14.03.25, Kay, Parrots and Nightingales

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Judith Peraino

The Medieval Review 14.03.25

Kay, Sarah. Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 464. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4525-7.

Reviewed by:
Judith Peraino
Cornell University

Troubadour lyrics commonly feature the theme of renewal in their springtime exordia where the author crafts his voice alongside the reemerging sounds of nature--especially the songs of the nightingale--after winter's silence. The theme of renewal also lies at the heart of Sarah Kay's magisterial study Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry, which examines how late authors who are within or a party to Occitan lyric construct their voices from the long-sounding voices of the troubadours. Here the parrot provides the avian avatar, though not for the natural source of song; rather, the parrot represents the artifice of quoting--the iteration of another's words.

In her introduction Kay uses the parrot and the nightingale to set up a dichotomy between two generic distinctions in quotation practices: verbatim quoting for the purposes of conveying knowledge (the parrot's way), and looser (sometimes to the point of linguistic mangling) lyric insertion for the purposes of conveying emotions (the nightingale's way). Though Kay cautions against taking the bird analogies too literally (23), I am going to push them a bit further. The parrot might be said to quote the nightingale, which emits in song the raw material of expression refashioned by the troubadour (we could call this the troubadour's way). Parrots do not sound like nightingales, however, which is to say the quoting text, like the parrot's squawking voice, announces its difference from the get-go. Thus we can ask: to what extent can quotations be made new again, or become a component of a new poetic voice? For, as Kay's title asserts, the microcosm of troubadour quotations has its place in the macrocosmic trajectory of "the Development of European Poetry."

The play here between micro and macro levels, or better, historical and theoretical arguments, produces a rich and thought-provoking read, aided by Kay's elegant, clear, and sometimes witty prose. On the historical level Kay weaves a tale of the cultural practice of quoting troubadour from diverse stands of textual artifacts--the who, what, when, where, and why of a literary tradition that spans approximately 150 years, from the end of the twelfth century and the Razos de trobar of Raimon Vidal to the mid-fourteenth-century poem Lasso me of Petrarch. Sixteen appendices provide detailed documentation, manuscript concordances, and key translations for the major texts discussed in the book--a generous offering to future scholars indeed. Appendix 1 is a sixty-six page table listing every quotation (of a line or longer) and its placement among six generic contexts: 1) treatises of Occitan grammar and poetry; 2) novas; 3) biographies (razos and vidas); 4) the Breviari d'amor; 5) lyrics and narratives; 6) florilegia. The exploration of these diverse generic contexts occurs over eleven chapters organized more or less chronologically through which Kay forms a history from "pioneering" to "transforming" uses of troubadour quotation.

"Part I: Pioneering Troubadour Quotation" considers in four chapters sources from the first quarter of the thirteenth century or linked to each other by a shared corpus of quotations emerging from that era: the Catalan author Raimon Vidal's grammatical tradition, his novas, the biographies of Uc de Saint Circ who resided in northern Italy, and the florilegia found for the most part in Italian chansonniers. What is pioneering about this first group of sources is their treatment of quotations as didactic, as an archive of knowledge about language and desire (even when the lyric's meaning is distorted or misread as in the nova Abril issia). Such treatments "consecrate Occitan as a kind of neo-Latin" (9) and place the troubadours on a par with Latin authors (see 59 on razos and vidas in relation to accessus ad auctores). The trajectory of Kay's argument in Part I is that the seemingly constrained practice of verbatim didactic quotation somewhat paradoxically gives rise to freedom and later transformations. At the end of Chapter 4 she summarizes: "As with Latin compilations of exempla or authorities, there is immense freedom in the uses to which the materials in all florilegia can be put. Anthologization is not a mode of confinement but a means of releasing the textual subject from entrapment in its original context. Part III of the book examines the developments in quotation and sensibility to which this freedom gives rise from the second half of the thirteenth century (87).

