusades.

HANDOUT (PDF; I think this was the original file, it looks about right)


Good afternoon. The point of my talk is to take a new look at an old poem, one of the most famous in medieval French, purportedy composed by Richard the Lionheart. I say purportedly: the manuscript sources for this poem are song-book codices, chansonniers or canzoniere, compiled in Italy and southern France between the end of the 13th and mid 15th centuries: so even if a rubricated attribution is from that time of composition, rather than the addition of a later hand, this must be taken with a pinch of salt. So: the poem is said to have been composed by Richard, while he was imprisoned in Austria from 1192 to 94, having been taken captive on his way home from the 3rd Crusade. A bit of culture, if you will, in the midst of war. It’s not a very complicated poem – just 41 lines long – and the meaning seems straight-forward: woe is me, I’m a prisoner, nobody loves me, so they won’t pay my ransom and get me out of here; dear sister, please help; with a refrain of variants on “I’m imprisoned.”

As this talk is specifically about this poem and about it as a poem, while there will be some commentary of a historical nature, I am not going to talk about Richard as crusading king, as that has been well covered by proper historians. Not about the Blondel business, which is almost certainly fictitious. There has also been good recent work on the myth of Richard as troubadour, for which I refer you to Lepage and Spetia. Richard’s continuation of the family tradition of poetic patronage is well documented: not least in the poetry of Arnaut Daniel, Bertran d’Alamanon, Bertran de Born, Folquet de Marselha, Gaucelm Faidit (planh on his death), Guiraut de Bornelh, Guiraut de Calanson, the Monje de Montaudon (and Bertran de Born, Folquet, and the Monk all refer to Richard’s imprisonment). “Richard the Troubadour” has also come into being through a process of mythification – first detected in a Minstrel of Rheims text from 1260, then with Jean de Nostredame in the 15th c., and running through 18th century novels and operas. This gives a royal gravitas to medieval Occitan poetry; something similar also happened to Frederick the First.

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One of this poem’s intriguing features is that it seems to exist in two forms, in two languages, hence the title of my talk – which uses the two more standard titles, one Old French, the other Occitan: that is, the Romance vernacular used in the Languedoc, in southern France; a koine whose range, in Richard’s time, would have stretched roughly from Poitiers to the Alps and Genoa to the Pyrenees. There has been long-standing debate as to which language the poem was written in first, and whether both versions are by Richard. The debate has consequences for language politics, French and Occitan identity-politics, and the mythification of poor Richard.

Given that his mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine, it is not impossible that Richard was bilingual. Some have suggested either a double redaction or composition in one language and translation into the other, so that it would be comprehensible to as many of his subjects as possible. This is not satisfactory, as the Oc and Oil linguistic families were sufficiently close in Richard’s time to be inter-comprehensible – as shown, for example, by bilingual debate- and epistolary poems, such as the other extant Richard poem, a sirventes to Dalphin d’Alvergne. Others have argued that Richard composed only one poem and sent it to his half-sister, Marie de Champagne, with the other version being a later translation by someone else. A third group hypothesizes that Richard wrote in a form of Poitevin that was on the language line, showing hybridized aspects, but falls just over the line onto the French side, as can be shown by one of the rhyme schemes in our poem. Lepage’s demonstration is pretty conclusive, through linguistic comparison with Richard’s sirventes.

Our extant manuscripts are composed at least a century after the poem was, with unknown intermediate stages. The manuscripts show not only considerable contaminatio but a degree of cross-contamination, across any of the standard proposed stemmata, that suggests there’s also consultatio, conflatio, and possibly innovatio going on. We may have a case here of a stemma-resistant tradition. This is also true in the language of the manuscripts, even though, of the ten copies of the poem, seven versions are usually termed “French” and three “Occitan.” The Zagrab manuscript, for example, is usually placed as the earliest member of the second French group (with KNOX), but shares many traits with the Occitan group, PSf.

