gender inequality in courtly love: why Marcabru spoke ill of women

Marcabru the troubadour

The brilliant twelfth-century troubadour Marcabru distinguished between true love and false love. He disparaged women for loving brutish men. He assailed men who allowed themselves to be cuckolded. Marcabru’s medieval Occitan vida states that he “spoke ill of women and of love {dis ma de las femnas e d’amor}.”[1] Why in writing about men-abasing courtly love would Marcabru have spoken ill of women and love?

In Marcabru’s time, a working man from Provence loved a highly privileged Genoese woman. Genoa was then an independent city-state and one of the wealthiest ports on the Mediterranean. Using his native language, the struggling Provençal man pleaded with the elite Genoese woman for her love:

Beautiful one, I have begged you so much,
if it please you, to love me,
I whom am your vassal,
for you are noble and well-educated
and you uphold all good worth.
For these reasons your friendship pleases me.
Since you are courteous in all you do,
my heart is fixed on you,
rather than on any other Genoese lady.
Your mercy will show if you love me,
and then I will be better repaid
than if Genoa were mine,
with all the wealth hoarded there
by the Genoese.

{ Bella, tant vos ai preiada plaz, q’amar me voillaz
Q’eu sui vostr’endomenjaz,
Car es pros et enseignada
E toz bos prez autreiaz,
Per qe.m plai vostr’amistaz;
Car es en toz faiz cortesa
S’es mos cors en vos fermaz
Plus q’en nulla Genoesa,
Per q’er merces si m’amaz;
E pois serai meilz pagaz
Qe s’era mia.ill ciutaz
ab l’aver q’es aiostaz
Dels Genoes. } [2]

The highly privileged Genoese woman responded in her Genoese language:

Minstrel, you are not courteous
in requesting this of me
since I will do nothing.
Go hang yourself
— I will not be your friend!
Indeed, I’ll slit your throat,
you cursed Provençal.
I’ll heap insults on you:
dirty, stupid, hairless!
I’ll never love you
because I have a husband more handsome
than you, and I know it well.
Go away, brother, for I have
better things to do with my time.

{ Iuiar, voi no sei corteso
Qe me chaideiai de zo,
Qe niente no farò.
Ance fossi voi apeso
— vostr’amia non serò.
Certo, ia ve scanerò,
Provenzal malaurao!
Tal enoio ve dirò:
Sozo, mozo, escalvao!
Ni ia voi non amerò,
Q’eu chu bello marì o
Qe voi no sei, ben lo so.
Andai via, frar’, eu temp’ò
Meillaura! }

The woman went on to disparage the man as having less sense than a cat. She also made further ethnic slurs against Provençals. When the man offered to serve her well sexually, she suggested that he go mount a pack-horse.

privileged lady

Courtly love was a form of structural gender oppression of men. Without concern for men’s disadvantaged position, some women treated men badly:

Lady, because of you I am in great torment.
— Sir, you act foolishly, and I am not grateful to you for that.
Lady, for God’s sake, be considerate.
— Sir, your pleas are wasted on me.
Good lady, I love you with a pure heart.
— Sir, and I desire you less than I desire anyone.
Lady, for that reason, I have a sorrowful heart.
— Sir, and I am happy and joyful.

Lady, I am dying for lack of encouragement from you.
— Sir, you are taking a long time to do it.
Lady, my life is worse than death.
— Sir, I’m pleased, provided I don’t cause your death.
Lady, I get nothing but discouragement from you.
— Sir, do you think you can force me to love you?
Lady, you can save me with a look.
— Sir, you have no hope or encouragement.

Lady, I then go elsewhere to beg for pity.
— Sir, then leave — who is keeping you?
Lady, I cannot because your love holds me back.
— It does that, Sir, without my help.
Lady, you always reply to me too harshly.
— Sir, that’s because I hate you more than anyone.
So, Lady, you will never be kind to me?
— Sir, it will be as you say, I believe.

{ Domna, per vos estauc en greu turmen.
— Senher, que fols faitz, qu’ieu grat en sen.
Domna, per dieu, ajatz en chauzimen.
— Senher, vostres precs hi anatz perden.
Bona domna, am ieu finamen.
— Senher, et vuelh peitz qu’a l’autra gen.
Domna, per so n’ai ieu lo cor dolen.
— Senher, et ieu alegre e iauzen.

