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From The Trobador Poets, Selections from the Poems of Eight Trobadors translated from the Provençal with Introduction and Notes, by Barbara Smythe; Chatto & Windus: London, New York: Duffield & Co., 1911; pp. 57-70.


Bertran de Born

BERTRAN DE BORN, most famous of all trobadors, is a curiously different figure from any of his literary contemporaries. As they sang of love, he sang of war; as they tried to move the hearts of their ladies to pity, he strove to stir up the hearts of the nobles of France to strife and anger against each other. He wrote a few love-songs indeed, but it is by his war-songs that he has always been famous.1 These have caused some few writers to hail him as a high-souled patriot, striving to free his native Aquitaine from the tyranny of her English rulers, but this is not the usual judgment passed on Bertran de Born. It was his fate to be stigmatized by Dante as an evil sower of discord, and he has gained the terrible immortality that a place in the Inferno gives to those who came under the ban of Dante’s wrath. Dante’s meeting with Bertran is thus described (Inferno, xxviii, ll. 118-142): “I saw indeed, and it seems as if I could see it still, a body without a head, walking as the others of the sad flock walked; and it held its severed head by the hair: it bore it in its hand like a lantern, and that looked upon us and said, ‘O me!’ Of itself it made a lamp for itself, and they were two in one and one in two; how that can be, He knows Who so commands 58 it. When it was right at the foot of the bridge it lifted up its arm with the whole head, to bring near us its words, which were: ‘Now behold the grievous punishment thou who, breathing, goest beholding the dead; see if any be great as this. And that thou mayst carry news of me, know that I am Bertran de Born, he who gave ill counsels to the Young King. I made father and son rebellious against each other; Achitophel did no more to Absalom and David with his accursed goadings. Because I parted persons thus joined, I carry my brain, alas, parted from its beginning which is in this trunk: thus is retaliation observed in me.’ ”

Had it not been for Dante’s mention of him, Bertran’s name might be less well known now than it is, but this passage in the Inferno has given him an unenviable notoriety as an unscrupulous sedition-monger, in which character he appears, for example, in Mr. Maurice Hewlett’s romance of “The Life and Death of Richard Yea and Nay.”

Probably the real Bertran was not as black as he is painted by Dante, who got his idea of the trobador from the Provençal explanations of his poems rather than from history. It is clear from his own songs that he loved war for its own sake, and it was this innate love of war rather than an evil desire to make mischief that led him to encourage the sons of Henry II. to make war on each other and on their own father.

More than one psychological study of Bertran has been written, but it is not likely that any more apt or truthful account of his life and character will ever be given than that of the Provençal biography. “Bertran de Born was a castellan of the bishopric of Périgueux, lord of a castle which was called Autafort. He was always at war with all his neighbours: with the Count of Périgord and with the 59 Viscount of Limoges, and with his brother Constantin, and with Sir Richard as long as he was Count of Poitou. He was a good knight and a good warrior, and a good wooer and a good trobador, and wise and fair of speech, and he knew well how to maintain good and evil, and he was master whenever he wished of King Henry of England and of his sons, but he always wished that they should be at war together, the father and the sons and the brothers one with the other. And he always wished that the King of France and the King of England should be at war together, and if they made good peace or truce he always tried by means of his sirventes to show how each one was dishonoured by that peace; and he had great good and great evil from the strife he stirred up between them.”

