“Vida” literally means “life,” and it was standard practice for a troubadour to tell a little about the composer of the song, or characters in the song before performing the song or poem itself. (see vida #58 for an amusing description of troubadour performance) As I was researching and writing for the album “VIDA,” I was immediately drawn to these bizarre little biographies. I have noticed that there is not much on the subject available on the internet, so here is that gap filled…

Vidas are interesting not only as historical (if unreliable in factual detail) glimpses into the actual lives of troubadours, but as an early form of prose: not poetry, not scholarly treatises, not liturgical or lives of the saints. And, importantly, written in the vernacular Langue d’Oc; intending the texts to be used by a larger readership; a more ‘proletariat’ audience not limited to those trained in the scholarly use of Latin and Greek. In fact other troubadours were often a prime market for the recorded ‘vidas’ and ‘razos’, as a something of a trade reference book.

There is a delightful edition called “The Vidas of the Troubadours,” published in 1984 by the Garland Library of medieval literature. The translator is Margarita Egan, her original text was “Vidas dels Trobadors.” I would recommend it as reading for anyone interested in this subject — however, I will warn you that it’s a bit obscure and damned hard to find. I spent a few years before finding a copy in the Boston Athenaeum library (they have quite a lovely collection of medieval studies resources); I was unable to find a copy available for affordable purchase. Because I’m so smitten with the material, I would like to reprint some of Egan’s translations here as I think they make a fascinating read, I am adding some excerpts here under the tab “Vidas-Lives of the Troubadours”. The page numbers are from the 1984, v.6 series B of this book; any additional notes I’ve made are indicated with *nb*.

Out of 117 biographies, or vidas, I have selected just a few of the most interesting. Storylines recount ladies fallen from virtue, bad poets that no one seems to like, a man who removes his fingernail to repent of a folly, another who goes mad after the death of his wife, minstrels and ladies down on their luck entering and leaving monastaries and convents, accidental cannibalism… As if symbolic of all the endearing tumult of the middle ages themselves, these stories offer us a bizarre range of grotesque, humorous, and moralizing tales.

May you enjoy this glimpse into medieval artistry!