Domna, ia muer per vos sens nulh cofort.
— Senher, ben trop n’auretz faich lonc acort.
Domna, ia es ma vida peigz de mort.
— Senher, so.m platz, sol que no’aya tort.
Domna, de vos non ai mas desconort.
— Senher, e doncs cujatz qu’ am per fort?
Domna, ab un semblan m’agratz estort.
— Senher, respieit no.n ajatz ni conort.

Domna, vauc doncs alhors clamar merce.
— Senher, anatz de sai — qui vos rete?
Domna, no puesc, que vostr’amors me te.
— Senes cosselh, senher, o fa de me.
Domna, trop mal mi respondetz ancse.
— Senher, quar peigz vos vuelh qu’az autra re.
E doncs, dona, no.m faretz ia nulh be?
— Senher, aissi er cum disez, so cre. } [3]

Cruel, uncaring women didn’t just treat unwanted men-lovers badly. They also treated their husbands badly:

I’m pretty, yet I have heavy despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

With that I’ll tell you why I so seek love:
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

Because I’m petite, young, and ready,
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

And a husband who makes me joyful is what I deserve,
with whom I could always laugh and play.
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

May God save me if I have ever loved him.
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

To sleep with him is bitter for me.
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

And when I see him I feel so ashamed
that I pray death will come to take him soon.
I’m pretty, yet I have grave despair
by my husband, for him I neither want nor desire.

{ Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

Q’en dirai per qe son aisi drusa,
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

Qar pauca son, ioveneta e tosa,
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

E degr’aver marit dunt fos ioiosa,
Ab cui toz temps pogues iogar e rire.
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

Ia Deus mi.n.sal se ia sui amorosa;
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

De lui amar, mia sui cubitosa,
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire.

Anz quant lo vie, ne son tant vergoignosa
q’er prec la mort qe.l venga tost aucire.
Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne.l voil ne.l desire. } [4]

After the introductory refrain, this song has end rhymes across the first lines of the stanzas, with every third stanza having four verses rather than three. That formal sophistication matters little relative to the utter self-absorption of the woman’s words. The song is all about her. Because she is pretty, she feels entitled to whatever she desires. That’s a common aspect of female privilege under gynocentrism.

Some medieval literature spoke ill of men. Why would it be remarkable if Marcabru spoke ill of women? Today writers who would write anything even mildly critical of women had best append to every instance of the word “women” a pious tag: PBUT & NAWALT, meaning “praise be upon them and not all women are like that.” The danger of not writing piously about women is made clear in a thirteenth-century trobairitz song:

I cannot keep silent, I must say what I think
about that for which I have great hurt in my heart.
It gives me pain and grief to tell
about those ancient troubadours,
now dead, for I say they gravely sinned.
They led the world into confusion
when they spoke ill of women openly.
All who hear their speech believe it,
and grant that such things seem true.
Thus they have led the world into error.

{ No puesc mudar no digua mon vejaire
D’aisso don ay al cor molt gran error
Et er me molt mal e greu a retraire
Quar aquist antic trobador
Que.n son passat, dic que son fort peccaire
Qu’ilh an mes lo segl’en error
Que an dig mal de domnas a prezen
E trastug silh q’o auzon en
Et autreyon tug que ben es semblansa
Et aissi an mes lo segl’en erransa. } [5]

The danger is in speaking “openly” about women. If all who hear openly spoken words about women believe and judge them to be true, maybe those words actually are true. Maybe women in fact are equally human beings with men, not goddesses. Perhaps women even fart.

All these men were good troubadours,
and they pretended to be loyal lovers.
But I know that no lover can be true
who speaks ill of love;
rather, I say he’s deceitful in love
and behaves like a traitor.
The more strongly he strives for love,
the more candidly he speaks ill of it,
for even if a man owned all of France,
but had no lady, he would have no happiness.