The character thus naïvely described is clearly traceable in many of Bertran’s own works, but though we cannot deny that he was contentious and bloodthirsty, we may claim for him that he was generous and a faithful friend, and that he hated anything in the nature of meanness and cowardice. He had a real affection for Henry II’s eldest son, the “Young King,” and if he abused him in his sirventes beginning, “I care not to delay longer in making a sirventes,” it was because he was sincerely grieved to see his favourite weakly throwing away his chances instead of fighting for his rights. He does not seem to have had the same personal feeling for Richard, but, once he had accepted him as his master, he served him faithfully and spoke in no measured terms of the cowardly enemies who revolted against the King while he was in captivity. Though we cannot look upon Bertran as the champion of liberty, the precursor of Bertrand du Guesclin and Jeanne Darc, as some have made him out to be, we need not condemn him as altogether bad. He had some, at least, of the virtues as well as of the vices of 60 his time. As for his political influence, whether good or bad, there has always been a tendency to overrate it. His name is not mentioned by the official chroniclers of the reigns of Henry II. and Richard I., so his part in the rebellions of the sons of Henry II. cannot have been considered a very important one. The history of his life may best be reconstructed from his own songs, the greater part of which deal with historical events of more or less importance, and from a few scattered references in the cartulary of the Abbey of Dalon and in the chronicle of Geoffroi de Vigeois (written in 1183). The Provençal “explanations” of the songs are delightful specimens of Provençal prose, but quite untrustworthy. Probably they were not written till about half a century after Bertran’s death, and many of them are mere paraphrases of the poems. Allusions are often misunderstood, and curious blunders result.

The ruins of the castle of Born, in the department of Dordogne, probably mark the birthplace of the trobador. He was the eldest son of Bertran and Ermengarde de Born, and had two brothers, Itier and Constantin, the second of whom plays an important part in the story of his life. We cannot tell how and when he came into possession of the castle of Autafort. This castle originally belonged to the family of Lastours, and Constantin de Born married Agnes de Lastours, and later on Bertran’s own daughter married a member of the same family. In an Act dating from some year between 1159 and 1169 Bertran and Constantin are described as possessors of Autafort.2 Equally uncertain are the beginnings of Bertran’s close relations with the sons of Henry II. of England.


The English princes had lived with their mother in Bordeaux from 1163, and in 1169 Richard, the second son, had been made Governor of Aquitaine and Poitou, and was thus the overlord of Bertran de Born. It is therefore quite possible that Bertran took some part in the first revolt of the sons from their father in 1173, but there is no evidence to show that he did so. The eldest son, Henry, was crowned at Westminster in the year 1170, and was afterwards known as the “Young King.” His discontent at having no power or possessions with his empty title led him first to think of revolting against his father. He was joined by his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, the latter of whom had become Duke of Brittany by his marriage, and King Louis VII. of France, together with many Aquitanian and French barons, united with them to try and overthrow Henry II. from his throne. As is well known the revolt was unsuccessful, and Henry II. compelled his rebellious sons and vassals to peace in the following year.

Though Bertran makes no mention of this revolt in any of his existing songs, it is thought that he may have taken part in it, partly because, in the oldest sirventes by him which we possess, “The Count has asked and incited me,” Henry II.’s friend and ally, King Alfonso II. of Aragon, appears as the poet’s enemy. This sirventes was written in 1181. The King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse had a standing quarrel as to which of them had the better claim to the County of Provence. The King had an ally in Henry II. of England, who thought he had a claim to the County of Toulouse through his wife. A peace was patched up between the disputants in 1176, but war broke out again in the following year and was continued, without either party gaining any decided advantage, till 1181, when the King of Aragon brought a large army into the enemy’s 62 country and appeared before the town of Toulouse. The Count (Raimon V., whom we already know as the patron of Bernart of Ventadorn) thereupon turned for help to the Aquitanian barons, enemies of Alfonso and Henry, and asked Bertran to write him a sirventes. It appears from the Count’s request that Bertran had already gained some fame as a writer of stirring and effective war-songs.

Bertran complied with Raimon’s request for a song, but did not himself take any part in the war, for his own affairs were taking up his attention. He and his brother Constantin were, not naturally, continually at strife over their joint possession of the castle of Autafort, and about this time Bertran succeeded in driving out his brother and in keeping the castle for himself alone, whereupon Constantin went to the Duke of Aquitaine to ask for redress.