Skipping to "Part III: Transforming Troubadour Quotation," this grouping of five chapters includes two more grammar and poetry treatises (Dante's De vulgari eloquentia in Chapter 9 and Guilhem Molinier's Leys d'amors in Chapter 10) plus two new contexts for quotation: embedding troubadour quotations within another lyric composition (by Catalan author Jofre de Foixà and Italian authors Bertolome Zorzi in Chapter 7, and Petrarch in Chapter 11); and embedding quotations within unique moralizing texts that focus on reconciling the troubadours' secular love with sacred Christian love (Dante's Divina commedia in Chapter 9, and Matfre Ermengau's Breviari d'amorin Chapter 8). The transformation in question is a repositioning of the troubadours from their earlier presentation as knowing, contemporary authorities, to belated stepping-stones for the generation of new knowledge and new poetry in new vernaculars (see especially 164-67). Under these transformative conditions, the quotation loses purchase on its poetic structure (where incipits become explicits; see Chapter 7), semantics (where fin'amor leads us to divine love; see Chapter 8) and even the troubadours' signatures and names (where signal poetic identities are refracted and lost; see Chapters 8 and 11 on Arnaut Daniel). These later authors pay lip service to a "vernacular archive," but owe just as much to the earlier Catalan and Italian pioneers of troubadour quotation itself, drawing on their procedures and sometimes even their anthologies of quotations.

Early in the Introduction Kay notes: "It is striking that many of these Occitan writers are either Italian or Catalan, and/or have Italian or Catalan audiences and readers in mind...Only Matfre Ermengau and Guilhem Molinier are Occitans writing in Occitania seemingly solely for fellow Occitans, and even their works quickly give rise to Catalan traditions" (9). To understand the attraction of Catalan and Italian readers and writers to Occitan, Kay turns to Jacques Derrida's discussion of the status of French as a monolangue in colonial Algeria: a written language of prestige that enables subjects to constitute themselves within a discourse of knowledge and authority. Kay writes: "Buoyed up by prestige and unencumbered by political or ecclesiastical baggage, literary Occitan offers the dream of a genuinely new, secular and lay poetic subjectivity. Quotations from its poetry are like seeds from which a new, secular and lay poetry can grow" (10-11; see also 125).

This raises an important question: do new vernacular literatures need a seed from a prior vernacular literature? Would there have been a Dante without the troubadours or troubadour quotation? In my discipline of musicology, alongside the medieval repertories preserved in writing (mostly sacred Latin song until the mid-thirteenth century), we assume a parallel unwritten tradition of common vernacular song, evidence of which made its way into the elite art songs (more so among the trouvères than the troubadours), condemnations of festive singing in the writings of churchmen [1], and romances with lyric insertion (the nightingale's way). I will venture to say that what was truly "pioneering" and "transforming" about the secular and lay poetic traditions that arose from didactic quotation practices was not that they were in the vernacular, but rather that they were emphatically not sung, and never intended to be. (Dante is one of the earliest authors to take note of the fact that some "songs" are not actually sung; see De vulgari eloquentia 2.8.4). In choosing to quote the elite troubadour songs in their instructional writings, and not the street songs in the early dialects of Catalan and Italian, the authors and compilers considered in Part I constructed an ideal lineage of a learned spoken-word art. In short, although Kay does not say this in so many words, what she offers here is an account of the development of European stand-alone vernacular poetry as it was cleaved out of a lyric--that is, sung—tradition. What she does say is this: "their reliance on quotation has the odd effect of turning the troubadour corpus into a compendium of grammatical lore, a body of knowledge to be tapped. This lore is entirely divorced from music" (33-34). In other words: nightingales sing; parrots do not (see also her remarks on 13).

