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The History, Music, and Instruments of the Troubadour

Teresa Newman, Charis Duke
  • Author
    Teresa Newman

    Teresa Newman has taught K-12 music and musical theater for over 12 years. They have a Masters in Music Performance, Masters in Education, and Bachelors in Music from Stephen F. Austin State University. They also are the founder, director, instructor, and content creator for Newman Music Academy based in Houston, Texas.

  • Instructor
    Charis Duke

    Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Discover the meaning of a troubadour. Learn about the medieval troubadours' music, instruments, historical significance, and overall influence on medieval society. Updated: 12/31/2021

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What is a Troubadour?

A troubadour was a composer and performer of music and poetry between the 11th and 13th centuries, originating in Occitania (a region in southern Europe). They were responsible for entertaining the nobility of the region, and traveled from city-to-city performing various songs and epic poetry for all classes of audiences. Troubadours were the primary source of secular music for audiences during the medieval period.

The Occitan word trobador is widely regarded as the influencing origin of the French word troubadour, meaning "composer" or, "To compose, to discuss, or to invent." The exact etymology of the troubadour definition and word origins are varied with many alternative explanations. The first use of the word troubadour was found in the Occitan writings of Cercamon, one of the earliest troubadours in recorded history.

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  • 0:00 Qualities of a Troubadour
  • 0:22 History of Troubadours
  • 1:19 Music of Troubadours
  • 2:10 Legacy of Troubadours
  • 3:01 Famous Troubadours
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Which Countries Were Influenced by Troubadours?

The ideas and traditions of medieval troubadours developed from musical and poetic traditions of the Middle East. As troubadour music began migrating south towards the medieval region known as Occitania, the troubadour tradition became increasingly important to the secular entertainment landscape of medieval southern Europe. Occitania includes modern countries and regions such as:

  • Southern France
  • Spain
  • Monaco
  • Italy

Troubadours would travel to different villages or towns performing secular songs

medieval castle or village

The earliest troubadour whose work survives is Guilhèm de Peitieus, better known as Duke William IX of Aquitaine. The troubadour tradition seems to have begun in western Aquitaine (historical region of southwestern France).

Troubadours quickly became a staple part of life in medieval period, gaining popularity throughout the southern regions of Europe. In the early 13th century, it began to spread into Italy and then Catalonia, an independent region within Spain. The troubadour tradition soon travelled through Spain and Portugal, and eventually influenced other related musical poetry traditions:

  • The trouvères were a group of epic poets and musicians from northern France similar to the troubadours of southern France and Occitania. Unlike the troubadours, the trouvères wrote and performed in a dialect native to northern France.
  • The German minnesingers were a group of lyric poets who were directly influenced by the troubadours in the 12th century. These lyric poets adopted the troubadour strophic song form (all verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music) and themes of courtly love.
  • The meistersinger ("master singer" in German) was a German poetry and song guild member developed from the traditions of the medieval minnesingers. The meistersinger were considered highly skilled and educated, learning songwriting as a mechanical art.

Troubadours and the related European performers came from a variety of classes and backgrounds. Troubadours were either travelling performers, moving from villiage-to-villiage, or remained stationary under the employment of a wealthy patron or nobleman. Many troubadours are described as "poor knights."

What Made Troubadours So Influential?

Troubadours acted as medieval messengers traveling from town to town, in many instances disseminating the latest news, events, and important information from places locally and abroad. This information would be combined with song and poetry, with lyrics that were secular and often raunchy, comedic, or saccharine. The idea of courtly love or romantic love was largely invented by medieval troubadours. Troubadour music shaped the ideas of medieval pop culture and current events (much like a medieval late-night talk show host). In an era without regular outlets for villagers and common people to receive regular news and entertainment, the troubadours served as a source for both. Troubadours also worked as a messenger of current events or liaison between noblemen and the rest of the society.

During the Christian Crusades, many medieval troubadours were knights and nobles who joined the ranks as lyric poets. These knight-troubadours traveled with those of the knighthood, accompanying those who went on crusade and allowing them to spread the latest news from all around the region. The troubadour's social position gave them an objective and outside perspective on the Crusades, and the ability to maneuver and perform as messengers rather than active participants. During this time, medieval society and politics were largely influenced by the Catholic Church. The troubadours remained mostly outside the grasp of this influence, and served rather as journalists of their time. The ability to freely create performances and lyrics that existed outside the values of the church was only truly afforded to the troubadours, even though the Catholic Church often stood against the material presented in troubadour music.

Troubadours would travel with knights of the Christian Crusades, acting as a medieval journalist

Crusade knight with gold armour

Troubadours and the Church

The troubadours and others of similar tradition performed music and lyrics outside the moral confines of the church and medieval society, much like modern-day journalists, entertainers, and social media influencers. Far removed from the influence of the Catholic church, troubadours were able to create material and disseminate information without moral constraints and expectations. These messenger-entertainers were free to create commentary and performance on any topic necessary, often pushing the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable by the church. Because of this freedom from the powers and influence of the church, the song and poetry of troubadour music was written from the perspective of an autonomous cultural observer rather than participant. This unfortunately did not come without consequence for some.

The Roman Catholic Church was the primary cultivator and keeper of all music, architecture, poetry and learning during the medieval era. Music was intended by the church as a means of prayer and meditation, and this was true with the exception of the troubadours. This was not favorable in the eyes of the church, and many troubadours were persecuted and killed for their music. Troubadour music in some courts may have even been considered to be racy in current times, but especially in the 12th and 13th centuries. The church had motivations to control the material performed by the troubadours, but the traditions continued despite their efforts.

Instruments and Musical Style of Troubadours

Music was one of the primary sources of entertainment during the medieval period. Many new troubadour instruments developed during this time (including the lute), but the most important and widely used musical instrument of the troubadour was the human voice. Aside from their singing and speaking abilities, troubadours were also widely known for their skills in instruments such as:

  • Lute
  • Various flutes
  • Various guitars (in Spain)
  • Harp (Britain and Scandinavia)
  • Lyre (Britain and Scandinavia)

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does Trouveres mean?

The trouveres were a group of medieval epic poet in northern France in the 11th-14th centuries. Unlike the troubadours, they wrote lyrics in the used the northern dialects of France. The origins of the word trouveres are the similar to troubadour, related to the word "trobar" which means to composed, discuss, or invent.

What does troubadour mean?

A French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in southern France and Occitania in the 11th to 13th centuries. The Occitan word trobador is widely regarded as the influencing origin of the French word troubadour, meaning "composer" or "to compose, to discuss, or to invent." The origins of the word, however, are debated. Many influencing regions most likely contributed to the origins of the word "troubadour."

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