Richard was himself at war with his own vassals. Since 1174, when his father had entrusted him with the overthrowing of those barons who refused to acknowledge the peace of that year, he had reigned so cruelly as to induce his vassals to revolt against him. A mutiny broke out early in 1182, the Viscount of Limoges, the Count of Périgord and other nobles leaguing together against Richard, and Bertran urging them on with his sirventes. Nevertheless, when Constantin de Born came to him with his complaints against his brother, Richard made peace with some of the rebels and induced them in turn to unite with him and attack the turbulent trobador, whom he looked upon, evidently, as a dangerous enemy. Bertran, disgusted with his former friends, who had turned against him, wrote a vigorous song, “I have made a sirventes” (page 72). Richard besieged Autafort, but abandoned the siege before long as his own affairs were pressing. It seems from another sirventes, 63 “I delay not at all” (page 74), that Constantin went and laid his complaint before King Henry himself, but that Bertran cleverly succeeded in persuading the King of the justice of his own claim, and was granted the exclusive possession of Autafort.

Having brought his quarrel to such a satisfactory conclusion, Bertran now turned his thoughts in a very different direction. For a few months he gave up war and wrote nothing but love-poems. Maëut, his lady, was the wife either of the Count of Périgord or of the latter’s younger brother Guilhem de Montagnac — probably of the former. Before Bertran had wooed her very long, he was rash enough to write a song in praise of the newly-married wife of the Viscount of Comborn, a lady celebrated for her beauty. Maëut, greatly annoyed, promptly dismissed her trobador, and Bertran thereupon addressed another song to the Viscountess, the beginning of which, “He who changes Good for Better increases his joy if he takes Better,” was not calculated to appease the wrath of Maëut. Soon however he repented and addressed a poem to his first lady in which he justifies himself, and wishes himself all sorts of ill-luck if he is unfaithful as slanderers make him out to be. But Maëut was seriously offended and refused to forgive him. He next tried the effect of flattery, and explained in an ingenious song that he was going to ask every lady of his acquaintance to give him her most beautiful feature or grace, that he might make a feigned lady to console him for the loss of his Maëut, since there was no one to compare with her. When even this clever compliment failed to move her, Bertran went in despair to the lady Tibors, wife of the lord of Chalais, and offered himself to her as her trobador. Tibors promised to try and effect a reconciliation with Maëut, failing which, she said, she would accept 64 the trobador herself. She was successful, and Bertran, forgiven at last, wrote a triumphant song. In the very same year, however, we find him singing the praises of another mistress. Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, who had married Mathilde, daughter of Henry II. of England, had been banished from his country for three years owing to his rebellion against the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, and at the end of the summer of 1182 came with his family to Normandy to visit his father-in-law. Richard, having forgotten his quarrel with Bertran, asked him to come and cheer his sister in her exile, and Bertran spent the winter in the Norman court at Argentan and addressed two songs to Mathilde of Saxony. He admits that he was bored at the Norman court, and although the two songs to Mathilde are the best love-poems he wrote, it is clear that his homage was purely of a conventional order.

Bertran wrote no love-songs after 1182, but he often mentions his lady in his sirventes. The events of the following year gave him ample opportunity for indulging in his favourite occupation of stirring up feuds and urging on to battle.

The “Young King” had a quarrel with his brother Richard. He had asked his father for a duchy, and had demanded that his brothers should do homage to him as their future King. His father and his brother Geoffrey agreed to do what he asked, but Richard refused to do homage, considering himself, as Duke of Aquitaine, the immediate vassal of the King of France. The brothers were already quarrelling over the possession of the castle of Clairvaux, and the Aquitanian barons seized the opportunity of inviting the Young King to take the rulership of Aquitaine in place of Richard. Henry, urged on by Bertran’s gibes at his slackness, united with the barons, and war soon broke out. 65 At first the rebels gained the advantage, but before long King Henry II. came over from England with an army to make peace. The Young King consented to give up his demand, and the brothers swore peace. The Aquitanian barons were much disgusted at the failure of their plans, and Bertran wrote a sirventes, “I care not to delay longer” (p. 77), roundly abusing the Young King for tamely submitting to his father and leaving his friends in the lurch. The barons refused to acknowledge the peace, and soon young Henry, with his brother Geoffrey, went over to them again, and Bertran, at the Young King’s request, wrote a stirring song for their encouragement. This second revolt, too, was doomed to failure, for young Henry fell ill of a fever, and died in Castle Martel on the 11th June 1183, having asked and received his father’s forgiveness.

