Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Defamation in the Troubadour Sirventes: Legislation and Lyric Poetry

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Defamation in the Troubadour Sirventes: Legislation and Lyric Poetry

Article excerpt

One of the features of satirical writing is that it transgresses textual boundaries in order to address issues and concerns understood by performer and audience to be extra-textual. Despite an awareness of the relations between troubadour sirventes and contemporary political and personal disputes, the possibility that these songs might have functioned as lampoons, and been received as slander, has not been fully addressed.1

The twelfth-century troubadour Marcabru is described in one of the fourteenth-century vidas composed about him as a slanderer: 'e dis mal de las femnas e d'amor' (`and he slandered women and love).2 Maldir,3 from the Latin male dicere, also maledictum or maledictio, means (in classical usage) slander, wicked gossip, criticism or insult.4 This definition is made clearer by the fate assigned the poet in the other vida: 'E fo mout cridatz e ausitz pel mon, e doptatz per sa lenga; car el fo tant maldizens que, a la fin, lo desfeiron li castellan de Guianlal, de cui avia dich mout gran mal' (`and he was much cried out [reputed?] and listened to throughout the world, and feared for his tongue; for he was so slanderous that, in the end, the castellans of Guyenne, whom he had slandered very badly, killed him').5

The precise definition of this maldir is left to the songs attributed to Marcabru in the manuscripts. The eventual murder may be a fictional device, similar to Peire Vidal having his tongue cut out by a knight, for claiming to be his wife's lover, or the death of Guillem de Bergueda at the hands of a footsoldier after a career of mayhem,6 but these violent punishments may be related to contemporary ideas about slander in poetry.7 The association between sirventes and violence is clearest in the vida and razos composed about Bertran de Born, but this corpus raises questions about general troublemaking, rather than the specific instances of slander to be examined here, and will therefore not be addressed in this article.8

The sirventes in a woman's voice previously attributed to Raimon Jordan attacks previous troubadours' songs for mal dir against women,9 and an anonymous cobla advises a woman to avoid slandering another, once again in these terms:10

(For a lady must avoid and reject the slander of another. And if slander of another lady does pass her lips, may she know she slanders herself.)

The Latin term maledictum conflated slander with curse,11 but legislation under the Republic differentiated carmen malum, a sung curse aiming to harm the person, from carmen famosum, which attacks reputation.12 Among the dense writings on slanderous words in Quintilian and the Rhetorica ad Herennium,13 as well as in the use of invective curse by Ovid in Ibis and in the Tristia,14 it emerges that Roman society was extremely concerned with the delimitation and control of slanderous words, but that the use of slander, distilled in small doses through invective, insinuation and irony, was an essential ingredient of good oratory.

The concerns are evident in the Justinian Code, which took over from the Theodosian Code as the basis for civil law from the twelfth century onwards.15 The two codes directly influence canon law on the subjects of slander and defamation, despite the surprising lack of a specific code on defamation in Gratian's Decretum. It is only with Gregory IX's Decretals that a coherent, but still unspecified, canon-law position emerges.16 This is partly due to the fact that secular courts and local custom tended to be responsible for such cases.

Helmholz's study of civil cases of defamation in English church courts up to 1600 notes that the gap in Gratian's Decretum was filled through a provincial constitution promulgated in 1222. This piece of legislation, read aloud in all churches in England, covered all false accusations of crime (such as theft or adultery) but could be stretched to include such `personal defects' as illegitimacy or leprosy." Reparation was not mentioned, since the slanderer was excommunicated, but was implicit in the process of penance, which involved making amends to persons harmed. …

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