{ E tug aquist que eron bon trobaire
Tug se fenhon per lial amador,
Mas ieu sai be que non es fis amaire
Nuls hom que digua mal d’amor;
Enans vos die qu’es ves amor bauzaire
E fai l’uzatge al traitor;
Aicel que se so on plus fort s’aten
Plus en ditz mal aissi tot a prezen
Quar neguns hom, s’avia tota Fransa,
No pot ses don’aver gran benestansa. }

A man without a woman is like a fish without a bicycle. Why hasn’t that sentiment become famous? Those who can’t distinguish between men-abasing courtly love and mutually generous, self-sacrificing love are incapable of distinguishing between false and true.

Never will a man of noble nature
allow another man to speak so foolishly,
as do those who are deceitful, fickle
lovers, and who all act the same.
Lord Marcabru spoke like a preacher,
who in a church or a place of prayer,
speaks great ill of those who don’t believe —
just so he spoke ill of women.
I tell you that there’s no great honor
in speaking ill of those who birth infants.

{ E ja nulhs hom que sia de bon aire
No sufrira qu’om en digua folhor,
Mas silh que son ves amor tric e vaire
Ho tuzonon e s’en tenon ab lor;
Qu’en Marcabrus a ley de predicaire
Quant es en gleiza ho orador
Que di gran mal de la gen mescrezen,
Et el ditz mal de donas eyssamen/
E dic vos be que non l’es gran honransa
Selh que ditz mal d’aisso don nays enfansa. }

Women instruct men to police other men for threats against gynocentrism. Men, if they want to be “noble” in women’s eyes, must punish men who are deceitful, fickle lovers. In addition, anyone who calls a woman a deceitful, fickle lover is a misogynist. Women are a privileged class because they give birth to infants. In contrast, men’s erection labor merits only laughter.

The great troubadour Marcabru spoke truth to power. Like Matheolus, Valerius, Hugh Primas and other courageous medieval men, Marcabru with compassion toward men sought to warn them:

Marcabru, son of Marcabruna,
was engendered under such a moon
that he knows how love dies.
He’s never loved a woman
nor been loved by any.

If you follow women’s wisdom
it’s right that you’ll meet your doom,
as Scripture teaches us.
Misfortune will come to you,
if you are not careful!

{ Marcabrus, fills Marcabruna,
Fo engenratz en tal luna
Qu’el sap d’Amor cum degruna,
Quez anc non amet neguna,
Ni d’autra non fo amatz.

Qui per sen de femna reigna
Dreitz es que mals li·n aveigna
Si cum la letra·ns enseigna;
Malaventura·us en veigna
Si tuich no vos en gardatz! } [6]

Love dies when love is identified only with courtly love. Marcabru apparently didn’t love any women that way, nor did any so love him. Listen and learn from him! Today, terribly, yes all men are portrayed as evil, as being animated with toxic masculinity. Don’t listen to that. Euripides was slandered, too. So what if Marcabru spoke ill of women and courtly love? If you want nice, work for justice.

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[1] Here’s Marcabru’s vida in Occitan and English from BnF MS. 12473.  Marcabru was from Gascony and probably sung fron 1130 to 1149. Guilhem X of Aquitaine, son of the troubadour Guilhem IX, patronized Marcabru, as did King Alfonso VII of Castile and León. About forty songs of Marcabru have survived. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 38. “Marcabru’s poetry is arguably the most powerful and distinctive of any of the troubadours.” Kehew (2005) p. 43. For the best Occitan text and English translations of all Marcabru’s surviving songs, Gaunt, Harvey & Paterson (2000). Nelson (1970) includes translations and is freely available.

Like sexual harassment authorities today, Marcabru condemned relationships between a superior and a subordinate worker:

A lady knows nothing of courtly love
if she loves a household servant;
her desire makes a bitch of her,
like a pure hound with a mongrel cur.

{ Dompna non sap d’amor fina
C’ama girbaut de maiso,
Sa voluntatz la mastina
Cum fai lebrieir’ ab gosso! }

Marcabru, “L’iverns vai e·l temps s’aizina {Winter departs and the weather follows}” st. 6.1-4, Occitan text and English translation (modified) from trobar. As has often been the case, Marcabru blamed husbands for their wives cuckolding them:

Married men with goatish minds,
you prepare your pillow so
that the cunt turns into thief.
Such a one says, “My son laughed at me,”
when he didn’t engender him.
You indeed keep a foolish appearance.

