“Los dreitz que tenon l’amador” [The Laws that Lovers Hold]: Initial Notes on the Political Imaginary of the Trobairitz, or, What’s Wrong with Neofeudalism

From the Coutumes de Toulouse; BnF Latin Latin 9187, 34v

Although Aristotle’s Politics begins by insisting that “the qualifications of a statesman, king, householder, and master” are, whatever their apparent resemblances, not the same, he effectively erases this very caution in his next passage, which considers political life at what he claims as its foundation: political life begins with the union of male and female, because of their “natural desire,” shared with animals, “to leave behind them an image of themselves,” but also because of that union of “natural ruler and subject.” Having said this, Aristotle has to distinguish between women and enslaved people (of whatever gender, presumably): though both are made to serve, women have other uses, presumably having to do with the future.

And though Aristotle takes some time before he imagines how households, joined together, form a state with a ruler, we still see his imagination of politics here in miniature: it is the order of ruler and subject, motivating force and object, or, we might say, form and matter, a kind of social hylomorphism.

I offer this by way of contrast to the political imagination of the Trobairitz, although I’m sure what I’m about to say is equally applicable to the roughly 2500 surviving troubadour songs (Bruckner et al, xliii). And, as it’s been perhaps 17 years since I last dipped into this material, I’m certain I’m making points that have been made before, for centuries, many times. Bear with me.

While Aristotle’s political imagination neatly splits ruler from subject, the Trobairitz poetry intermingles them. They do this because their political imagination is essentially that of mutual obligation between local rulers, none with a claim to being the single lord of an entire region or an entire people. Those who were ruled, at least if they possessed the political clout that made their loyalty desirable, could complain, resist, and even betray, leaving their lord for another one, because another castle, another city might be a better home. The permanent claims and obligations of citizenship made to those born to a nation state — and, recall, that “nation” comes “nasci,” that which has been born — are not at all applicable here.

It is for this reason that I have been grumpily resisting claims that our present era of capitalism, characterized by temporary labor (or “at will” employment, where the will is exercised only by the employer), non-disclosure agreements, the privatization of the public sphere for the benefit of the few, and especially the “hardening of divisions in society,” between rich and poor, has much to do with “feudalism,” with all due respect to Jurgan Habermas, and with somewhat less respect to The National Review. To claim that the hardened divisions between rich and poor, and indeed the increasing immiseration of working people after a few decades of postwar prosperity in the industrialized, colonial powers, is a reversion to a “medieval” state of politics is to ignore both the terrible condition of working people through much of the 18th and 19th centuries — a category that includes both colonial subjects and enslaved people — and the characteristically modern tendency of Neoliberalism. “Neofeudal” aims to catalyze resistance to present misery by likening it to the Middle Ages, but insofar as it’s a misdiagnosis, the metaphor offers little guidance, or worse, for any practical reimagining of political and economic life. The diagnosis works only for those who disdain the “medieval” so much that they don’t bother to learn anything about it.

For if we examine the actual language of actual people living under feudalism, we find a language worried about secrets, betrayal, loyalty, and obligation, organized around contracts. Of course, the Trobairitz are poems of elites talking to other elites. They represent no one who is not in possession of property and a band of armed supporters to defend the exploitation to preserve it. Yet the elites do vary slightly in power, enough so that the elites imagine their meeting as something other than equals. And in that slight inequality, we see something other than a mere hardening of social divisions, and something other than a political relationship of form to matter.

“Fin ioi me dona alegranssa” worries about “li lausengiar,” the gossips, who might draw others into alliance with them (the word is “acordamen,” and apologies for not knowing Occitan!) (Bruckner et al, 13). “Ia de chantar non degra aver talan” speaks of ladies and knights, each obligated to plead with each other to prove their love (17), as one might in any legal or social dispute in court: pleading, after all, implies that power doesn’t lie only in the one person. “Amics, s’ie.us trobes avinen” builds sensitive, somewhat fragile mechanisms of contracts:

I will never hold you worthy
nor will I love you with good and faithful heart
until I see if it would help me
to have a harsh or evil heart toward you. (19; see also 27, 31, 45, 51)

Or, this, the opening stanza of “Mout avetz faich lonc estatge,” so easy to read in a political register:

You’ve stayed a very long time away
from me, my friend, since you departed,
and I find it harsh and grim,
because you pledged and you swore
that all your days
you’d have no lady besides me;
and if you’re attending to another,
you have murdered and betrayed me [mi avetz morta e trahida]
for in you I had my hope
that you would love me without wavering. (23; see also 31)

The same poem talks about love having “seized me so” (m’a amors sazida, 23), which I imagine might be military language. I suspect there’s a great deal of other legal or quasi-legal language I’m missing because of my ignorance about the field: for example, one speaks of a lover who wants to “summon” (convenir) her friend (21); another of “maltraich e.l damptnatge” (damage and harm, 25). Another, “Bona dona d’une re” ends with a description of the perfect lover, which also might be a description of the perfect vassal:

Friend Betran, a lover must act nobly
if he is honest, faithful, and no deceiver. (53)

Now, we might say that all of this is simply metaphorical support for love. Since the poets used this language of obligation, submission, and loyalty only because this the material on hand, it might be said that this love language tells us very little about actual political life. But actual political life is not simply a matter of economic relations; it cannot be reduced, in its final analysis, to a play of numbers (for a parody of such analysis, see Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which I just taught in another class). Actual political life is necessarily ideological, and ideology is not only the “false consciousness” of actually existing political relationships; it is also consciousness, as such, because all consciousness is necessarily an inadequate negotiation with the actually existing disorder of things (with measured respect for Slavoj Zizek, who made this very point repeatedly before he derailed himself). That is, we can learn something about “feudal” life, if this is what we want to call this play of petty, local lordships, by reading how they metaphorized their political life.

And, by extension, we can imagine that the gradual disappearance of troubador poetry through the later middle ages, and its general absence from medieval England — which my hunch tells me is the case — has less to do with changing tastes, and perhaps little to do with the submission of Toulouse to Northern France, than it does with the gradual transformation of political life into one that didn’t allow for the (slightly) free play of gossip, betrayal, and loyalty required for anyone to imagine their erotic life as analogous to a political life. Powerful kings, in short, killed courtly love.


Brucker, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, ed. and trans., Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland, 2000.