Magpies (1): on Eugene Onegin, birds of an intelligent variety, how one might distinguish these birds from other birds and from one another and why one might wish to do so, and language teaching


As promised a week ago: magpies.

I was thinking about birds back in July, partly because I had finally got around to reading Sarah Kay’s Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry (2013). This reading and thinking went on hold because a family member ended up in hospital and that rather took priority. While tidying my office, I found the notes I’d taken (mostly on a train so the writing is harder than usual to decipher). They will duly be squinted at, hopefully deciphered and transcribed, and continued and rendered coherent. Wish me luck, my handwriting is bad at the best and slowest-writing of times.

So. Parrots and nightingales.

I was reminded of birds and citation while watching Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin a week or so ago (thanks to my hosts JJI and CIJ, and others in that good company). The opening scene is woven around a “saw” about heaven sending you habit instead of happiness; and that stability, solid banality, being something you settle for instead of wanting Great Exciting Things (= men, in this opera’s case) In Life. Here’s the full text:

(The garden of the Larin country estate. On the left a house with a terrace; on the right, a shady tree. It is early evening.
Madame Larina is sitting under the tree making jam on qa portable stove; Filipyevna is helping her. The doors leading from the house onto the terrace are open and the voices of the two girls, singing a duet, can be heard coming from within.)

Have you not heard, from beyond the grove at night,
the voice that sings of love and sings of sorrow?
When, at the morning hour, the fields lay silent,
the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard? …
Then the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard? …

They are singing, and I, too,
Used to sing that song in days gone by.
Do you remember? I used to sing it too.

You were young then.

(The duet continues as the older women chat and reminisce.)

Have you not sighed
On hearing that sweet voice
sing of love
and of its sorrows?
When in the forest …

How I loved Richardson!

You were young then.

Not that I’d read his books.
but in the old days Princess Alina.
my cousin in Moscow,
kept on to me about him.

Yes, I remember.

… you saw a youth
and met the gaze

of his sunken eyes …

Ah, Grandison! Ah, Richardson!

At that time your husband
was still courting you, but against your will;
you were dreaming of another,
one who pleased you much more
in heart and mind!

… did you not sigh? Did you not sigh? etc.

Ah, Richardson!
Why, he was a fine dandy,
a gambler and an ensign in the Guards!

Years long gone by!

How well I always used to dress!

Always in the latest fashion!

Always in the fashion and becomingly!

Always in the fashion and becomingly!

… Did you not sigh,
when you met the gaze
of his sunken eyes,
did you not sigh, did you not sigh, etc.

But suddenly, without even asking me …

… They married you off without further ado!
Then, to relieve your unhappiness …

Oh, how I cried to begin with!
I nearly left my husband!

… the master came straight here.
Here you busied yourself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.

I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.

And God be thanked!

Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

Corset, album, Princess Pauline,
the book of sentimental verse,
I forgot them all.

You began
to call the maid Akulka instead of “Céline”
and restored at last …

Ah …

… the quilted dressing gown and mob cap!
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
Yes, that is how it is:
habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

But my husband loved me truly …

But the master loved you truly …

… and trusted me unreservedly.

… And trusted you unreservedly.

Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

(The singing of an approaching band of peasants is heard in the distance.)

My swift little feet ache from walking.

… Ache from walking.

My white hands ache from working.

… Ache from working.
My ardent heart aches from caring.
I don’t know what to do,
how to forget my sweetheart.
My swift little feet, etc.

There are parallels between nineteenth-century Russia and the twelfth- to fourteenth-century Languedoc (and, indeed, medieval western Europe more broadly). This is the far reach of Troubadour lyric reception and transmission.

A popular (oral, presumably) saying that could as easily be a lyric poem / song quotation.

It is recast when placed, transposed, translated to a different context.

The recasting has a didactic purpose: remembering the message and the moral.

Narrative and conversation are built around it, through characters, action, circumstances.