{ Moillerat, ab sen cabri
Atal paratz lo coissi
Don lo cons esdeven laire!
Que tals ditz: “Mos fills me ri”
Que anc ren no·i ac a faire:
Gardatz sen ben bedoi. }

Marcabru, “Dirai vos en mon lati {I shall tell you, in my language}” st. 6, Occitan text and translation (modified) from trobar.

[2] Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and an anonymous trobairitz, “Bella, tant vos ai preiada {Beautiful one, I have begged you so much},” st. 1, Occitan text from Nappholz (1994) p. 54, English translated (modified) from id. p. 55. The subsequent quote (st. 2) is similarly sourced from that song. Here’s a freely available, online text and translation, where the first line is “Domna, tant vos ai preiada {Lady, so much I have endeared you}.”

Raimbaut de Vaqueiras apparently wrote from about 1180 to 1205 in the courts of Provence and northern Italy. He was a master of multi-lingual songs. His “Eras quan vei verdeyar {Now when I see the meadows turning green}” consists of “a series of stanzas, first in Occitan and then in Genoese, Old French, Gascon, and Galician-Portuguese.” Pagen & Paden (2007) p. 136, from the introduction to an English translation of that song. Raimbaut de Vaqueiras’s most famous song is “The first of May {Kalenda maya},” a stamping dance song {estampida}. The melody of that song has survived. Here’s a online recording. For text and English translation of all of Raimbaut de Vaqueiras’s songs, Linskill (1964).

[3] Aimeric de Peguilhan and an anonymous trobairitz, “Domna, per vos estauc en greu turmen {Lady, because of you I am in great torment},” st. 1-3, Occitan text from Nappholz (1994) p. 80, English translated (modified) from id. p. 81. The Occitan text is also available in Chaytor (1902) pp. 71-2.

Aimeric de Peguilhan was born in Toulouse and sung his songs from about 1190 to 1220 on the Iberian peninsula and Italy. Fifty of his songs have survived, five with music. Gaunt & Kay (1999) p. 279. For texts and English translations of all of the songs of Aimeric de Peguilhan, Shepard & Chambers (1950).

[4] Anonymous trobairitz, “Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire {I’m pretty, yet I have heavy despair},” st. 1-3, Occitan text from Nappholz (1994) p. 74, my English translation benefiting from those of id. p. 75 and Butterfly Crossing. A woman trouvère’s chanson d’ami has the refrain:

Charming am I and pretty, so I will love.

{ Deduxans suis et joliette, s’amerai. }

From Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 308 (I (Chans. fr.)). This woman trouvère’s song concerns the woman’s desire to love her sweetheart, not cuckold her husband.

Butterfly Crossing doesn’t represent in her text of “Coindeta sui, si cum n’ai greu cossire” that the first stanza is a refrain. Exemplifying the “women are wonderful” effect,  she wrote:

the content, at least for me, is justified and simultaneously hollow. Of course I understand the plight of the young girl, forced to marry a much older man, against her will. She wishes his demise (and here I believe it has less to do with his actual age as it does with her choice in the matter). Yet, her very real plight is lessened through her superficial excuse. Even aside from my own translation, the typical understanding of “coindeta” relies on a meaning of beauty and youth, with previous adjectives being “lovely,” “fair,” and “graceful.” While she may be all of those things, I think this refrain (“coindeta sui” is repeated three to four times in each of the five stanzas), detracts from her more serious condition of being married off against her will, regardless of either of their physical traits. His age or virility almost seems a pretext to her want for another, which, for whatever reasons, she cannot have (and I am willing to bet there are socio-economic reasons for her being denied a marriage of her choice). In short, regardless of his age or appearance, he was thrust upon her against her will, and thus she sings her unhappy lament at the situation.

Nothing in this ballad (balada) indicates that the speaking voice was “forced to marry a much older man, against her will.” The song indicates only that the wife despises her husband and wishes that he were dead. The husband has no voice in the poem. However, medieval Latin poetry includes laments of old men with respect to young women sexually harassing them.

Another ballad also develops the theme of cuckolding. It has the refrain:

When my jealous husband is away,
handsome friend,
come to me.

{ Qant la gilos er fora,
Bel ami,
vene-vos a mi. }

Occitan text and English translation from Nappholz (1994) pp. 112-3; also available from Klinck (2004) pp. 74-5.

