This week we are taking another trip through a medieval author, this time the Occitan noble and troubadour Bertran de Born. This trip ought to be read closely with our trip through, Dhuoda of Uzès, as both exemplify the values and thinking of the medieval European aristocracy (though note that Dhuoda writes some 350 years before Bertran). I want to pair them in particular because – while to modern ears, the ideals they express may seem contradictory – those ideals existed side by side within the larger value system of the aristocratic elite of France narrowly and the European Middle Ages more broadly. While in some ways, they are in tension with each other, on the whole they form not a tension but rather two sides of the same coin: it is the fierceness of the loyalties that Dhuoda extols which in turn justify and motivate the fierceness of the violence in which Bertran revels.
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As with last time, I suppose I must also remind everyone that we are reading these sources for the understanding, not for the endorsing. Just because one studies war doesn’t mean one likes it. We study war that we might have less of it. And quite frankly, regardless of one’s view on military history, it is impossible to understand the European Middle Ages without understanding the military aristocrats who shaped it, and it is impossible to understand them without understanding their view on war.
But as a window into the aristocratic values of the 12th century Occitan nobility (and European medieval nobility more broadly), Bertran’s poems can be quite informative.
The Author: Bertran de Born (b. c. 1140- d. before 1215) was the lord of Hautefort from 1178 to his death sometime before 1215. Compared to Dhuoda’s family, Bertran (along with, you will note, being several centuries later; centuries are a long time!) was a bit lower on the aristocratic hierarchy as a viscount (but still quite high!), being lord over a single fortified settlement (read: castle) and its territory. Of course, if you lived in one of the villages around Hautefort, this would matter little: Bertran and his family were the state and probably a fairly impressive state at that. If we want to understand Bertran on his warhorse, it is best to do it looking up at him (albeit quite probably with disdain and frustration) as one of his many subjects on the ground, then down at him from the standpoint of one of his handful of social superiors from their thrones.
(A note on titles: textbook summaries and strategy games tend to feature simplified and streamlined systems of medieval titles (e.g. CKII‘s baron->count->duke->king->emperor system is neat, rigid and regular everywhere, despite that system not quite being right anywhere in particular) when, of course, in practice the system was much more messy, with different and often ad hoc systems in different places. Even the venerable wikipedia can often iron this messiness out in the pursuit of consistency by, for instance, referring to the William VIII of Aquitaine as the ‘duke’ of the duchy of Aquitaine, though some period documents (I have in mind the letters of Hugh V of Lusignan; I cannot claim to have made anything like a systematic sweep of every historical document that refers to him) refer to him instead as the ‘count of the Aquitanians.’ Local systems of titles (earls in England, freiherren and markgrafen in some German-speaking areas, etc.) also don’t always map neatly on to the ‘standard’ French system.)
Hautefort sat on the border between the French territories of the English king and France proper, putting him on the front lines of frequent wars between the two. Moreover, Bertran was also frequently fighting his brother Constantine over control of Hautefort itself and, in his off time, waged some war over the English succession (favoring Henry the Young King over the eventual Richard I leading him into conflict with the father of both of them, Henry II). Bertran was thus almost constantly at war (wars that ranged all the way from small-scale family feuding up to involvement in royal wars), a context that is crucial for understanding the poem.
But, in between his busy schedule of fighting all the damn time, Bertran wrote about forty songs (some of them are of uncertain authorship) and is regarded as one of the major Occitan troubadours of the 12th century. Troubadours wrote and performed a form of Occitan lyric poetry which is striking and interesting for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that they wrote in Occitan (Old Occitan, specifically) rather than in Latin; the fancy phrase for this is they wrote ‘in the vernacular’ meaning in the local language. This is a major shift in this period (the contemporary and somewhat earlier chansons de geste, ‘tales of deeds’ like the Song of Roland were also written in the vernacular, typically Old French).