We see explanation and elaboration, commentary and continuation, transposition to another time and place and situation; which is
(a) classic learning including of kinds more fashionable now (Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning in Action, summative, deductive) and
(b) how metaphors and/or/as (depending on your critical-theoretical stance) figurative thinking work, in practice. This is something that’s finely worked in (to take my standard example for pretty much anything and everything) Flamenca, in the extreme slow motion of scenes of poetic composition and in post-performance discussion, so as to ensure understanding and compose a response. Many things come back around to  Flamenca. 

The reworked saying-turned-into-song is followed by another song, again love-lyric that feels old.

As with other literary material changing register and audience, there’s a shift from high socio-cultural register to low and back again; registers may coexist coterminously simultaneously. This is part of the long historical process through which we ended up with fairy-tales; and with the young Montaigne being caught reading much-despised unfashionable chivalric adventures, sneakily, at school (Essais I.26 “De l’institution des enfans”).

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Anyway. A happy coincidence, Onegin and the found notebook.

Those tired little feet and that pipe could be birds; birds at dawn, that first sound of the day, is the alba or dawn-song; and that that in turn triggers the Onegin thread about light, and/as a beautiful blinding shining beloved–all very “Song of Songs,” Bernard de Clairvaux sermonising thereon, and lyric in general–and got me to thinking about, you guessed it, Flamenca… and her kin, via La Princesse de Clèves and Fiammetta (and Boccaccio’s recasting of Floire et Blancheflor–an internationally fashionable novel in Europe, and as featured prominently in Flamenca–as Filocolo)… and how they end up in 19th-c. Italian operas, and that opera is a high point in multi-media broad-sense translation, melting together and melding materials, continuation, refashioning, bref: what “romance” turns into and how, in that shape (vs. the big 19th-c. novel) it retains or renews medieval romance characteristics that had been lost in the cultural translation to print.

I’d been thinking about opera as I was wondering why I get less pissy about an opera getting the Tristan love-philtre business wrong than I would when a written novel does. (I still get pissy and prissy, don’t get me wrong.)

The final scene in Eugene Onegin is one of the things in different interpretations / interprétations aka performances that causes controversy through variation. That is the sort of thing that draws attention, to an open-ended point, an ambiguity, a gap open to interpretation. “Minding the gap” is often key to finding and making sense, though often in so doing literary criticism can close it off in resolutions that are eventually unsatisfying in comparison with the original openness of a poem. See for comparison any medieval poem existing in multiple versions, where the Points Of Interest are (for folks like me anyway) always those where such variation occurs. For an example on this present blog, see Richard the Lionheart’s “Pris”.


The more recent Met opera version, for example, adds a suggestion of revenge, of the Having And Getting having been reversed, with ironic lessons for Onegin. See for comparison (and some further suggestive light reading):

in trobairitz lyric:

La Comtessa de Día “Estat ai en greu cossirier” (PC 46.4), “Fin ioi me dona alegranssa” (PC 46.5)
Castelloza, “Amics s’ trobes avinen” (PC 109.1)
the Maria de Ventadorn & Gui d’Ussel tenso “Gui d’Usel be.m pesa” (PC 194.9/295.1), and the curious one between Almuc de Castelnou and Iseut de Capion (PC 20.2/253.1)
Alamanda & Giraut de Bornelh, “S’ qier conseill, bella amia Alamanda” (PC 12a.1/242.69)
Domna & Pistleta, “Bona domna, un conseill vos deman” (PC 372.4)
Felipa & Arnaut Plagues, “Ben volgra midons saubes” (PC 32.1)
Guilielma de Rosers & Lanfranc Cigala, “Na Guilielma, maint cavalier arratge” (PC 200.1/282.14)
the tenso “Bona domna, tan vos ay fin coratge” (PC 461.56)
“Ab lo cor trist environat d’esmay” (PC 461.2)
(and others, and bits and hints in other, male-voice, canso of the 1000+ lyric corpus; not all texts are online; bibliography follows at end of post)

Louise Labé read with and against Liz Phair (see especially “Fuck And Run,” a life-changing track for many a young woman in the early 1990s) and PJ Harvey.

Germaine Greer read against postfeminism; radfem in counterpoint and conversation with burlesque and pole-dancing, for exploring grey areas and blurred lines between objectification and sex-positive empowerment.

