Biographical sketch (Richard Abels)

Bertran de Born of Hautefort, who flourished 1159-1195, was a lesser French noble and troubador from Poitou in southwestern France. He wrote poetry in Old Provencal, a dialect of medieval French. His favorite subject was the pleasures and profits of war, though he also wrote courtly love poetry. All that we know him comes from his poems.  He was a minor castellan who fought with his brother Constantine over possession of the family castle at Hautefort. Though he name drops continuously in his poetry, implying a familiarity with the great men of his day (King Philip II Augustus, Richard the Lionheart, and his brothers Henry and John), it is doubtful that he had the influence on them that he claims. No contemporary chronicle even mentions him. Bertran's historical significance is as a representative of the attitudes of the the lesser French nobility in the late twelfth century.  He is often viewed as the spokesman for his class: constables of castles, younger sons of knightly families who served as household knights and mercenaries, and the holders of small fiefs. These petty nobles, suffering from the inflation of the late twelfth century and from the increasing expense of nobility, looked to the great barons for patronage and felt resentment against merchants and peasants alike.  Because Bertran tried to incite the sons of  Henry II of England to rebel against their father--war meant profit from plunder and pay-- Dante placed him in Hell among the sowers of discord (Inferno, canto xxviii, ll. 134-6). Though Bertran is best known for celebrating the pleasures of war, he also wrote love poetry, though even in these poems his expressions are brutal and lacking in subtelty.  Bertran ended his life as a monk in the Abbey of Dalon.


1. Insights and Insults 28. Mout mi plai quan vey dolenta
[from Paden, William D. Jr.; Sankovitch, Tilde; Stablein, Patricia H.; eds., The Poems of the Troubadour Bertran de Born. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1986]

   It pleases me immensely
   when I see rotten rich people
   suffer, the ones who make
   trouble for noblemen, and it
   pleases me when I see them
   destroyed, twenty or thirty
   from day to day, when I find
   them without clothes, and
   begging for bread. If I'm
   lying, may my lady lie to me!

   A peasant has the habits of a
   pig, for he is bored by noble
   living; when a man rises to
   great riches, his wealth drives
   him mad. So you must keep
   his empty in all seasons,
   spend what's his, and expose
   him to wind and rain.

   Whoever doesn't ruin his
   peasant sustains him in
   disloyalty. So a man's a fool
   who doesn't knock him down
   when he sees him climbing
   up, because once peasant has
   established himself, once he
   entrenches himself in a very
   strong place, he has no peer
   in evil, for he spoils everything
   he can reach.

   A man should never feel sorry
   for a peasant if he sees him
   break an arm or a leg or do
   without something he needs.
   For a peasant--so help me
   God--doesn't want to use
   what he has to help even his
   closest kin, not for tears, not
   for pity; he naturally shuns
   any such deed.

   A low rascally gang, full of
   tricks and usury, pride and
   excess! You can't endure
   their deeds, for they toss God
   aside along with all loyalty
   and right. They do just as
   Adam did. God give them
   bad luck! Amen.

2. "Bel me's, quan vei chamjar lo senhoratge" ("I am pleased to see authority change hands")
[Translated by Craig E. Bertole]

It's good to see lords change
And old men leave their houses to the young
For each man can leave in his lineage
Enough sons so that one of them is brave.
So it seems to me that this is how the world is renewed                  5
Better than by flowers or singing birds.
And if someone can change an old lord or lady
For a young one, he too will be renewed.

Young is the lady who knows how to honor the nobles,
And she is young through good deeds when she does them.                  10
She stays young when she has a pure heart
And does not risk good praise or reputation.
She stays young  when she keeps her body beautiful
And she is a young lady when she behaves well.                          14
She stays young when she does not try to know everything
And watches her behavior in the company of handsome young men.

Young is the man who spends his money
And he is young when he is penniless.
He holds his youth when he spends greatly on hospitality
And he is young when he gives extravagant gifts,                        20
Young when he burns his coffers and treasure chests,
Young when he wants to hold court and tournaments.
He holds his youth when he loves to play games well,
And he is a young man when he knows how to serve the ladies well.