The rebels had nothing left to do but seek to defend themselves against the vengeance of Richard, whom they had sought to depose in favour of the Young King. Bertran, who wrote two of the most beautiful laments in Provençal literature in memory of his dead friend, shut himself up in Autafort, and Richard appeared before the castle on the 30th June, and took it a week later. Different accounts are given in the Provençal explanations of the manner in which Bertran received his pardon from Richard and his father; and the real facts of the case are not known. The traditional story of how Bertran softened the heart of King Henry — a story which has helped to keep Bertran’s name famous — is unfortunately a myth, for King Henry did not take part in the siege of Autafort; but the version of it given, together with an account of the siege, in the explanation of one of Bertran’s sirventes against the King of Aragon, is too good not to be quoted.

“King Henry of England kept Sir Bertran de Born besieged 66 in Autafort, and was fighting him with his battering-rams, who wished him great evil, because he thought that all the war which the Young King his son had made on him, that Sir Bertran had made him do it, and therefore he had come to Autafort to drive him out. And the King of Aragon came with the army of King Henry before Autafort. And when Bertran knew this, he was very glad that the King of Aragon was in the army, because he was his special friend. And the King of Aragon sent his messengers into the castle to (ask) Sir Bertran to send him bread and wine and meat; and he sent him plenty, and by the messenger by whom he sent the presents he sent (a message), asking that he would cause the battering-rams to be moved and drawn to another part, because the wall where they were striking was quite broken. And he (the King of Aragon), by reason of the great riches of King Henry, told him all Sir Bertran’s message. And King Henry had more battering-rams put in that part where he knew the wall was broken, and forthwith the wall was overthrown and the castle taken. Sir Bertran, with all his people, was led to King Henry’s tent, and the King received him very ill, and said to him: ‘Bertran, Bertran, you said that you never needed half your wits at any time, but know that now indeed they are all needful to you.’ ‘My Lord,’ said Bertran, ‘it is indeed true that I said this, and indeed I spoke truth.’ The King said: ‘I think indeed that they have failed you now.’ ‘My Lord,’ said Sir Bertran, ‘they have indeed failed me.’ ‘And how?’ said the King. ‘My Lord,’ said Bertran, ‘the day the noble Young King, your son, died, I lost my wits and my sense and my understanding.’ When the King heard what Sir Bertran, weeping, said to him of his son, great grief came to his heart and to his eyes for pity, so that he could not prevent himself from fainting with 67 grief. And when he recovered of his swoon, he cried out and said, weeping: ‘Sir Bertran, Sir Bertran, indeed you are right, and indeed it is fitting that you have lost your wits for my son’s sake, for he loved you more than any man in the world; and I, for love of him, grant you your freedom and your property and your castle, and give you my love and my grace, and give you five hundred marks of silver for the damage you have suffered.’ Sir Bertran fell at his feet, giving him thanks, and the King with all his army went away. . . .”

Quite a different account is given in the explanation of the song, “I am not at all discouraged” (p. 80). In this song we have Bertran’s own testimony to his having been pardoned by Richard, who soon afterwards restored his castle to him.

The episode marks a turning-point in Bertran’s career. Formerly he had been Richard’s enemy, but now gratitude made him his friend, and he served him faithfully from this time forward. In the next year we find him singing in Richard’s behalf concerning a quarrel which had sprung up between him and his youngest brother John, to whom King Henry had suddenly demanded that Richard should give up Aquitaine; and during the years next following, his songs, treating of quarrels between the brothers and between the Kings of England and France, were written on Richard’s side. Early in 1188 a new subject presented itself to Bertran. In the preceding year news had reached Western Europe of the defeats sustained by the Christians in Palestine at the hands of Saladin, and of the conquest of Jerusalem. Richard and Philip Augustus, the French King, solemnly swore peace and friendship with each other, and took the Cross; and Bertran praised their ardour and supported the proposed Crusade in a song, only a fragment of 68 which has come down to us. But Richard had no leisure to start immediately on the Crusade. He had to punish his vassal Geoffrey of Lusignan for the murder of a baron, and immediately found himself confronted by a host of rebels. No sooner had he quelled their revolt than he heard that the Count of Toulouse had imprisoned some Aquitanian merchants. To revenge himself upon the Count he fell upon the latter’s province of Quercy, took its capital, Cahors, and the whole province, and then marched into the province of Toulouse itself. The Count of Toulouse turned to his overlord, the King of France, for help. Bertran’s delight in the prospect of a war is expressed in two songs, “I cannot resist spreading a song” (p. 83), and “If I were so much lord and master of myself” (p. 85), both of which refer to these events. He abuses the French King, whom he never liked, for his cowardice and slackness in not opposing Richard. Philip Augustus began to make war on Richard in the middle of June 1189. On the 6th July Henry II. of England died, and Richard, now King, turned his attention to securing his power throughout his domains. Soon after his accession, Bertran wrote a song reproaching both Richard and Philip with failing to keep their vow of starting on a Crusade. This song, “Now I know who has the greatest worth” (p. 86), is addressed to the Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, who had gained some victories in the Holy Land against Saladin. Richard had always been anxious to go one the Crusade, and at the end of the year he and Philip again swore mutual friendship, and the expedition started in the following year.