Here is the final scene in the opera libretto:

(The drawing room of Prince Gremin’s house in St. Petersburg.
Tatyana, in elegant morning dress, enters holding a letter.)

O, how distressed I am!
Once more Onegin has crossed my path
like a relentless apparition!
His burning glance
has troubled my heart
and reawakened my dormant passion
so that I feel like a young girl again
and as if nothing had ever parted us!

(She weeps.
Onegin appears at the door. He stands for a moment gazing passionately at the weeping Tatyana, then runs to her and falls to his knees at her feet. She looks at him, evincing neither anger nor surprise, then motions him to rise.)

Enough, get up, I must
talk to you frankly.
Onegin, do you remember that time
when, in the avenue in our garden,
fate brought us together and I listened
so meekly to your lecture?

O spare me, have pity!
I was so mistaken; I have been cruelly punished!

Onegin, I was younger then,
and a better person, I think!
And I loved you, but what, then,
what response did I find
in your heart? Only severity!
Am I not right in thinking, that
A simple young girl’s love was no novelty to you?
Even now … dear God, my blood runs cold
whenever I recall that cold look,
that sermon!
But I do not blame you …
In that dreadful moment
you behaved honourably,
you acted correctly towards me.
At that time, I suppose, in the back of beyond,
far from the frivolity of social gossip,
you didn’t find me attractive. Why, then,
do you pursue me now?
Why am I the object of such attentions?
Could it be because I now
frequent the highest circles,
because I am rich and of the nobility,
because my husband, wounded in battle,
enjoys, on that account, the favour of the court?
Could it not be that my disgrace
would now be generally remarked
and would confer upon you
the reputation of a seducer?

Oh! My God!
Is it possible that in my humble pleading
your cold look sees nothing
but the wiles of a despicable cunning?
Your reproach torments me!
If you only knew how terrible
it is to suffer love’s torments,
to endure and to constantly check
the fever in the blood by reason,
to long to clasp your knees
and, weeping at your feet,
pour out prayers, avowals, reproaches,
all, all that words can express!

I am weeping!

Weep on, those tears are dearer
than all the treasures in the world!

Ah! Happiness was within our reach,
so close! So close!


Happiness was within our reach,
so close! So close! So close!

But my fate has already been decided, and irrevocably!
I am married; you must,
I beg you, leave me!

Leave you? Leave you! What! … Leave you?
No! No!
To see you hourly,
to dog your footsteps, to follow
your every smile, movement and glance
with loving eyes,
to listen to you for hours, to understand
in my heart all your perfection,
(falling to his knees, he seizes Tatyana’s hand and covers it with kisses)
to swoon before you in passionate torment
turn pale and pass away: this is bliss,
this is my only dream, my only happiness!

(somewhat frightened, she withdraws her hand)
Onegin, your heart knows
both pride and true honour!

I cannot leave you!

Eugene! You must. I beg you
to leave me.

Oh, have pity!

Why hide it, why pretend?
Ah! I love you!

(Overwhelmed by her confession, she sinks on Onegin’s breast. He embraces her, but she recovers her composure quickly and frees herself.)

What do I hear?
What was that word you spoke?
O joy! Oh, my life!
You are again the Tatyana of former days!

No! No!
You cannot bring back the past!
I am another’s now,
my fate is already decided,
I shall always be true to him.

(She tries to leave, but sinks down, overcome. Onegin kneels before her.)

Oh, do not drive me away; you love me!
And I will not leave you!
You will ruin your life for nothing!
This is the will of Heaven: you are mine!
All your life has been a pledge
of our union!
And be assured, I was sent to you by God,
I am your protector to the grave!
You cannot refuse me.
For me you must forsake
this hateful house, the clamour of society –
You have no choice!

(rising to her feet)
Onegin, I shall remain firm; …

No, you cannot …
… refuse me …

… to another by fate …
… have I been given,
with him will I live and never leave him; …

… For me …
… you must forsake all, all –
hateful house and social clamour!
You have no choice!
Oh, do not drive me from you, I implore!
You love me; you will ruin
your life for nothing!
You are mine, mine for ever!

… No, I must remember my vows!
Deep in my heart his desperate appeal
strikes an answering chord,
but having stifled the sinful flame,
honour’s severe and sacred duty
will triumph over the passion!
I leave you!