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Some of this common ground shared by Z and the Occitan group is highlighted in the next slides – the main part of the talk, as I go through the poem – as I’ve included all vario lecta. My gut reaction is that there’s been some rewriting going on, on both sides – Occitan and French – to make the poem look more Occitan and troubadour. That squares with the codices’ dates and general character. Incidentally, something very similar happens to the poetry of Richard’s great-great-grandfather, the first known troubadour, William the Ninth or Guilhem de Peitieus. These chansonniers participate in the same late 13th through 14th century general phenomenon as the summa and encyclopedia (see: Busby, Poe, Burgwinkle, Huot); coupled with an attempt to collect and organize a poetry from an earlier culture – nearly extinguished by the Albigensian crusade. But it’s not just preservation; it’s more active, in adding sense to the poems (and, sometimes, even more content). Organization often incorporates narrativization, with the inclusion in the Occitan codices of vidas and razos, pseudo-biographies and commentaries attached to poems, within which they may be embedded in a story-collection, on which Dante’s Vita nuova may be modelled.

I’m quite happy with this state of affairs. Rather than trying to prove that one or other version is The Best One, or trying to reconstruct an Ur-Text, or otherwise get closer to Richard and what he meant in the poem, I’m happy to treat this as a hybrid poem, that includes multiple variants and readings, and at least tells us something about how it’s being read about a hundred years or so after Richard.

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Besides its linguistic complications, the poem is a formal hybrid. Its metrical structure is odd. Six stanzas, in three pairs, plus two tornadas or short final stanzas. For the main stanzas, each has 5 decasyllabic lines, assonant on the same rhyme, then one six syllable line ending with the refrain-word pris. 10aaaaa 6b Rhyme a: -on, -ent, -ain. The first tornada takes up the scheme of a previous stanza, the second is constructed from a single decasyllable + six-sylable line not concluding with pris but with Louis.

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The poem could (De Riquer) be classified as an Occitan canso. It is usually identified as a rotrouenge, an unusual form in either language’s medieval corpus. This can be a problem if an anthology organizes its poems by topic rather than just by author or form; so Richard’s poem tends to be placed with chansons de croisade or chansons historiques, that are more proper grand chants courtois. The rotrouenge is slightly better attested in French, but associated with more feminine and possibly populist material: chansons de toile – first-person lyric poetry by ladies mourning their loneliness as their lovers are away, usually on Crusade – or chansons de mal-mariée – ladies bewailing an unfortunate mismatch, usually with a much older and unappealing man. There’s still an allusion to the ongoing Crusades, in this 12th and 13th centutry corpus, but war seen from the other side, by those left alone back home.

OK: now for the new stuff. Whether this was done by Richard or by (a) later refashioner(s), I think the choice of form is a lovely twist: this feminine-voice form adopted by a man, with a possible social reversal too, and appropriately so, as a passive, impotent prisoner, writing about another other side to war and wartime tragedy: worse than distance, loss, death – being taken prisoner. I think this allusive gender-play – note that Richard never adopts a feminine persona – should also recall a known corpus of catalogues of women and other views from the other side, such as Ovid’s Heroides – a strong influence at the time – as well as a substantial corpus of mixed-gender dialogue-poetry in Occitan (the tenson), some of which is composed by men, some by women, some by both, and much of which features poets’ gender-swapping.

Our poem goes one further. Not only do we have a double-take on a feminine-associated poetry, there are also allusions to the Occitan lyric canso that have never been properly discussed. That’s what I’ll go onto now, in this last section of the talk, through the poem itself.

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Like in any classic canso, readers will find formal circularity and imprisonment-devices, echoing the internal circularity and imprisonment of unrequited, unhappy, impossible, or unresolvable love. Attemps at escape; some physical and temporal movement. But there’s always a certain pleasure in the balanced tension, conflict between wanting and not wanting the poem, and love-affair, and writing and life itself, to end; Agamben, Cholakian, and others have this as at least a fear of petite mort. There’s another balancing point in the poem, literally “turning point,” the tornada: we’ll get to that shortly.

So: here is the first stanza.

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What can be read as a fairly standard opening, as the poet seeks inspiration, faced with writer’s block. A reference to another prisoner, Boethius. The inspiration of anguish. Pun on don: the meanness of friends, and his own lack of poetic talent.

The second stanza introduces the refashioning of a Guilhem de Peitieus poem, Pos de chantar m’es pres talen: most clearly, in the naming of one’s men and territory; also, the repetition of the con – phoneme, and of conpagnon, occurs in several Guilhem poems. The great-great-grandfather of Our Richard, NB, and First Known Named Troubadour; so an Illustrious Ancestor whom one would wish to emulate and with whose creations and creativity one would wish to be associated…

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Spetia suggests that f has hypercorrected elements to more OC-ness: l. 5 P has ma reezon, f ma rezemson; l. 11 retraison in P but problem as in OC retraison means “retelling” not “reproach” so f changed whole line, per guap si per ver non.

