Timeline: Maracabru, Crusading Moralist

Oct 28, 2019

Marcabru, the son of Lady Bruna, was begotten under such a moon that he knows how love wreaks havoc, -Listen!- for he never loved any woman, nor was he loved by another.”

These are the words of the 12th century troubadour, Marcabru. The troubadours were poets and composers of secular songs, a tradition that began with William IX, the Duke of Aquitaine. Unlike William, Marcabru was not royalty. He held no title and most likely earned a living through his art. There are 44 surviving poems attributed to Marcabru and four of them have notated melodies.

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What you are hearing is perhaps Marcabru’s biggest hit Pax in nomine Domini “Peace in the name of the Lord” a popular crusading song among the warring European Christians. Marcabru’s poems and melodies became a blueprint for generations of troubadours; at least six mention him by name in their own works.

What we know about Marcabru’s life comes to us from his own poetry and from the poetic, romantic tradition of the troubadours. There are two contradictory accounts of his early life. The most famous is that he was abandoned as an infant on the doorstep of a rich man. No one knew where he came from. He was given the name Pan-perdut which means “lost bread”; until he decided to adopt a new name Marcabru “brown mark.”

Hear how my song progresses and improves,

And Marcabru, by his heavenly inspiration,

Knows how to weave and fit the subject and verse,

So that one wouldn’t change a single word.

Marcabru wrote songs of love, passion, morality, grieve and war. A 13th century miniature depicts him standing with arms folded, without a musical instrument. Perhaps he sang his pieces a cappella or paid other musicians to accompany him. He could afford to pay them because he became quite famous, as well as infamous, for his sharp, witty words, obscenities and indictment of nobility. He garnered a reputation for misogyny due to his portrayal of women, which is perhaps undeserved. He treated men worse.

In a popular troubadour song “The other day, by a hedge” we have a dialogue between a passing nobleman and a beautiful peasant girl. It’s an exchange of catcalls and rebuffs, of weighted compliments and witty retorts. In the end, the girl sends the nobleman packing to bother women of his own class. It’s this rebuke of nobility that may have led to Marcabru’s end. It’s a matter of debate, but tradition states that he was murdered by the lords of Gascony for the harsh words that he had written and sung about them. One historian, James Wilhelm wrote that “after his passing, morality was never again quite so funny.”

Learn more about Marcabru in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.