This brings me to "Part II: Parrots and Nightingales," which consists of two chapters that contrast troubadour quotation in Jean Renart's Guillaume de Dole (Chapter 6), a northern French romance ca. 1230 squarely in the nightingale camp, with two more Occitan novas from the mid-century that give the parrot a star role--Frayre de Joy e Sor de Plazer and Las novas del papagai (Chapter 6). I will concentrate on Kay's swerve to the nightingale's way since it presents the key illustration for her distinction of between insertion and quotation. Utilizing Jean Renart's analogy of his lyric insertions to dyes and embroidery, which Kay also likens to blots or stains (see 96), she then highlights the obscuring operations of song: "If we take seriously this analogy between the insistent stain of the rose, the blots of dye, the patches of embroidery, and the coloration effected by the lyrics, we can see the moment of song as points where the text becomes dense with sexual or social affect without necessarily assigning it meaning" (96); and later, "Jean Renart may have intended a less corrupt version of the song ['Can vei la lauzeta mover'] than that recorded in the manuscript. But what we have is an extreme case of song as blot: high on affect, low on intelligibility" (98).

Kay's steady focus on specifically troubadour quotations and not lyric quotations more generally allows her to make this claim. The question of intelligibility does not apply to quoted French lyrics in the French romance, and so it seems the ways of the nightingale and parrot are less distinct up north (and in French), at least until the later segregation of lyrics for singing and lyrics for reading that we see in the mid-fourteenth century works of Guillaume de Machaut. But Kay's larger argument in this chapter involves the geo-politics of the time: the colonization of Occitanian regions by the French from 1213 on, and the border relations between the French kingdom and the Empire. The German and Burgundian characters in Guillaume de Dole sing French songs perfectly well, but they mangle Occitan songs, enacting the supplanting of Occitan with French as the colonial monolangue. Kay sees Jean Renart's text as directly motivated by and reacting to the pioneering Catalonian and Italian tradition of troubadour quotation (105), so that both the emphasis on song as something necessarily sung, and the mangling of Occitan come from an agenda to assert the primacy of French lyric and song.

Kay also notes that the lyric insertions in Guillaume de Dole are often associated with women, either as singers or as the lyric subject position, which she interprets as "underlining the vernacular character of song, its association with the maternal vernacular, and the female body" (102). [2] She does not develop further this gendered and embodied importance to singing in the vernacular, but it opens the door for a challenge to the dichotomy between music as affective and words as cognitive. In what ways might the evocation of song offer up a different type of knowledge (especially of gender, body, desire, or arts of memory)? In what ways might lyric quotation, pointedly without the evocation of song, offer up a different type of affect? How was the cleavage between music and words felt?

Kay goes some way toward considering the first of these questions in her discussion of Jofre de Foixà's lyric "Be m'a lonc temps menat a guiza d'aura" in Chapter 7, which quotes the incipits of different troubadour lyrics as the ending lines of each stanza--a playful intertext modeled on a lyric by the trouvère Gilles de Viés-Maisons, and perhaps sung to the tune of a song by Gace Brulé (132-33). "It is tempting, then, to speculate what the effect might be of hearing Gace's closing melodic phrase displace the opening cadence of all the famous troubadour songs that Jofre quotes" (132). The effect for Kay is the reinforced integration of the quoted lines into Jofre's new context, which, unlike Gilles's lyric, effaces the difference between Jofre's voice and those of the troubadours he quotes (133). Once again music functions to obscure--to blot out some cognition of the words; but, as Kay points out in her discussion of Gilles's lyric (131), music invites the activation of knowledge in the polyphony of heard and unheard (but recalled) melodies and voices.

Some of the broad strokes of the historical argument are familiar: the troubadours cede their European literary territory to the Italian of Dante and Petrarch since the contemporaneous Occitan revivalist At de Mons and Guilhem de Molinier featured in the Leys d'amors failed in their mission of lasting renewal (see 188). This story of development seems on the surface one of waning influence and anxious misprision; troubadour names, once a badge of honor for the quoting author, displaying his lineage, his knowledge, and artful joining of voices, are by the later quoting authors neutralized (or rather, moralized), replaced, and forgotten. But "development" as a teleological concept takes a back seat in Kay's study to the less directional central concept of "change." On the macro, theoretical level, Kay offers nothing short of an attempt to account for cultural change, using theories of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridian deconstruction as models. Troubadour poetry invites these theories in its insistent and intertwined thematics of desire, language, and knowledge. This level of Kay's argument can be tough-going at times, but, importantly, it speaks to the other question I raised above: What is the affective dimension of lyric quotation without music?