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Note another common thing with Z: l. 16, FR molt m’es de moi, mes plus m’est de ma gent becomes mal m’es de mi, mas peiz m’es por ma gent: means “I’m sorry” rather than “it matters to me” – a FR set phrase that doesn’t exist in OC.

STANZA IV: very fin’ amors… be that straight(-up) suffering love, or kink through the political parallel, or the happy fun of a simultaneous double sense, or imported material inserted in collage from elsewhere. It’s so pastiche (or cliché, or classic) that it’s hard to read straight. That might just be me and the peculiar thing that happens when you read too much troubadour lyric poetry, the Occitanist version of a jaded palate. (Our palates never jade, we just become over-japing jades.)

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Notes from Spetia: Demonstrating composition in FR. 118-20: OC text (PS vs f). The most important linguistic element is the –ain rhyme scheme in stanzas V and VI of PS and both tornadas in P. f is missing both these stanzas. You can’t have ai followed by a nasal, as you would in FR. While in the North aingrain < GRANUM because the final –m changes into a –n, in the South the articulation of labial nasals remains unchanged, so these two words can’t rhyme. A rhyming irregularity can be seen in PS vv. 25-26 and 37-38: j’am/Persera[i]n, sobraim/clam, plus the rest of these stanzas and the 2nd tornada. The sequence of –ain excludes the possibility that this is isolated oilism, imputable to a model for P and S though oilisms do occur in both codices (120 n. 36) – more likely, it comes from the archetype. And in fact the rhyme scheme for these last two stanzas and the tornadas is perfect (in Oil).

Spetia concludes that the FR redaction is the original one, but also the only one that can be ascribed to Richard [this is her novelty]; if in fact he had translated the rotrouenge into OC, he would have had to modify the –ain ­rhyme scheme, impossible in that language.

The 5-6 stanza sequence is a first point of major manuscript disagreement–one of our “cultures of war” combats here, a war within the poem, of what this poem is. Such disagreements are a nice way to see compositors at work making sense of the poem: the more variants there are, the greater the semantic instability and/or destabilisation, the more likely it is you’ve landed on one of the central key “nodes” around with the network that is the poem as a whole has been woven. That is, art made using words, where the artistry is at once in the words themselves and in what they make together as a whole, and less in what is there than in what is not there. Spaces, silences, the way they add punctuation and rhythm. Reference and representation, condensation, synoptic allusive snapshots; dense allusion, conjuring up associations and connotations; poetic intertextual cross-reference; bref, the “poetic language” of Dante and Jacobsen. What makes this poetry is also its covert opacity, open to reading between the lines and in the cracks and gaps, allowing and actively inviting delving and diving inside words and sounds, open to multiple readings, a garden of forking paths (some of which join up again). The art of poetic space opens space for interpretation. A poem does not make sense; sense has to be made out of it, it can only ever offer the (future contingent) possibility of sense(s), to potential readers. A poem is in perpetual motion, multiple, fluid, alive.

Without necessarily going all dialectical or Derridean or psychoanalytic: comparing the differences, the scribal decisions to be different from at least one other known manuscript, and aside from seeing how manuscript family trees are generated, you can can see an individual human mind at work, actively engaging with the poem, at times fighting (with) it and other hands contributing to it, as a collective composition. Making sense of poetic space; an act of creation, interpretation, and continuation; showing one way (sense, sans, sen, sententia) to “adventure” in and through a poem, ideally whilst not just keeping other paths open but opening up fresh ones, out of what is already there.

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Of our ten manuscript witnesses, one of the Occitan ones (S) stands out from the rest as it only retains three stanzas; that codex is an anthology that collects together mostly love-lyric, and the poem formed by stanzas 4-6-5 retains only those stanzas that are dense with fin’ amors / amor de loing terms and ideas (long time, heart, to love), none of those that mention filthy lucre, none of the tornadas, none of the parts that are trickier to make sense of. The resulting poem also picks up on the most heavily Guilhem de Peitieus motifs (companions, identifying proper nouns); more heavily emphasized, compared to the other versions of the poem, simply because the poem itself is shorter. S’s poem reads like a companion-piece to Pos de chantar m’es pres talen, a comment, continuation, riff. On love, and/or/as also the loving friendship of companions. Placing stanza 5 last (as also do ms ) ends the poem on a note of nostalgia and loss: again, perhaps showing affiliation with Pos de chantar. I say “perhaps” as of course I don’t know: there are many other possible reasons, some tediously practical like only having a partial manuscript as a base for copying, or writing from memory and only remembering (or misremembering) part of a poem, or only one’s favourite parts.