Troubadour songs could be about a variety of topics, but the topics generally swirled around the concerns of the aristocracy: love, chivalry and war, with the former being the most common. In terms of the poetry, the earliest and most common genre was the canso, a relatively rigid form in which each stansa keeps the same syllable count and internal rhyming pattern. Such songs typically expressed strong feelings, often about love, mixed with powerful imagery. But our topic for today is the second genre, the sirvantes or ‘servant’s song’ – often a parody of the former, sirvantes were often political, with the mocking or parody form being used to soften the political impact of the topic. Our song for this week is at once a hilarious parody of the love imagery of many a canso (I first encountered this song as an undergraduate in the Rosenwein Reading the Middle Ages (2006) reader, where it is presented side-by-side with Jaufre Rudel’s When the Days Are Long in May (1125-1150) which really brings home the parody aspect as Bertan re-purposes the motifs of expressions of courtly love – spring, flowers, etc. – to glorify war) while at the same time a political exhortation and a striking – to say the least! – statement of values.
(Note: there is a third common genre of troubadour song, the tenso, which is structured as a debate or exchange, often but not always by two different poets debating love or ethics. I quite honestly have only read a couple of tensos, and don’t feel very much qualified to express an opinion on them.)
Without further ado, let’s take a look at our song:
(trans. Frederick Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères (1973))
I love the joyful time of Easter,
That makes the leaves and flowers come forth
and it pleases me to hear the mirth
of the birds, who make their song
resound through the woods,
and it pleases me to see upon the meadows
tents and pavilions planted,
and I feel a great joy
when I see ranged along the field
knights and horses armed for war.
And it pleases me when the skirmishers
make the people and their baggage run away,
and it pleases me when I see behind them coming
a great mass of armed men together,
and I have pleasure in my heart
when I see strong castles besieged,
the broken ramparts caving in
and I see the host on the water’s edge
closed in all around by ditches,
with palisades, strong stakes close together.
And I am as well pleased by a lord
when he is first in the attack,
armed, upon his horse, unafraid,
so he makes his men take heart
by his own brave lordliness.
And when the armies mix in battle,
each man should be poised
to follow him, smiling,
for no man is worth a thing
till he has given and gotten blow on blow.
Maces and swords and painted helms,
the useless shields cut through,
we shall see as the fighting starts,
and many vassals together striking,
and wandering wildly,
the unreined horses of the wounded and dead.
And once entered into battle
let every man proud of his birth
think only of breaking arms and heads,
for a man is worth more dead than alive and beaten.
I tell you there is not so much savor
in eating or drinking or sleeping,
as when I hear them scream, “There they are! Let’s get them!”
on both sides, and I hear riderless
horses in the shadows, neighing,
and I hear them scream, “Help! Help!”
and I see them fall among the ditches,
little men and great men on the grass,
and I see fixed in the flanks of the corpses
stumps of lances with silken streamers.
Barons, pawn your castles,
and your villages, and your cities
before you stop making war on one another.
Papiols [another troubadour], gladly go
fast to my Lord Yes-and-No [Richard I]
and tell him he has lived in peace too long!
The song can be read on a number of levels, so we’ll deal with them in turn.
Let’s start with the sirvantes itself – the playful or satirical aspect of the song. Spring imagery – blooming flowers and singing birds – was a common motif for troubadour love-songs and so Bertran’s first stanza is a playful upending of that imagery, transitioning from that spring imagery to the sharp imagery of battle. Bertran keeps a focus on sense perception – sight and sound – keeping the poem concrete, but he never really dips back into that playfulness after the first stanza (called the exordium in poetic structure). Still, I think the song ought to be imagined within its original context – live performance. Imagine the troubadour (Bertran himself, most likely) getting up to sing, and beginning what appears at first to be a sappy love song, only to – in just the last line of the first stanza – reveal a heart-pounding war song to stir the arms to action. It must have been a hoot.
