Ermengard of Narbonne, the central figure of Fredric Cheyette’s excellent book, was a powerful twelfth-century viscountess, a warrior, and a patron of poets, who lived in Narbonne, a city on the Mediterranean that had once been Roman.
In our own time and language the name Ermengard may seem to have an oddly Scandinavian ring, something that is not explained, certainly, but is lent a kind of confirmation by an Orkney Island saga of around the year 1200. The poet who wrote it was recounting the voyage of Earl Rognvaldr to the Holy Land. On the way there, his hero put in at a harbor city called Nerbon, where the queen of the place, who was famous for her beauty, welcomed him, giving a feast in his honor. The queen’s name, he said, was Ermngerda, and he wrote:
The queen came into the hall escorted by a group of ladies and carrying a serving-bowl of gold. She was in her finest clothes, with her hair failing loose as is customary with virgins and a golden tiara upon her forehead…. The Earl took her hand…and sat her on his knee…
and he made a verse, unabashedly suggestive, and full of admiration for her “heavily hanging silken hair.” The poem, the story says, became widely known in Norseland, and led to generations of Norse girls being named Ermengard. The fact that the name sounds exotic to us shows how remote from us now are the culture and tongue of Aquitaine and Provence at one of the great moments of European civilization.
Ermengard, in fact, was named for her own mother. She had a half-sister named Ermessend, and at least two other women by that name and two men named Ermengaud are mentioned in the scant records of her life. Those names belong, without question, to the southern part of what the Romans had called Gaul, at the dawn of the age of romance.
That country in that period, its achievements and splendors, and the legend and accomplishments of Ermengard herself were fated to become a kind of parable of the ephemeral nature of the glory of the world. The language that was spoken there could be heard, with local variations, from Catalonia in what is now Spain to Liguria in what is now Italy, and it survives, to a greatly diminished degree, in the lands between them, which later were named (by foreigners) Languedoc. That language was Occitan, which the Italians came to call Provençal. By the eleventh century some familiar use of it, perhaps in folk poetry, had already led to its being used as a koine, or conventional literary language: the first troubadour any of whose poems have survived, Guilhem IX, Duke of Aquitaine, wrote in Occitan, although his native tongue was Poitevin. So did the troubadours who followed him, until in later generations the French trouvères and the German minnesingers imitated them in their own languages.
The wealth and elegance, grace and sophistication of the courts of that region owed something to their contacts with other cultures, Moorish and Jewish as well as Christian, along the Mediterranean and across the Pyrenees in Spain. The riches of the region and the self-confidence of the culture would in time attract the envy and rapacity of northerners and the heated indignation of the Church. From the inventive, pleasure-loving spirit of that part of the world evolved the culture in which the first generations of troubadours developed their arts. Ermengard was one of their most famous patrons, as well known for that in her own lifetime, perhaps, as Aliénor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie of Champagne.
The importance of women in many aspects of that cultural flowering—women as they figure in the poetry, women troubadours, women as benevolent protectors—has been discussed by generations of scholars. Professor Cheyette gives it fresh and sympathetic consideration in his remarkable study.
Ermengard was born in or around 1130, in Narbonne, and died sixty-six years later in a house of the Knights Templar, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. She was married twice. The first time, which was the occasion of her earliest surviving appearance in historical record, was in 1142, when she was not much over twelve years old. Aliénor of Aquitaine had been only about fourteen when she was married, five years earlier, to the pious adolescent Louis VII of France. Ermengard’s domains, the city of Narbonne and the lands around it, were not comparable to Aliénor’s Aquitaine, which was larger than the kingdom of France, but nonetheless she was a great heiress. Narbonne and its dependencies were rich, and strategically situated along the coastal trade routes between Italy and Provence to the east and Catalonia and Barcelona across the Pyrenees to the south. Ermengard’s marriage, of course, was a political maneuver, and very possibly was never consummated. It was, in fact, from her point of view, a forced marriage, and its circumstances are an example of the world she had inherited.
Her husband was Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse, whose father, some years earlier, had laid claim to Narbonne. Ermengard was an orphan. Her mother was dead; her father had been killed in battle in 1134, when Ermengard was only four or five years old. Both of her brothers had died before that. Count Alphonse Jordan had taken advantage of Narbonne’s interregnum to mobilize a faction of supporters who hoped to be able to take over the city and its lands, and make them dependencies of Toulouse, which divided with Barcelona the claims to the entire Mediterranean littoral from Catalonia to the Alps.