One of the other Occitan witnesses, f, does something close to the opposite: eliminating stanzas 5 and 6. These stanzas do repeat and elaborate on information already provided in stanzas 1 and 2, about the companions, so they could be superfluous; their absence enables this version of the poem to focus on one single relationship, between the first-person voice and the “lord”; stanza 4 ends the main body of the poem with lo cor dolent and ja trop longemant  and enables a more logical flow into this version’s ending, with the next two tornada stanzas. A tighter canso though now with a changed balance, over-weighty towards the tornadas, which could leave an effect of greater entrapment in ever-decreasing stanzaic circles (more on this in a moment).

Of our other eight witnesses, three others (four in total) skip stanza 5 entirely. Why would one do so? Well, following the extreme example of f, it’s redundant. It could be a later addition, thus not present and copied in one manuscript family. It’s mean about the Angevins and Tourains. That’s a good sensible reason to suppress it.

Four have stanzas 5 and 6 in the opposite order. Reading 6 then 5 makes argumentative sense: these guys would be scoundrels were they to make war on me; there’s then a comparison with some other people who did exactly that; and then there is a conclusion: and therefore we are bereft of great feats of arms in the here and now. This is the majority reading, and includes the third Occitamn manuscript, P.

Question: if this is the majority group, and if the original was (as Spetia argues) in French, then is P the oldest of the (newer) Occitan translations and are f and S later? And attempts at putting a very different slant on the poem? A slant that moves meaning towards a more Occitan canso feel, and away from the political satirical sirventes. That shift away from the political could in itself be political, to preserve and perpetuate a certain perception of Occitan literature. It could also serve to keep the rest of the poem open, so that the poem as a whole is not hampered by restriction in fixed time and space.

Only two manuscripts have the 5-6 order I’m using; this preserves the chronological order of events, from past to present, with the hypothesis in the middle (and, nicely and neatly, as a point of irreality in the middle of the poem as a whole, a completely different order of semantic uncertainty).

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The tornada, ancestor of the French envoi–“send-off”–is a final cobla (or more than one) that closes the poem, usually differentiated formally from the rest of the poem, for instance in being shorter, and having a different rhyme-scheme or picking up the rhyme-scheme of the end of the main body coblas. If the main body of a poem concentrates on the internal – musing, talking to oneself, arguing with the divided self – the ending attempts to move out of this close circle of despair. This movement–formal and functional–is akin to that in the later sonnet; and, indeed, the latter is familially related to its earlier Occitan relatives (via Sordello, for example). Movement may be a change from a first-person voice representing the poet-lover, to a voice which represents the poem itself. It may be a change in address, to the poem itself or its transmitter (messatges being either or both of these); or to the patron; or to another higher divine figure; or to the lady, or other intended recipient. She may have been referred to previously, but always in an indirect way.

The tornada will address her directly, though often using a disguise-name, a senhal. Senhal is also, more generally, “sign”: thus, the lady becomes transformed herself, transfigured into a cipher, in the same way as the tornada transforms the poem. The tornada produces effects of imprisonment and unsuccessful attempts to escape (the poem, the unsuccessful love-affair, the troubled self); it is at once a tantalizing offer of “closure” and a threat of continued entrapment within the rhyme-cage, “turning around” in tighter circles with the shorter stanza/s. Ends of poems (see Agamben) are often the place of highest manuscript instability in Occitan lyric: in many poems, as in this one, you’ll find a range of attempts at ending, or keeping things going; closing off meaning as a senhal is solved or made explicit, or changing it (and proper nouns, and the time-space fixing of the poem, and its sense), or trying to keep meaning open or to open it up again. A reminder of stanzaic order across the manuscripts:

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While all the manuscripts that have these two stanzas keep them in the same order (which might be the only one that makes sense), see how ambiguity, disambiguation, and resistance to one or the other play out in the manuscript vario lecta:

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[in the original, there was some stuff on comparative manuscript readings; I’ve reconstructed some from the notes and moved it earlier on, but left one example here] some of the grammatical instability / mess / misdirection / redirection / poetic battling affect the political references to a real-world ruler who disappears, replaced by a lady (a real-world other person, an amorous lady, a universal lady for any place and time, the Virgin Mary, all of the above).