No! No! No! No!


Oh, I implore you: do not go!

No, I am resolved!

I love you! I love you!

Leave me!

I love you!

Farewell for ever!

(She leaves the room.)

(He stands stupefied for a moment, plunged in despair.)
Ignominy! … Anguish! …
Oh, my pitiable fate!

(He rushes out.)

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So where’s this going?

Birds, citation, and light. Cheesy lyrics. Triteness, cliché, emptiness, indeterminable sincerity. Old songs with old words, used and abused and overused so much as to pass from implicit and assumed allusion, through common currency / popular unconscious / cultural trope or meme, to vacuousness. Somewhere in the middle is what we see in the scene above, and severally in Flamenca (it’s one of the cheekiest things about its mordant satire): mimicry, empty-headed imitation. Parroting.

Parrots pop up periodically. They’ve appeared before on this here blog, back in January and October 2014.

We all love nightingales, and you get a lot of them in opera: heart-breakingly achingly sublime song about sweet **** all, often of about the same level as the lovers’ discourse in Flamenca (on which and its Eurovision-ness see “Le non-dit in Flamenca: language, courtliness, and languages of courtliness“). Pure emotion, words sublimated to their moody and sensual associations, to a music of sounds.

Nightingales, like many a cute little song-bird, can be a bit dim. Sure one can overlook that and just see the prettiness. And then all that pining means they get miserable and die fast.

Parrots, on the other hand, show more signs of intelligent life, not least in living for longer.

Intelligence, in medieval poetic birding terms, seems to be attached to the capacity for uttering anthropomorphic sound; to borrow and grossly oversimplify and probably mangle a central idea from Parrots and Nightingales, this maps analogically onto two forms and routes of Occitan poetic transmission:

  • nightingales / citation / sound and emotion, recreation rather than verbatim repetition
  • parrots / quotation / exact language and text, verbatim repetition in the original language

The beginning of that book’s “Conclusion” (excerpt, 196-97):

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There are other intelligent birds.

As it so happens, that intensive reading-and-notes session ended when my train came into a station and I made my way to my destination. Bird-brained. The first birds I saw were crows, the sinister Scottish variety in misty mizzly gloaming.

Corvids, I thought.


Smart but not speaking, harbingers, psychopomps, with the Morrigan on battle-fields, Odin’s ravens, Sandman. A sense of an otherworldy or alien intelligence rather than a human-compatible one.

There are other corvids too, I thought. Ones that are less sinister and bleak. The parti-coloured ones. Black and white. That reminds me of someone rather interesting:

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Timothy L. Stinson, “Illumination and Interpretation: The Depiction and Reception of Faus Semblant in ‘Roman de la Rose’ Manuscripts.” Speculum 87.2 (2012): 469-98. (all three images link to the article)

And someone else, not unrelated:

Jean Pichoré; in Petrarch,

illust. Jean Pichoré; anon. French translation of Petrarch, “Les remèdes de l’une et l’autre fortune,” BNF fr. 225 fol. 1r (1503).

When my father was a child, he had a magpie that he taught to speak.

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Magpies (and jays), then. La gazza ladra. Speech, intelligence, and the wit/wits of theft. A theft that shows discernment, choice, planning; and aesthetic judgement, going for the sparkly stuff.

Derivative ingenuity.

Not–or, not just–imitation. Innovation and improvisation.

Much more up my street of “what counts as literature.”

Also, magpies are amusing, even when they mock and when that’s bordering on the annoying. I like that in a bird as I do in people. I fell a certain warm fondness towards chatter, and sympathy when it’s dismissed as idle annoying chatter. That might have something to do with femininity or Irishness; it might simply be being human.

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Applied medievalism, education, language learning: right now in beginners’ French courses here at UBC, we’re attempting to integrate more pronunciation under severe practical constraints. 35 students in a class (and multiple sections), 3 hours per week. Should be 15-20 (and more like 12-15 for concentrated pronunciation) and 5-6 hours.Well, let’s see what we can magpie here.