And that playfulness plays into the political aspect of the song as well. Bertran has a very specific political objective in mind here: he wants the listeners – his fellow Occitanian military aristocrats – to go to war. Alas, the current disjuncture keeps me from being able to confirm this, but as I recall, this song is thought to date to the period 1180 to 1183, when rising tensions between Henry the Young King and Richard (‘Lord Yes-and-No,’ eventually Richard I) culminated in a revolt of the Occitanian nobility in favor of Henry; Bertran is thus exhorting the nobility here to commence war against Richard. The playful context, I think, lets Bertran get away with a much more explicitly political call to arms than he might have been able to do in a more serious setting (cf. the current genre of comedy-news-commentary that uses a thin facade of humor to be able to be more overtly political than normal news-commentary; it is much the same device).
And that in turn leads into the main theme of the poem, which is war is awesome and we should do more of it. Like I said, we’re reading to understand, not to endorse. But this is striking because it speaks to the values of the military aristocrats he is singing to. These days, we justify wars with a tone of grim necessity; any politician in a developed country who tried to rally the public to war because it was fun and exciting would be run out of office and rightly so. For Bertran’s appeal to work, it has to conform to the values of his social class – because he isn’t trying to convince them that war is good, but rather that (some kinds of) war being good, they ought to go do some of it. They have to agree with the premise first, before the song starts.
Values in a Military Aristocracy
Bertran really loves himself some war. When I’ve assigned this reading in the past, the initial student response is disbelieving – the most common comment is some variation on the assumption that Bertran must be some sort of chicken-hawk who never did any actual fighting. But – as discussed above – the reality is quite the opposite: Bertran is a career military man whose life is defined by fighting. Moreover, so is his audience – he is calling other military aristocrats to war. Bertran can be at no loss for what war looks like and while his song describes a victorious battle (it is the enemy who shouts for help), he doesn’t spare the audience the grim aftermath, the “unreined horses of the wounded and dead” or the “little men and great men on the grass…fixed in the flanks of the corpses sumps of lances.” These are, all of them, likely men who have little problem picturing that sight – they have seen it themselves. Anyone in these assemblages old enough to actually have a say about going to war is under no illusions about what war is like, and Bertran makes no effort to spare them.
And yet his fundamental argument – which he expects his audience to take seriously boils down to: war is awesome, let’s go do some. And I think this absolutely has to be read as sincere; part of his sirvantes is a playfulness with the art form, but his take on war – because it plays directly into his political point – is uncomplicated (and his general endorsement of war as a good thing also shows up in much of the rest of his oeuvre). The value system presented here is not part of the satire (something that also becomes more clear if you read the contemporary chansons de geste, which express a similar attitude about the general nobility and even morally-constructive aspect of warfare within proper bounds).
What is valued here?
Bertran is explicit – nothing in his view is of more value for a man (because, of course, this is all very gender-specific) than personal, direct martial valor. “No man is worth a thing / till he has given and gotten blow on blow” is a pretty direct statement (note that it is fairly clear from the rest of Bertran’s oeuvre that this extends to a snobby disdain for peasants and non-nobles whose occupation is not fighting). Elsewhere in his songs, Bertran declares “A young man who doesn’t feed on war soon becomes fat and rotten.” This is, of course, a striking view because of how different it is from our own – we generally expect the experience of combat to harm a person, whereas Bertran sees it as wholesome; stick a pin in that for now, we’ll come back to it in a moment.
The sort of martial valor that Bertran is interested in is also fundamentally personal valor. The laying of plans, creation of stratagems, the ordering of men, the motivation of the common soldiers – exactly the sort of tasks that occupy most ancient military manuals (including not just the Mediterranean tradition, but also the Chinese one) – don’t figure in at all. Of course those sorts of concerns were part of the training and culture of the aristocracy of the period (and other period sources bring them out better, though surely not to the degree as classical literature – there is a great deal of difference in the sorts of leadership different societies expect), but they are decidedly secondary. The only leadership Bertran’s ideal lord does is to lead other aristocrats but example in being the first to charge and attacking with reckless aggression.