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Loeys. This is Louis de Blois; son of Alice de Blois, Richard’s half-sister, daughter of Eleanor and Louis VII, wife of Thibaut V. Mention of Louis could be associated with his having succeeded his father to the government of the county, and then rebelled against Philip Augustus, recognising Richard as his rightful sovereign. [It’s also alleged that Richard got on with the other half-sister, Marie de Champagne, but not with Alis, reputed to be a bit dull.] Richard was imprisoned by Louis’s mother, so she’s the “key.”

That leads me to Trobar clus: in its usual sense, a style of composition favoured by, amongst others, one of Richard’s own court poets, Arnaut Daniel. Literally, trobar clus is “closed finding.” An extended concept of clus poetry, with clus in its broad sense, may be deployed in discussing the “enclosure” of lyric entrapment. The idea’s quite straight-forward: a cunningly constructed poem springs its trap on the reader, who can’t make sense of it and get out without the key. The tables are turned. To unlock the poem, you need the key. There’s a wealth of named locks, keys, and even counter-keys (Guilhem de Peitieus) with Richard’s contemporaries and predecessors: for instance, Arnaut Daniel, Guiraut de Borneil, Raimon de Miraval, Raimbaut d’Aurenga, Peire d’Alvernhe, Bertran de Born, Peire Vidal, and Arnaut de Mareuil. You’ve got another example right here: when pris turns, in the French manuscripts, to Louis. A second kind of lock and key motif is the address to the beloved, often under a disguised, assumed, or nickname; often with gender-reversal. Here, for instance, even in the most Frenchified readings of the poem.

It’s interesting to note that in the more recent continuation of the collection-tradition, when this poem is anthologised in its Occitan version the second tornada has been know to be ommited. [2015 EDIT: I will investigate this issue further in more anthologies to see if there is indeed a consistent pattern, or a continuation of one editorial decision in one, classic, edition.] Martín de Riquer, for example, uses f as his base (la bella qu’ieu am tan in stanza 7 is the give-away) yet ends with the first tornada, even though that manuscript has the second one too (as does P; the only manuscriptds lacking it are French ones plus the three-stanza S version!). Pierre Bec uses Riquer’s edition, continuing the error; neither offers other readings. Thus, the poem is ended on a canso note, sending it out as a plea for mercy to the domna; and in wistful atemporality. Compare to the second tornada‘s very defined ending in very real time and space, and (Chartres) in The North. Twentieth-century language politics at work, as part of the modern Occitan revival, reducing French presence tainting The South? Or trying to maintain poetic openness? Or both, perhaps, in continuing Occitan mythopoesis: irrealist idyll, preserved outside of material referents and real time and place, Occitania *as* poetic space.

I hope that “the poet,” a.k.a. the several hands that composed this poem, might have been redeemed somewhat and turn out not be that bad a poet after all, as he does something really rather interesting with French and Occitan literature, particularly OC lyric, and that makes us look at OC lyric anew. That it’s not all psychomachia, psychological imprisonment, Ovidian lovesickness, and psychosexual repression, sublimation, avoidance, and postponement. It’s a real imprisonment too. In this turn of the century period, and given Richard’s patronage, there’s a strong chance of his influence on OC imprisonment poetry (Arnaut Daniel).

Though the most obvious interpretation, to my eye, is Richard being tongue in cheek – and the cheek of it all – not imprisoned by the infidel, but by Christians. That temps me towards to a final suspicion: given how much of this literature is of dubious genuineness – the whole vidas and razos business, on which see Burgwinkle – as are its transmission – this could be a post-Albigensian Crusade composition, attributed to Richard. So we’ve moved from culture ­in war, to culture of war with imprisonment-poetics and poetry, and along the way, we can wonder about the exact bellicose status of hybridization: as cultural warfare or the contrary, peace-loving playful merry intercourse. We’re also left with a possible war in culture, or culture war; when Occitan literary history is, shall we say, creatively reconstructed by the chansonniers there are consequences for Occitan cultural identity and history and its part in French and European history, identity, and culture.

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