The counts of Barcelona had intermarried with Ermengard’s family since the beginning of the tenth century. Ermengard’s arranged marriage led in short order to the armies of the counts of Barcelona attacking castles and forces of the Count of Toulouse, who was defeated in a few months and imprisoned, and her marriage to him was annulled. Her allies then proceeded to remarry her to a relative of hers, twenty-some years older, who already had a son and heir and who left the scene as soon as the oaths of fidelity had been sworn, and was never mentioned in the city records again. Evidently the Barcelona allies wanted Ermengard to be safely married and beyond the reach of ambitious suitors. They arranged for her heir, if she had no children, to be her half-sister, excluding her husband and his relatives.
The fortunes of great heiresses, in her world, were inevitably subject to such statecraft and manipulation. “By the time Ermengard was born,” Cheyette writes,
almost every great Occitan dynasty (and many a castellan fam-ily as well) could name the ma-triarchs of their near or distant past, women whose lives were as charged with intrigue, ceremony, and warfare as those of their male contemporaries.
His short list of examples includes widows and girls, some of them helpless, some far from it. One of them was Almodis, sister of Rangard of La Marche, who in the eleventh century married into the Toulouse dynasty and then into that of Barcelona, and became a legendary figure, outwitted in the end by her own daughter, also an Ermengard, another Viscountess of Béziers. Another was Gerberga, Countess of Provence in the eleventh century, who married her daughter, Douce, to the Count of Barcelona, thus beginning the long rivalry with Toulouse, which would continue throughout Ermengard’s life. After Douce’s marriage into their dynasty, the counts of Barcelona claimed, and held, all of Provence south of the Durance River, and Toulouse claimed all of Provence to the north of it. Then there was Philippa, the wife of the troubadour Guilhem IX of Aquitaine; the couple claimed Toulouse itself, and this claim was passed on to her son, then to her granddaughter, Aliénor of Aquitaine, and so to her second husband, Henry II of England.
The list is long, the dynastic stitching intricate, and the histories of the principal characters have survived, often, without living features, like the sculptural effigies or manuscript portraits of the period. But Professor Cheyette’s short roll call of them speaks of a shifting, violent, incessant chess game in which the role of women was essential. In a section entitled “Poetry, Ritual, and Magic,” while describing the language and rubric of invocation in the indispensable oaths of fidelity of the period, he notes that “without fail, the oath taker names both himself and the person to whom he swears his faith by the wombs that gave them life.” Viscountess Ermengard, in oaths of fidelity, was not named as the daughter of her then-famous father, Aymeri II, but as Ermengard, daughter of Ermengard. Professor Cheyette writes, “Why this should have been so is one of the many questions about these oaths that remains an enigma….” It suggests to him
social habits outside our normal ken. Like the rhythms of the oath itself, it seems part of an incantation, bound up with the world of magic, love spells, maledictions, charms and countercharms. There are striking parallels to it in ancient incantatory practices from Babylonia and Egypt…. Did such practices survive in lands in which Roman influence remained strong, despite clerical hostility?
In a society in which these oaths from an older tradition, and the dynastic importance of women, were taken for granted, Ermengard
quickly came of age in the midst of wars sparked by other ambitious women or by the men who would use those women to further their own ambitions…. When she was but twenty her army encamped with the Genoese and the Catalans before the walls of Tortosa on the Ebro, in Catalonia. She was there with them. At the age of thirty she was one of the principals at the siege of les Baux. When the Church broke in two at the election of Pope Alexander III, she was one of his most important hosts as he negotiated support against his rival, Pope Victor IV. From then on there would hardly be a year when she would not find herself feeling her way through the increasingly complex maze of regional politics, as the kings of Aragon, France, and England, the German emperor, and the pope all focused their attention on the lands between the Massif Central, the Alps, and the Mediterranean.
How did such a world manage to bring forth the poetry of the troubadours, and those erotic conventions and attitudes which came to be called courtly? The violent imagery and the insistently professed appetite for carnage and the infliction of death, suffering, and destruction that are so prominent in the poetry of Bertran de Born seem quite in keeping with the cruelty and barbarism that rolled in waves across the country around him. But the emergence of the love poetry of the troubadours, with its elevation of the beloved woman, the expression of unconditional devotion (usually unrewarded) and of longing, and the ineradicable distance that the word “longing” comes to imply, is a more intricate and mysterious subject. Scholars have been trying to find its sources for two centuries, without altogether agreeing.
Professor Cheyette provides commentaries on troubadour poems, and an illuminating chapter on the concepts of love and fidelity in their poetry, written in a society where “love” referred not only to private passion or devotion but could be construed as a possession, as property, part of a family’s estate, an item in a land conveyance, or the loyalty owed to a lord. He quotes a passage of Bernart de Ventadorn, perhaps the greatest poet of love among the troubadours, in which the words of dedication to the beloved lady are exactly those of an oath of fidelity. One of the fullest and most illuminating of these commentaries examines a song (the music survives and is included) attributed to a trobairitz, a woman troubadour, the Contessa de Dia. It is possible that the Contessa knew and perhaps was a frequent guest at the court of Ermengard.