Nappholz emphasizes the importance of trobairitz. They were:

contemporaries of troubadours, … but they were no mere imitators. Instead, they took the rhetoric of fin’amors and shaped it to suit their own needs. With wit sublety, and poetic skill, they created a subject position for themselves out of a rhetoric which, by its very nature objectified them.

Nappholz (1994) p. 1. Occitan song no more “objectified” trobairitz than it did so to men trobairitz. Women under gynocentrism have more freedom of speech than men do. That’s why studying marginalized men authors is so important.

[5] Raimon Jordon, “No puesc mudar no digua mon vejaire {I cannot keep silent, I must say what I think},” st. 1, Occitan text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995) p. 98, my English translation, benefitting from those of id., Nappholz (1994) p. 103, Paden & Paden (2007) p. 112. The subsequent two quotes and the subsequent two stanzas are similarly sourced.

The single manuscript in which “No puesc mudar no digua mon vejaire” survives ascribes it to the man trobairitz Raimon Jordon. Some scholars believe, however, that a trobairitz herself wrote it. They see support for that belief in the song’s last stanza:

Let no one marvel
if I speak this way and even then wish to prove
that every man should argue for his brother
and every lady for her sister,
because Adam was our first father
and all have the Lord God as creator;
and if, through this, I wish to make an argument
for ladies, I regret nothing at all,
because one lady should honor another,
and that’s why I have said how it seems to me.

{ Ia no sia negus meravellaire
s’ieu aisso dic ni vuelh mostrar alhor
que quascus hom deu razonar son fraire
e queia domna sa seror,
quar Adams fo lo nostre premier paire
et avem Damnidieu ad auctor,
e s’ieu per so vuelh far razonamen
a las domnas, no m’o reptes nien,
quar dona deu az autra far onransa
e per aisso ai.n ieu dig ma semblansa. }

Occitan text and English trans. sourced as above. Men have seldom argued for their brothers on matters of gender. That reality supports an ironic interpretation of the whole song.

[6] Marcabru, “Dire vos vuelh ses duptansa {I wish to speak firmly},” st. 11-12 (final two stanza), Occitan text from Rosenberg, Switten & Le Vot (1998) pp. 48-9, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Paden & Paden (2007) pp. 38-9, and trobar. Carol Anne Perry Lagemann at St Cecilia Press offers a loosely translated, more easily singable version. Here’s a recording of this song based on its surviving melody. In some manuscripts, the order of the last two stanzas is reversed.

[images] (1) Marcabru. Illumination in chansonnier provençal (Chansonnier K). Made in the second half of the 13th century. Folio 102r in manuscript preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) MS. Français 12473. (2) Highly privileged lady. Illumination in chansonnier provençal (Chansonnier La Vallière). Made in the fourteenth century. Folio 103v in manuscript preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) MS. Français 22543.


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

Chaytor, Henry. J., ed. 1902. The Troubadours of Dante: being selections from the works of the Provençal poets quoted by Dante ; with introd., notes, concise grammar and glossary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gaunt, Simon and Sarah Kay. 1999. “Major Troubadours.” Appendix 1 (Pp. 279-291) (listing 56) in Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay. The Troubadours: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaunt, Simon, Ruth Harvey, and Linda M. Paterson, ed. and trans. 2000. Marcabru: a critical edition. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Kehew, Robert, ed. 2005. Lark in the Morning: the Verses of the Troubadours: a bilingual edition. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Klinck, Anne L. 2004. Anthology of Ancient Medival Woman’s Song. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Linskill, Joseph, ed. and trans. 1964. The Poems of the Troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras. The Hague: Mouton.

Nappholz, Carol Jane, trans. 1994. Unsung Women: the anonymous female voice in troubadour poetry. New York: Lang.

Nelson, Deborah H. 1970. Marcabru, Prophet of Fin’Amors. Ph. D. Thesis. Ohio State University.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Rosenberg, Samuel N., Margaret Louise Switten, and Gérard Le Vot. 1998. Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères: an anthology of poems and melodies. New York: Garland Pub.

Shepard, William P., and Frank M. Chambers, ed. and trans. 1950. The Poems of Aimeric de Peguilhan. Evanston: Nothwestern University Press.

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