It is also very much a specific form of valor: that of the armored, mounted aristocratic warrior. The common soldiery – the infantry – exist in Bertran only as targets and victims, and even then not very often! This is a deceptive pattern in medieval European literature: despite the continued presence (and indeed, often importance) of common infantry, the aristocrats who write to us tend to focus on the valor of the cavalrymen (which is to say, the valor of themselves) to the exclusion of the foot soldiers (a pattern which tend leads to atrophy in the infantry arm in many cases, for an overview see Lee, Waging War, ch. 5). For a sense of exactly what that battle experience might be like, I think Hergrim’s battle vignette on Reddit is quite good.
But inside of that specific framework, Bertran is quite clear: he thinks war is good, both that it improves a man, but also that it is simply a positive experience. How much of this is bravado? Some of it might be – it is politically and socially useful for Bertran to advertise his own attachment to war. Both because this is a way for him to drive a strong case in rallying his fellow aristocrats to go to war, but also because he lives in a society where martial valor is a source of uncomplicated positive social value. By advertising his devotion to war, Bertran is also essentially saying ‘I am unafraid, the meanest fellow in the room’ in company that very much values strength and fearlessness. But that stance only works if Bertran’s audience agrees on the first principle that the experience of war improves a person.
War Does Change, It Turns Out
Now, you might be asking ‘how can Bertran think that?’ And, given that battle is supposed to be the formative experience for all of these aristocratic young men, how are there any left? Bertran cannot be in ignorance, after all, and we’ve already discussed why it is unlikely that he is simply painting a false portrait of a reality both he and his audience know far better than we do. And therein lies a number of our answers.
Let’s start with the second question – how are there any aristocrats left? By the 12th century, it isn’t because of massive promotion from outside; the ranks of the aristocracy are in the process of ossifying, with new entrants becoming rarer and rarer in much of Europe. Rather, what seems to be the case is that, for people like Bertran, the chance of dying in all of that war remained relatively low. In the first case, the style of warfare of the 12th century, oriented around raids and sieges, with relatively few large set-battles and relatively smaller armies – tended towards lower casualties in comparison to the warfare of other eras.
(And I know the last time I made that assertion, I got a fair bit of push back, but quite frankly there isn’t much room for argument. If I may use my own period of expertise as a point of comparison, Nathan Rosenstein estimates that from 203 to 168 B.C., Roman Italy suffered something like 130,000-160,000 excess military deaths. Those year-brackets are conservative– extending the brackets to 218 would without a doubt more than double that figure (since it would add the devastating Second Punic War to the picture; the Romans suffer something close to 70,000 combat KIA in the first three years of it). Late-medieval French catastrophes like Courtrai (1302) or even Agincourt (1415) are close to an order of magnitude smaller than their Hellenistic period equivalents in terms of casualties – and still quite a bit more costly than the 12th and 13th century fighting Bertran saw).
At the same time, it seems fairly clear that most of the dying that was happening wasn’t generally being done by the mounted aristocracy. It is easy to miss because the big exceptions like Courtrai (1302), Crecy (1346) or Agincourt (1415) stick so firmly in the mind, but these are both later than Bertran (during a period of significant military change that made such upsets more likely) but also notably by their exceptional nature. Looking at the lives of medieval aristocrats, it is hard not to notice that – compared to say, the Lost Generation – they tend to live a fairly long time despite their constant warfare. Bertran himself, despite fighting almost continuously throughout his adult life survived to retire to a monastery in 1196 (probably in his fifties, age-wise). Now, to a degree, this may well be survivors bias – the aristocratic young men who weren’t very good at it and thus died in early adulthood do not cut memorable figures in our history. But the 12th century Occitan aristocracy was not limitless in size – this was a period where the European military aristocracies were increasingly closed to new entrants (and that aristocracy was never very large in absolute terms). And the degree to which high casualty events among the aristocracy remained shocking aberrations (events on a scale that would have been normal and unremarkable for antiquity or the early modern period) suggest that casualty rates among the mounted aristocrats probably did remain relatively low.