The Contessa’s poem is one of the great surviving beauties of its age. Its subject is love and infidelity, in a society which realized that fidelity was indispensable. She discusses it, of course, from a woman’s point of view, speaking of discord, frustration, injustice, treachery, as well as merit, beauty, judgment, and devotion. Cheyette’s gloss on the poem is illuminating:
Her lover is romantically unfaithful, and that is the same as being politically or militarily unfaithful. … In her charge against her lover, the lady of the song ironically reverses many of the commonplaces of troubadour lyrics. Her qualities are what the male poets claim to desire from their ladies. She has them. Why, then, is she not rewarded? The answer lies in another reversal: her lover’s pride, orguoill. … Pride is the enemy of love because it destroys reciprocity….
This is the burden of the song: When the friend betrays her, he betrays the ideals by which every member of the nobility is assumed to live…. When we see the language of power relations…used in what are clearly erotic contexts, we have, to be sure, a projection of those relations of power and status into the world of intimacy. But…we likewise have a counter-reflection of the force of sexual longing back into the world of power, an eroticization of the ideology of faith and loyalty.
Ermengard was celebrated, as we know, as one of the women rulers who were great patrons of the troubadours, along with Aliénor of Aquitaine, Constance of Toulouse, Richildis, widow of Raimon Berenger of Provence, and the Countess of Vienne, Marguerite de Bourgogne. Many of the early troubadours, including five of the greatest, Bernart de Ventadorn, Peire d’Alvernhe, Giraut de Bornelh, Peire Vidal, and Peire Rogier, and one woman troubadour, Azalais de Porcairagues, addressed songs to her. The love professed in the songs inevitably gave rise, over the centuries, to conjectures about whether Ermengard had actual affairs with any—or all—of the troubadours whose patron she may have been. The same speculation continues to hover around the other noble women whose courts were once centers of troubadour poetry and music, and the myths and assumptions that became known as “courtly love.”
Of the troubadours who addressed Ermengard in their songs as “my lady of Narbonne” or as “Tort n’avetz” (“You are wrong,” a code name invented by one of them, perhaps referring to some moment of banter between them), Peire Rogier is the one who is most often said to have had an actual affair with her. That is the substance of one of the vidas, or life stories, which were made up, usually, by vagrant minstrels who sang the troubadours’ songs from court to court. The singers no doubt wanted to have something to say to call attention to the songs and the poets who had written them, who in most cases had died many years earlier. They strung together bits of gossip, extrapolations from references in the poems, or anything else they could use, and the language of love, for their purposes, meant just what one might suppose. The vidas about the troubadours are among the first narratives that were called romances (from roman, a word for the language).
A vida about Peire Rogier says that he
was from Auvergne and was a canon [i.e., one of the cathedral clergy] of Clermont. He was a noble man, handsome and charming, well versed in letters; he had a natural wit, and he was good at composing and singing verses. He left his canonry and became a minstrel and went from court to court. Everywhere his songs were praised. One day he came to Narbonne, to the court of Lady Ermengard, who was known in those days as a woman of great worth and merit. She welcomed him warmly and showed him great favor. He fell in love with her, and composed songs about her and she welcomed them. He called her “Tort n’avez.” For a long time he remained at her court. And the people of the region believed that he received the pleasures of love from her, for which they blamed her. And so, for fear of what people were saying, she told him to leave. Sad and thoughtful, troubled and downcast, he departed and went to the court of Raymond, lord of Orange….
The troubadours’ cryptic songs, and the largely fictitious vidas, and her widespread but somewhat amorphous reputation as a patron of poetry and music, account for most of what we know of Ermengard’s years in that role, during which the dynastic and diplomatic intrigues never stopped, and she led her armies in the field in campaign after campaign.
After her own marriage had been taken care of, the counts of Barcelona arranged a marriage between her half-sister Ermessend and the Castilian count Manrique de Lara (a family that would be remembered in the legends and ballads—romances—of Spain). Ermengard, who had no children, summoned one of her sister’s sons to her court at Narbonne. He had been named Aymeri after Ermengard’s and Ermessend’s father, and Ermengard meant him to be her successor. But he died in 1177, when she was in her late forties. She then invited his brother Pedro to take his place. Sometime in the summer of 1192, when she was in her sixties, Pedro managed either to expel her from Narbonne or to take advantage of one of her absences to prevent her from returning to her city. He had assembled a faction of opportunists, most of them holders of new wealth in Narbonne, and lured some of Ermengard’s trusted allies into his camp, the party of the future.
In exile, and desperate, she turned to the man who had been, in the course of her life, both a friend and her most serious rival, Raymond V of Toulouse, and gave him the city of Narbonne and all her rightful powers there. But Raymond died in 1194, and Pedro felt sufficiently secure in his position to name his son, another Aymeri, heir to Narbonne.