These courses are a balancing act: written and aural comprehension, written and aural production, and a variety of approaches to the “language” that is being learned as a language: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics; philology and historical morphology; practical use in a range of contexts, including creative and ludic ones (good old learning through play, sentence and solaas) and exposition to culture and, yes, literature. To see a language as a whole.

Students are keen on pronunciation. This is always for sensible reasons with which I sympathise. And it’s frustrating–for students and instructors alike–that we can’t do more of it, one on one. It is possible that we will be cooperating with a project in linguistics that will help, and may help more widely in more general innovation.

Questions about pronunciation can also be associated with the asker being from conservative authoritarian educational cultures, where I’ll be asked about the authoritative pronunciation by students wanting one single answer to a question. Rather than many or approaching a question as the start to more questions and conversation, to learning more (for example, about different regions and sound-shifts and history), to questions behind questions, to questioning itself, to critical thinking. Thinking and learning at a “higher education” or just plain “higher” level.

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My other worry about questions about pronunciation is about what happens if a course that is supposed to be about a language as a whole is obliged, because of practical constraints, to limit itself. One way to do this is to rank elements and remove some of them. In the past, this course removed an obligation to do regular practice outside class. At that time, that regular practice was in the form of exercises in an exercise book. When the course changed through the 1990s to the 2000s from being five days a week with a maximum of twenty students, to three (plus a “lab” hour) and growing numbers… now 35 or more… it became impossible to read let alone mark those practice exercises. We’re now able to have them again, in the form of self-correcting online exercises.

Pronunciation was also removed from formal assessment for similar reasons of practicality: it would be a full-time job, in terms of hours per week, just to assess pronunciation with one single group of students. For FREN101 and 102 over the course of year, and twenty-plus sections, that would mean either shifting TA work to this kind of marking–and persuading research faculty to teach the classes themselves–or hiring another dozen or so teaching faculty. That is not financially viable right now. As a side-note, yes, it would be very nice if student fees were actually to go directly into their teaching and learning, which is after all why they are here at a university.

I’ve tried to rebalance things by adding more pronunciation back in, and by adding in more reading and “culture et civilisation.” I see this course as an introduction to French, in the fullest sense of that phrase: to learning about and starting to understand a foreign place, culture, alien world.

Just doing pronunciation alone, in a vacuum, devoid of sense and context results in the production of parrots. See “Speke parrot.” Being able to sound French and pronounce menu items correctly is only so good so far. This isn’t a competition to see how long you can fake it: it’s a living human language. 

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In a next stage of parroting, students practice and “learn” standard scripted conversations. How to react in a set of situations. This can include some variety and room for individual expression: of individual preferences, for example. The selection of situations can be problematic (or dire). While “if – then – next” flow-charts can be useful, they’re actually more of a hindrance in real life if a student runs into a different script-line or an unexpected replique. The comical result: “this does not compute; a fatal syntax error has occurred; crash; reload page and reboot.” A student ends up looking foolish and robotic. Not just foreign and lost, but inhuman. An early simple online AI years ago would do better.

What’s the solution?

  1. Asking questions.
    This is effectively a loop back in the system to a default “if in doubt, ask” line. So one of the first things to be learned has to be saying one doesn’t understand (apologetically, with all verbal and non-verbal cues inciting sympathy or indeed empathy: keeping the lost learner human) and formulating the right question that picks up on the cue of what is not understood. This is another reason why students need to get into the habit of questioning, of questioning being a vital part of human interactions; being a key part of Francophone culture helps.
  2. Listening.
    Showing interest. Ideally, accompanied by actual genuine interest. Curiosity (and a questioning mind, ouverture d’esprit). The main point of engaging in conversation has to be, well, engagement. Interaction with an aim to understand. Another point of emphasizing humanity here, that interest in others and what they know and have to say and are, sympathy and empathy. Understanding understanding, in the context of language-and-culture, is vital part number two. One of several reasons for including more texts, videos, and so on in that part of the course that is on reception and comprehension a.k.a. understanding.

  3. Intelligence.
    Using it to spot and respond to change. Pattern-recognition. To react, improvise, adapt to the unpredictable and unknown, a.k.a. be human. This means putting both 1 and 2 above into play, so as to avoid getting frozen stuck in the parrot / AI fatal loop.

