Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry

Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry

Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry

Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry

Synopsis

The love songs of Occitan troubadours inspired a rich body of courtly lyric by poets working in neighboring languages. For Sarah Kay, these poets were nightingales, composing verse that is recognizable yet original. But troubadour poetry also circulated across Europe in a form that is less well known but was more transformative. Writers outside Occitania quoted troubadour songs word for word in their original language, then commented upon these excerpts as linguistic or poetic examples, as guides to conduct, and even as sources of theological insight. If troubadours and their poetic imitators were nightingales, these quotation artists were parrots, and their practices of excerption and repetition brought about changes in poetic subjectivity that would deeply affect the European canon.

The first sustained study of the medieval tradition of troubadour quotation, Parrots and Nightingales examines texts produced along the arc of the northern Mediterranean--from Catalonia through southern France to northern Italy--through the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth. Featuring extensive appendices of over a thousand troubadour passages that have been quoted or anthologized, Parrots and Nightingales traces how quotations influenced the works of grammarians, short story writers, biographers, encyclopedists, and not least, other poets including Dante and Petrarch. Kay explores the instability and fluidity of medieval textuality, revealing how the art of quotation affected the transmission of knowledge and transformed perceptions of desire from the "courtly love" of the Middle Ages to the more learned formulations that emerged in the Renaissance. Parrots and Nightingales deftly restores the medieval tradition of lyric quotation to visibility, persuasively arguing for its originality and influence as a literary strategy.

Excerpt

Quotation—not a very promising subject, you might think. Like the footnote, with which indeed it shares a common history, quotation seems more of an academic obligation than a creative act. Poets may allude to or imitate one another, but they will not repeat an earlier text except to pastiche it, as if repetition was in itself already faintly comic. the lyricist’s emblem is the nightingale, not the parrot. in the twelfth century the prestige of poetic nightingales is at an all-time high. Around the middle of the century, the troubadour Marcabru wrote a brace of parodic love songs in which a foolish lover sends a starling— not quite a parrot, but the point is the same— to deliver his message to a tart who then turns him down. in an outrageous mock oration, which Marcabru surely knew, Ovid summons the world’s birds, nightingale included, to mourn the death of his girlfriend’s parakeet: the choice of bird implies both irony toward his theme and mimicry of Catullus’s wellknown lament for his girlfriend’s loss of her pet sparrow. Both Ovid and Marcabru come across as anti-parrot.

But parrots have always had their promoters, as we will see; and quotation has had its poetic high points too. One was in late antiquity when there developed the genre of the cento, a work put together entirely from fragments of classical texts. Another was from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries when, in a similar spirit, many new forms of writing prospered that centered on quotations from a literature that was fast assuming classical stature: that of the troubadours. With the exception of its best-known practitioner— no less a poet than Dante Alighieri— this “secondhand” deployment of troubadour song has been largely overlooked. the task of documenting it has been relegated to editors’ introductions and notes to the individual works concerned; and critical attention has been diverted to the related but distinct practice of lyric insertion that is typical of Northern French romance.

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