That is how Ermengard came to end her days exiled from her own city, in a house of the Knights Templar, Mas-Deu, in the mountains of the Roussillon. Her will, written on April 30, 1196, a day or two before her death, indicates that she was not even accompanied by counselors, a chaplain, or ladies-in-waiting. Two knights who may have been sent from the court of Toulouse, two clerics from the Templar house, and a clothing merchant from Perpignan were the only witnesses to leave their marks at the bottom of the parchment.
She was poor, in that final exile. She had nothing to give away in her will except claims to property, which she bequeathed to a Hospitaler house and to two Templar houses, one of them the place where she was dying and where she had asked to be buried. She begged her nephew to see to the disposition of her gifts, but he never did. And the cartulary, or register, of the Templar house of Mas-Deu, which lists the great and famous who are buried there, does not mention her at all. Her will itself survives only because it was included, apparently by accident, in the royal archives of Aragon. Yet there is an ironic twist to the story, now when it can do no one any good. It is the exiled, unattended, homeless Ermengard, all the diplomatic and military efforts of whose life had come to nothing, whom we would give anything to raise, even for a moment, from oblivion, whereas Pedro, who “succeeded,” we remember only as her betrayer.
Most of the details of Ermengard’s story have gone like water between fingers. In his effort to conjure up some semblance of her presence Professor Cheyette has assembled a diorama of her place and age.
We must find our way document by document…. Each one is like an isolated tessera in a pile that once formed a mosaic, or a random piece of a picture puzzle.
His reconstruction is wonderfully detailed and extensive, and he has brought to it the inquiries of an intensely focused historian and of an anthropologist. In his analysis of the concept of “lordship” (referring to both genders) in that society, the deathbed catalog of Church property and rental rights, summoned from memory by one Pons of Auriac, agent of the Abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières in the village of Peyriac-Minervois, north of Narbonne, in 1158, is an unexpected treasure, a verbatim account of how things worked then in a landscape that has vanished. Professor Cheyette’s study also offers a sensitive hypothetical consideration of what in the “heretical” teachings of the Cathars might have been attractive to many, from all strata of secular society, in twelfth-century Occitania. He describes the tangled precursors of the destruction of Occitan civilization, as they occurred through the half-century before the Albigensian Crusade was launched by the Pope against the Cathars in 1208 and before the Inquisition which that crusade spawned. He identifies some of the confusions of the eager persecutors—including the immortal words of one indignant papal legate, “Everyone knows God wrote the Bible in Latin”—which sound strangely contemporary.
Looming over Cheyette’s account is the shadow of the devastation to come: the armies summoned and blessed by the French crown and the Church to raze the Occitan world. Seen from long afterward, the approach of the catastrophe called the Albigensian Crusade is more obvious than it could have been to those upon whom it was about to descend. Ermengard did not live to see it, and no one in the modern world can imagine how much was lost forever. Professor Cheyette’s description of Ermengard’s Narbonne and of what has replaced it helps to suggest what we will not get to see.
In the end, we are left with no vivid or coherent image of Ermengard and her story. She will, Cheyette says, “resolutely not stand before us.” The isolated fragments tell us, as he warns us they will, “little of her passions, her problems, her ambitions, her life.” For all his astonishing elaboration of the age and its mores, Professor Cheyette is hampered not only by the great voids opening around solitary details but also by the fact that her story, in his account, is scattered among parts of other stories, so that its sequence, even when it is known, is not easy for a reader to follow. And then there are what Cheyette refers to as his “Gibbonian sentences,” which at times seem to partake of the “embranglements” into which he plunges in the first chapter. Such a failing might beset anyone confronted by the quantity of dynastic and political detail that Professor Cheyette has assembled, and who felt impelled to convey the whole complexity of it at once, in one context after another.
I must register a small disappointment of another kind. When a scholar of Professor Cheyette’s learning, and a linguist of his accomplishments (Latin, Occitan, French, Spanish, Italian, German), writes “their ships could lay at anchor” and “laying just beyond Ermengard’s little suburb” and no editor at Cornell University Press notices, we are apparently even closer to losing the distinct use of two significant verbs than I had been willing to believe.
But this study of Ermengard and her world is an original and valuable contribution to our knowledge of an admirable woman—in the end an immensely sad figure—and of the endangered culture in which she lived. For two hundred years scholars have pored over the surviving documents of the period, but they have addressed much of their writing, as Professor Cheyette says in his preface, to one another, and many who are not professional medievalists, as a result, have remained all but unaware of the history of the great civilization that somehow produced the troubadours. Professor Cheyette says that he meant this book “to be read, not consulted,” and as a common reader with an amateur interest in that culture and its long shelf life, which continues into our own time and literature, I am indebted to him.
February 13, 2003