The Derridian theoretical elements are the most intuitive: every act of quotation (signified by the quotation mark) is a "re-marking." Kay explains: "the repetition involved in quotation is never simply repetition: it changes the meaning of that which is repeated and the subject position(s) that it implies" (161). This change wrought by quoting calls attention to the inherent instability of language meaning and ownership. The colonizing monolangue is in fact an "illusion on the part of the colonizers that they are masters of their own language, that as their property it is in some sense proper to them" (161). Quoting is fundamentally an ambivalent process of "ex-appropriation"--possession and dispossession that leaves a trace of the other. As Derrida explains: "I must and I must not take the other into myself." [3] Thus Kay writes: "Dante re-marks them [the troubadours] in such a way as both to recognize their preeminence and to eject them from it" (161). While Derridian theory helps us to understand language practices such as quotation as dynamic and destabilizing, it does not account for change per se, nor the psychic processes associated with a confrontation of self and other that quotation stages. For this, Kay turns to Lacan's psychoanalytic theory of transference--the therapeutic mechanism whereby the patient does experience change.

Lacanian transference depends upon the relationship between the psychoanalyst and patient formed through the patient's supposition of the psychoanalyst's knowledge of a special kind, not accessible to the patient. Lacan's "subject supposed to know," like the proprietary claim of Derrida's monolangue, is illusory--not actually corresponding to the psychoanalyst, but a function of the intersubjective relationship between supposing and supposed subjects. We can see how this intersubjective relationship maps onto medieval practices of troubadour quotation: the quoting author supposes the authors whom he quotes to have special knowledge--specifically knowledge about desire (the same topic of knowledge at the heart of psychoanalysis).

Through the re-marking of the troubadours' words in the act of quotation, the quoting author also reveals contingencies of knowledge and subjectivity, much like the therapeutic process. In the following quotation of Kay I have overemphasized the parallel by inserting the bracketed terms: "Dialogue between analyst [the troubadour] and analysand [the quoting author] leads to exposing the extent to which the patient's stance is contingently bound up with knowledge that, in reality, is only supposed and with a subjectivity that is similarly hypothetical. This insight can free the patient from his inertia and enable him to redefine himself as a desiring subject" (198).

This of course simplifies Kay's complex and illuminating argument, for in reality the network of "subjects supposed to know" extends to the pioneering quoting authors, who are not quoted verbatim but whose practices are also renewed. And here we can tease out something of the affective dimension in quotation: this is not change born from an "anxiety of influence" fraught with Oedipal conflicts à la Harold Bloom; [4] rather change occurs through a broader, enabling, therapeutic kinship based on desire for knowledge. One final note about nightingales: Kay remarks that "the kinds of lyric verse that are essayed in lyric insertion sputter out in the sixteenth-century, when the tide of taste turns in favor of Petrarchan models imported from Italy" (16). But this too has something to do with music--namely, the rise of the madrigal.



1. For a study of the earliest evidence for common Romance vernacular songs see John Haines, Medieval Song in Romance Languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

2. This also accords with the evidence of a robust early practice of women singing vernacular songs recently uncovered by John Haines' study cited above, and is further corroborated in the Occitan Roman de Flamenca (ca. 1250) which includes a scene of young girls singing a May song. See The Romance of Flamenca, ed. and trans. E. D. Blodgett (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 168-9, lines 3244-54.

3. Jacques Derrida, Points...: Interviews 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 321.

4. Harold Bloom, Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Article Details

Author Biography

Judith Peraino

Cornell University