Title: The World of the Troubadours: Medieval Occitan Society, c.1100-c.1300
Author: Linda M Paterson
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 1995
This is a book of lists which concentrates on the topics of:
- the nature of feudalism and vassalage in Languedoc and Provence
- medieval medicine and surgery and their Arabic influences
- the place and role of women in society which contrasts sharply to the north of France
- religion and heresy, especially the reasonably well-known Albigensian Crusade and the Gregorian Reforms
Scholarship in English on the south of France in the high medieval period has been until fairly recently rather poor. It is one of the forgotten areas of history. A book like this is required reading in order to give one a sense of the south and the manner in which the Langedoc and Provence, collectively known as Occitania, is both the same as and different to the more well-known north of the country. Each chapter is a prose list which provides bountiful evidence to either confirm or refute the received ideas about the region. It is not a book about the Troubadours as such but an explanation of the world which created them.
Feudalism in Occitania is cast in an entirely different mold to that of the more famous north. Until recently, most historians have linked the weak ties of vassalage in the south to their particular scheme of inheritance. Rather than willing the entirety of the lord’s estate to the eldest son and the rest of their children, if they’re lucky, getting some measure of stipend, the Occitanian divided the estate between the inheritors. This destroys the northern conception of land in return for military service. How can a lord expect a vassal to maintain all the accoutrements of war when all he owns is a title, the land which may have supported this being divided between his other siblings? This creates a very different type of feudalism, one not based on land ownership but personal ties. The focus becomes the court and court life. Nobles without land or without enough land to sustain themselves congregated in the towns and made them larger and more important to the life of the south than they would be for 300 years and more in the north. Urban, intellectual and social pursuits rose to prominence. But which came first, the inheritance scheme or the concentration on the court?
Medieval medicine is a subject close to Paterson’s heart if the text provides any evidence. The south of France was as famous for the number and quality of its doctors as was Italy, Sicily or the Arab world. Indeed, the fact that the region was a crossroads for knowledge from Italy and from both Arabic and Christian Spain means that medical knowledge could be collected and synthesised into a body of knowledge which was lauded throughout north-west Europe. Montpellier at this time had a medical school that was the equal of its better known contemporary in Salerno. Because Papal rule was not as complete in the south as it was in the north, the restriction on autopsies and other invasive mechanical investigations of the body was not strictly followed. As a result, Occitanian texts on surgery and anatomy were highly prized.
There’s a rather large chapter on the social roles and place of women in Occitanian society. The received notion is that women were freer in Occitania than in the north because of the weakness of the political structure. Paterson cites a great deal of evidence to suggest that while some noblewomen enjoyed freedoms and a level of control of their world similar to men, these women are the standout exceptions. It is interesting to note, however, that the northern literary motif of the young girl rescued by the knight who has his way with her is almost entirely absent in the literature of the south. Also, until the rise of the universities, women and girls seemed to have had the same opportunities in education as their male counterparts. While in general women in the south had a greater degree of freedom than in the north, they were still subjected to a level of control which could not be tolerated today.
It’s impossible to talk of the south of France without discussing the Albigensian Crusade where, under Papal orders, the King of France destroyed Occitania and incorporated the territory into his realm. However, Paterson spends little time of the Crusade itself, preferring to outline a different view of its causes. Many have written that the Church in Occitania was a languishing in a forgotten backwater. The evidence, however, suggests that there was an ecclesiastical vitality and independence quite unlike anything found where the Church followed a more fuedal structure. The priests in parish churches was frequently lay, local men rather than ordained priests. Dioceses elected their own bishops from among themselves rather than appealing to Rome for an appointment. The changes instituted by the so-called Gregorian Reforms (Gregorian Crisis?) overturned these traditions and imposed on the churches of the region foreign bishops, who believed they had the right to rule both the spiritual and temporal worlds and who appointed their lackeys to local churches. In response to this invasion, it is no wonder that the Occitanians turned to less orthodox religious practises.
This is a fascinating book and should be on the “must read” list of anyone interested in the region and the period.