And it’s not hard to imagine why: these men were the best trained fellows on the battlefield, but more to the point, they were the best armored and also the most able to retreat if the battle went badly. Not only because they were on horses (but also because of that), but also because, for the men in the upper aristocracy, they had retinues of their own (less noble) fighting men arrayed around them. If the battle went badly, chances are the fellows being butchered in the retreat are the ones on foot. While infantry was written out from not only Bertran’s poems, but much of the literature of his day, it was still the infantry that did most of the dying in war.
Consequently, the idea that ‘war builds character’ is a lot easier to sustain if the sort of warfare a society (or in this case, a class within a society) engages in produces relatively low casualty rates over time. Now, I want to be clear that the word ‘relatively’ is carrying a lot of water in that sentence: these wars, while relatively lower casualty affairs are by no means bloodless, even for the aristocrats, armored on their equine-escape-pods. But the experience is radically different from WWI – which I keep returning to because it shapes our current discourse on the effects of war so strongly – where France saw 16% of its total deployed manpower killed (and another c. 50% wounded) in a four year period.
So while Bertran’s song is an expression of the values of his class, those values are in turn shaped by what the experience of war was like for that class. One imagines the commoners whose villages and towns were about to be plundered had different songs; agricultural raiding and devastation was a key part of the sort of warfare Bertran participated in (it shows up at points in his songs – in Miez sirventes vueilh far dels reis amdos he sings gleefully that once war begins, “never a mule-driver will travel the roads in safety, nor a burgher without fear, nor a merchant coming from France”).
I think Bertran is particularly handy to read against much of the moralizing literature of the Middle Ages (like Dhuoda), because it speaks to the limits of those moral systems. I don’t mean to suggest that Dhuoda and Bertran are in conflict – I don’t think they are. Rather moralizing writing like Dhuoda’s sets the bounds of aristocratic conduct which in turn creates a space where violence is permitted (to avenge a father, or defend a liege, or secure a ‘right,’ for instance). Violence outside of that space is viewed with contempt (“Those who do such are harshly and most unfavorably spoken of” says Dhuoda of vassals who act against a liege unjustly) , but violence within those bounds is seen as a positive good.
Note the contrast with the lionization of soldiers in modern societies, where war is at best a necessary evil and soldiers who go through it are seen as undergoing a noble sacrifice (that is, experiencing an evil or suffering on behalf of others). We do not often think that a boy must experience war to become a man – Bertran not only thinks so, he says so explicitly, and it’s quite clear this was the common view of his social class. After all, these were military aristocrats; fighting was their purpose in society and they were defined by their military role (mounted combat).
All of which speaks deeply to the value of reading the primary source literature of a time period if you want to get a sense of it. There is no amount of secondary literature – including this blog – which will get you there. I am struck by how much medieval or ancient fantasy or historical fiction literature is clearly composed almost entirely from a reading of secondary sources and as a result often misses the values and viewpoints that people held in the past.
In that persuit, a reading of Bertran’s broader oeuvre has two great virtues. First, as presented here, it provides an intense and direct summation of many of the knightly class’ attitudes towards warfare. The same can be gleaned from the chansons (and you ought to read those too!) but Bertran comes with those clear programmatic verses where he just tells you the value-set before illustrating it with vivid language (“for no man is worth a thing / till he has give and gotten blow on blow.”).
Second, Bertran is useful because his outlook – so directly stated – is so contrary to the modern viewpoint that it can serve nicely to shock us out of our complacency that people in the past thought about things exactly as we do now. In the words of L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It is not enough to merely read histories of events and imagine people with our worldviews inhabiting them. While people in the past were not stupid, they did have different values and outlooks, shaped – as Bertran’s are – by their different life circumstances. Everyone’s worldview looks reasonable from the ground they stand on, but the valley dweller sees something rather different from the mountain man.
And if you want to know how the world looks from behind the eye-slits of a great helm, sitting atop a warhorse, Bertran de Born is well worth a read.