Bertran took no part in the Crusade. As he explains, he was too poor to “make war for long without wealth.” Moreover, though he encouraged the kings to take part in the Holy War as a means of displaying their prowess, he was 69 himself more interested in the events of his own neighbourhood, which were always liable to influence his fortunes. The song, “Willingly would I make a sirventes” (p. 88), probably dates from a period soon after the Crusade had started, for it contains complaints of the state of France, whence the flower of nobility had departed, leaving no one to make war or to hold feasts. France in these days seemed dull to Bertran, but later on he had still more reason to complain. While Richard, who had been captured by his enemy, Duke Leopold of Austria, on his way home from the Crusade, was being kept in captivity by the Emperor, the Aquitanian barons seized the chance of revolting against his locum tenens. Bertran was very indignant at this cowardly proceeding, and expressed his feelings with his usual vigour. The news of the King’s release was hailed by him with delight, and when Richard was expected back in France in May 1194, he wrote a song, “Now comes the pleasant season” (p. 89), to welcome him.

This song is one of the latest we have from him. About a year later he wrote a short song, “I want to make a half-sirventes of the two Kings” (p. 90), concerning a war which threatened to break out between Richard and his old enemy Philip Augustus. It seems that King Alfonso VIII. of Castile, Richard’s brother-in-law, had promised to bring an army to help him, and Bertran alludes to this promise. Apparently the prospect of a war rejoiced him as much as ever it had done, although he was growing old, but at the end of this same year, 1195, he decided to give up war and all the other delights of this world, and to end his days in a monastery. He chose as his retreat the Abbey of Dalon, whither Bernart of Ventadorn had preceded him a year before. This Abbey was near his own castle, and he and his family had made it many gifts. He lived for several years 70 longer, perhaps till 1215, but he wrote no more songs after entering the Abbey. Perhaps he repented of having helped to stir up strife for so long, and sought to expiate his sins by spending his last years in peace and obscurity.

Bertran de Born excels among the trobadors as a writer of political satires — sirventes, as they were called in Provençal. The sirventes had a peculiarity of construction which distinguished it from all other Provençal lyric forms. Whereas it was a fixed rule as regards other songs that every new poem must have a new form and melody, the sirventes was written to the tune and in the form of some already existing song, in order no doubt that it might become quickly known and sung by every one. According to some, the sirventes receives its name from being the “servant” of another poem, but it is more probably so called because it is written in the service of a lord.

Bertran was usually happy in his choice of models on which to write his songs, and there is a good deal of vigour and rhythm in his lines which marks him out as a good poet as well as a master of invective. His love-songs are less beautiful than those of many other trobadors, but his two laments on the death of the “Young King” are among the very finest poems in the language.


1  The chronological order of Bertran’s songs and their exact bearing on the events of his life have been decided differently by different commentators. I have followed the account of Bertran’s life and the arrangement of his songs given by Stimming in his 1892 edition of the poet’s works.

2  The existing castle of Hautefort, about twenty-one miles east of Périgueux, is built on the same spot as the fortress of Bertran de Born.


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