Generation 459, 1160-1180. Stories and songs

In 1160 Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from a small town in Navarre, set off on his travels. He made his way to the port of Tarragona and took a boat up the coast to Barcelona. Barcelona was a beautiful, bustling city with wise rabbis and merchants from all over the Mediterranean. From there he took another boat to Montpellier, another flourishing port, and then on to Genoa.

Genoa he found interesting. It was not ruled by a king but by rulers appointed by the people. It was one of the most successful and powerful cities of the time. Citizens were able to buy a part-share in a trading ship. Although most ships did complete their journeys some did not (due to either bad weather or piracy), and the risk could be spread by investing in more than one ship. It made sense for people from other towns to invest in Genoese ships, and so the city prospered.

From Genoa he continued down the coast, across Italy and by either sea or land through the Byzantine Empire and all the way to Jerusalem, where he visited the holy places. He came back via a different route, visiting Alexandria in Egypt and Sicily, then a powerful kingdom. On his travels he met merchants from as far away as England and India. It was an interconnected world, in which the connections were dominated by the Genoese, Pisan and Venetian traders. Benjamin wrote a book about it, effectively a twelfth-century travel guide.

Books were widely available in the world where Benjamin lived. Books in the christian north were written on vellum (calfskin) or parchment (sheepskin),  materials so valuable that they were often scraped for re-use. The moslem world used paper, a technology they had picked up from the Chinese. Paper was cheaper to produce and widely available. Purchases in the markets were wrapped in paper, just as they are today. No wonder libraries in the arabic-speaking world could contain thousands of books while it was rare for a library in the north to have even a few hundred.

The technology of paper making gradually spread north from al-Andalus, as there were extensive contacts between the two worlds. And this generation saw the flowering of another influence from al-Andalus that made its way across the Pyrenees.

The themes of the love songs of the troubadours can be traced back to arabic love poetry. Music, song and composition were a major ingredient of court life, and visitors from Provence and Aquitaine took some of the richness back home with them. Back home others took up the baton, and started composing and performing.

Troubadours came from all backgrounds. Many were from noble families, but not all. Take Bernart de Ventadorn, for example. He was probably the son of a baker, who became attached to the court of the count of Ventadorn in central France. He composed poems of unrequited love dedicated to the countess, Marguerite de Turenne.

One of them begins:

‘When I see the lark moving

His wings with joy towards the light,

then forget and let himself fall

From the sweetness that enters his heart

Oh! What great envy I feel

Toward whomever I see who’s glad!’

The poem continues with laments at the hard-hearted rejection of his love by the lady. So perhaps it is not surprising, after many poems on this theme,  that he had to leave Ventadorn.

Bernart de Ventadorn

He joined the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had married Henry II of England, and travelled with her entourage. Eleanor had grown up in the rich world of cultural exchange with al-Andalus, and she took that richness with her to England. The troubadours in her court, including Bernart, there encountered the stories of King Arthur and adapted and embellished them. Chretien de Troyes, another troubadour at the court, added Lancelot to those stories.The stories of King Arthur and his court were immensely popular over the following generations. And so the whole genre of courtly love began, with its themes of knights and ladies, of quests and trials, and unattainable love.

Between them, Henry and Eleanor controlled large parts of eastern France as well as England: from Aquitaine in the south through the Limousin and Anjou, up to Normandy and Brittany. During this period Eleanor sided with her sons against her husband in a war for control of these huge territories. When Henry eventually defeated them, Eleanor was imprisoned for sixteen years until Henry died in 1189.

The king of France sided with Eleanor and her sons, for obvious reasons. Such a powerful vassal as Henry was clearly to be resisted. This had another consequence for our story. Henry recalled all the English students from Paris University. In 1167 the students set up the University of Oxford, a place where there was already a tradition of learning. Oxford thus became the third European university after Bologna and Paris.

And there was plenty to study. The liberal arts (from ‘liber’, meaning book, not liberalism) was expanding with the steady flow of translations of greek and arabic texts from Toledo in particular, brought back by intrepid young men like Gerard of Cremona, whom we have already met.


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