It should come as no surprise that the first notated body of secular song came from the troubadours, poets in the service of feudal lords. The troubadours sang about the knightly bonds between lord and vassal, but more famously, they sang about love.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the troubadour’s concept of “courtly love” not only on music history, but on the cultural development of the West. It’s easy to forget this today, when the topic of love in one form or another comprises a good 90% of all popular music, literature, film, and art, but our contemporary understanding of love is by no means universal. Indeed, the concept of personal romance as transcendent of sexual longing and approaching something divine didn’t arise in the West until the troubadours helped to popularize it. In much of the world, this concept is still a foreign notion, and marriage is more a matter of tribal/familial politics, hide-bound tradition, and economic expediency. The great religion scholar Joseph Campbell put it this way:
The troubadours were very much interested in the psychology of love. And they’re the first ones in the West who really thought of love the way we do now — as a person-to-person relationship. Before that, love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire. This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it. Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love. You see, people didn’t know about Amor. Amor is something personal that the troubadours recognized.
It’s strange to consider, but I wonder how people in the pre-love days experienced love. Did individuals fall in love with the same fervor that they do now? Or did this first poetic-musical annunciation of the concept merely reflect a natural tendency that was already there in all people, regardless of specific acculturation? In this scenario, the troubadours simply came along and named something that had existed all along.
It’s easy to take our troubadour-inspired concept of love for granted, but living in other countries can really open one’s eyes to the profound differences that exist between our idea of the phenomenon and those of other cultures. In Japan, where I lived for a couple years, Western culture was closely associated with romantic love. One of the hugely popular activities for financially secure, unmarried women is to fly to Europe for “princess tours,” where ladies are escorted around Austrian villages by debonair young men. They are even put in fantastical costumes for lavish ballroom dances with (presumably) handsome princes. (Of course, who knows how much of this is inspired by Disney movies, not troubadours.) In any case, there is a marked difference in the concept of love in Japanese traditional thinking. The idea of personal romantic love is, like baseball, a Western import.
Since this concept of love is so closely associated with the West in so much of the world, it is fascinating to learn that there’s scholarly agreement on the origins of the troubadour values – Arabic sung poetry (I, 108). Known to troubadours from the cultural mixing with Muslims in southern Europe as early as the 9th century, the nawba genre consisted of lengthy love poetry set to accompaniment on the oud. Some contemporary performers of troubadour music incorporate elements of Arabic and Persian performance practice into their renditions, although nothing conclusive has been established in this arena. Nonetheless, isn’t it an amazing idea to consider, especially today, when many people believe that Western civilization is antithetical to Islam. Odd idea. We may have learned one of the most wonderful aspects of our culture from Arabic love songs.