The parroting of beautiful exact pronunciation, intonation, and delivery is beautiful but empty, devoid of intentionality and meaning. Capable of soliloquy, solo performance. And no more. Incapable of communication, meaningful human interaction, active participation in a culture.

That is not “speaking the language.”

As opposed to? Nightingale-ing would be translation: and yes, we do some of that too, for example as a part of comprehension. Understanding being important in a language, and part of the attentive listening of entendemen. You need this too.

Here’s another option. Thinking about entendemen again, and the “understanding” of a relationship: how about communing with and inhabiting a language? Even in passing as a tourist, a temporary or permanent resident. Invited in and graciously accepting that invitation, hospitality, a free gift by one’s host, their generosity to be reciprocated by gratitude and respect.

Anything else is use, abuse, colonialism and conquest. “Master the French tongue,” the kind of phrase that’s a blurb-cliché in the language-learning market: says it all.

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Jennifer Borland, ” The Forested Frontier: Commentary in the Margins of the Alhambra Ceiling Paintings.” Medieval Encounters 14 (2008): 303-340. On magpies, see 312-15.

Here’s another thing about parrots, nightingales, and AIs. How do you tell the difference between a live bird and an automaton? Does it matter? Should it? Which is better? A convincing automaton will seem good the longer it “passes,” but does credit go to it or to its maker? Automata are certainly marvellous: amongst the beauties of the Eastern court as observed by Charlemagne, the tomb in Floire et Blancheflor, other Byzantine wonders in Old French romance.

But I don’t particularly wish to produce, let alone gain valor e pretz, for producing fine parrots or sweet nightingales or automata.

I want to help people to become magpies. Manipulating language, doing things actively and creatively with it, playing, chattering, thieving, weaving shiny pretty things into one’s own nest… only for them to be reused later. Adding back to the language and culture and enriching their own original one(s).

How does that work in practice? The fairly new-fangled art of copy-paste and its subsequent creative derivatives; collecting snippets, scrap-booking, savouring; using language creatively; punning. Accepting that some things cannot be “owned,” only borrowed. Some shininess can “only” be appreciated: the transient play of light, glimmer and glamour. That’s still enjoyable and enriching.

When confronted with brilliance, don’t try to bag it; or to exercise dominance and sole control over the experience of it by declaring “that’s brilliant”; rather, ask the person next to you: “isn’t that brilliant?”

Which, to conclude in hasty-looking Montaignian fashion, is pretty much how I feel about Eugene Onegin as someone “without” Russian.


Lee Raye, “Back when the birds spoke Gaelic.” Eoghan MacLachlainn, “Dàn mu Chonaltradh”: A tawny owl (Strix aluco) and magpie (Pica pica) have a battle of wits and it gets UGLY. An ambiguous grey bird is the judge. Source: Natural History – Old Stories for Scientists, New Interpretations for Historians. The Natural History blog aims to decipher the environment of medieval Britain.

While unbound from being able to do or think much about Parrots and Nightingales due to external world interventions, I didn’t drop the idea. I spent a fair bit of the summer observing the local magpies.

Magpies (2) will be: some more about magpies, including where they turn up in medieval Occitan lyric. With thanks to the COM.


Bec, Pierre, ed. Chants d’amour des femmes-troubadours: trobairitz et “chansons de femme.” Paris: Stock, 1995. [OC-FR]

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard and Sarah White, eds. and trans. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland, 1995. [OC-EN]

Ricketts, Peter T., Alan Reed, F.R.P. Akehurst, John Hathaway, and Cornelius Van Der Horst, eds. Concordance of Medieval Occitan Literature. CD 1: lyric texts. CD 2: verse narrative texts. 2 vols. to date. Tornhout: Brepols, 2001- . [OC]

Rieger, Angelica, ed. Trobairitz. Der Beitrag der Frau in altokzitanischen höfischen Lyrik. Edition des Gesamptkorpus. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1991. [OC-DE]

Riquer, Martín de, ed. Los Trovadores. Historia literaria y textos. 3 vol. Barcelona: Planeta, 1975. [OC-SP]



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