This isn’t going to be an annotated scholarly work on the Troubadours, and 12th century Occitanian culture, but I thought that I might share some interesting tidbits from my current research.
I’ll start off with something you might not know- Richard the Lionheart was, in all probability, gay. And so was his next-youngest brother, Geoffroy. And they both probably slept with the king of France. Which, any ardent student of medieval history probably knows, but it was news to me when I started researching my current wip. All I was looking for was the chance that troubadours had expressed homosocial desire… Which is much harder to find than I had thought.
However, all was not lost. I ordered a book called Listening to the Sirens (see below), and there were a few pages dedicated to a troubadour by the name of Arnaut Daniel… who was, possibly, maybe, if you took some of his lyrics a certain way, gay. The evidence is compelling when you look at it, but, you have to be sensitive to the subtext.
Arnaut Daniel was the premier poet and troubadour of his age (and many that followed), and he invented an insanely complex poetic form called the ‘sestina’. He also liked to use obscure language that had multiple meanings
Arnaut tramet son chantar d’ongl’e d’oncle Arnaut sends forth this song of uncle and nail
a Grant Desiei, qui de sa verj’a l’arma, to Great Desire, which of his rod holds the soul,
son cledisat qu’apres dins cambra intra. a framework-song which, learned, the room enters.
Dezirat was the nickname of both Arnaut Daniel and Bertran de Born. It’s true, that the object of desire (ostensibly a noble lady) was quite often given a masculine code name (senha), but that doesn’t actually make it any clearer. There are quite a few words that he uses which could go either way – ver(g/j)a meant virgin, rod, branch, sceptre, and penis, intra meant to penetrate or to enter, and cambra had the double meaning of chamber and vagina. Uncle meant both a literal Uncle, and an older man who was a protector. I have included a link to a good English translation below. If you read through it you’ll see what I mean. This was a naughty, naughty song.
Dante Alighieri includes Arnaut Daniel in his Divine Comedy in the section on Purgatory. The troubadour was apparently spending time there with all the other lustful hermaphrodites (ie. Men who enjoyed the passive side of of sodomy due to their feminine natures). Dante seems to have thought that quite a few men of letters ended up there, including a number that he knew personally and admired.
In the 12th century they didn’t really have a classification for people who were anything other than heterosexual. Any desires which deviated from the ‘norm’ were considered sin, although there were various gradations of it. If someone had sex with someone of the same gender in a consensual fashion it was considered to be a form of greed on par with charging too much interest on a loan… as long as it wasn’t done too often. If one went around raping people it was much worse to do it to someone of the same gender, and would probably send the perpetrator to hell.
As with all things in European society, the punishments and fears got greater as time wore on. By the 15th century it wasn’t a good idea to be anything different at all, including a leper, Jew, woman (of any kind, but especially an intelligent one), have a severe learning disability, or have any physical deformity (like moles, which were called ‘the kiss of the Devil’- I would have been burned at the stake for sure, since I look a bit like a negative Milky Way and I just can’t help giving people the dubious benefit of my opinions).
History is fabulously fascinating, and half of the joy of writing historical fiction is discovering a context to place the characters in. Also, knowing more about history can make your fantasy worlds more robust- you can cherry-pick elements to add depth.
I don’t know how long it will take me to write the story of Isodard and Berengar, but hopefully once I get everything set up it will flow like hot butter (and not molasses in January, which is my usual writing pace).
Works From Which I Got Some Good Tidbits And You Might Like To Read As Well:
Peraino, Judith A. Listening to the Sirens: musical technologies of Queer identity from Homer to Hedwig. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2006.
Boyle, David. Blondel’s Song: the capture, imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart. Viking, Toronto, 2005.
Jennifer Thorne has just recently published a contemporary novella called A Road Not Taken with Samhain Publishing.