3. Warcry: 1184-88 30. Be~m plai lo gais temps de pascor
[trans. Dr. Clifford J. Rogers]

Be’m plai lo gais temps de pascor[1]
Well do I love the cheerful spring,
which brings the leaves and flowers;
and I also love to hear the merriment of the birds,
who send their song ringing through the woods;
and I am glad to see tents and pavilions
pitched in the meadows.
Great is my joy when I see knights and armored horses
ranged on the battlefield.

And I like to see the foragers
send the people and the cattle fleeing before them
and it pleases me when I see many soldiers
come running after them;
and it warms my heart to see strong castles besieged,
the palisades smashed and broken down,
and to see the army on the river-bank
protected on all sides by ditches,
and strong, tight-made palisades.

And I am well pleased by a lord
when he is the first to attack,
on horseback, armored, fearless:
thus does he inspire his men
with boldness, and worthy courage.
And when the battle is joined
each man must be ready
to follow him with joy:
for no man is held to be worthy
until he has taken and given many blows.

Maces and swords, colorful helms,
shields riven and cast aside:
these shall we see at the start of the battle,
and also many vassals struck down,
the horses of the dead and wounded running wild.
And when he enters the combat,
let every man of good lineage
think of nothing but splitting heads and hacking arms;
for it is better to die than to live in defeat.

I tell you, I find no such savor
in eating or drinking or sleeping
as when I hear the cries of “attack!”
from both sides, and the noise
of riderless horses in the shadows;
and I hear screams of “Help! Help!”
and I see great and small alike
falling into the grassy ditches
and the dead
with splintered lances, bedecked with pennons
through their sides.

Love wants a chivalrous lover
skilled at arms and generous in serving
who speaks well and gives greatly,
who knows what he should do and say,
in or out of his hall,
as befits his power.
He should be full of hospitality, courtesy, and good cheer.
A lady who lies with such a lover as that
is clean of all her sins.


Lords, pawn your castles
and towns and cities before
you stop making war!

Papiol [Bertran's troubador], go cheerfully and
quickly to Sir Yes-and-No [Bertran's nickname for Richard the Lionheart]
and tell him they are too
much at peace.


 4. Firebrand 1181-82. 2. Tortz e gerras e joi d'amor
[Paden, William D. Jr.; Sankovitch, Tilde; Stablein, Patricia H.; eds., The Poems of the Troubadour Bertran de Born. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1986]

  Injustice and wars and the joys
  of love used to exhilarate me
  and keep me gay and tuneful,
  until singing was forbidden me
  by the lady I must obey. But
  now look, my song has turned
  entirely to fidelity.

  Now I have turned to love, and
  you'll see love songs come and
  go, since it pleases the most
  beautiful one to allow my song.
  To my honor she has rightly
  entrusted herself, and not to
  any of the counts.

  As for the little king of
  Lesser-Land, I'm pleased that
  he wants to get ahead. From
  now on the men who hold fiefs
  from him will acknowledge him
  as their lord. Since he has
  gotten into their foolish
  business, now let him stay
  there, and regain his rights all

  Don't take me for a
  troublemaker if I want one
  great man to hate another; then
  vavasors and castellans will be
  able to get more sport out of
  them. I swear it by the faith that
  I owe you--a great man is more
  free, generous and friendly in
  war than in peace.

  The Lombards wanted to
  attack that fox of an emperor,
  and fear never stops them from
  building upstream from
  Cremona; Count Raymond is
  honored here, since he has
  newly allied himself with the

  I know that because I want to
  tell the truth about their war, the
  bad-mouthers will say I've been
  a dupe to let myself be drafted
  into it and used. My brother
  even wants to keep my half of
  the fiefs he promised to share.

  Since my brothers won't
  tolerate my rights, my love, or
  my pleas, if I do manage to
  regain possession of my half, I
  don't want to be scolded by
  any jeering shop-keepers. They
  talk peace many a time when
  no one has asked them to.

  But I have so many teachers
  that I don't know, by Christ,
  how to choose the best course;
  when I grab and snatch the
  wealth of those who don't let
  me keep to myself, they say
  I've been too rash. Now since
  I'm not making war, they say
  I'm no good.

  Papiol,57 go quickly to the
  Young King; tell him too much
  snoozing doesn't please me.

  Sir Yes-and-No [Richard the Lionheart, king of England] likes peace
  with Philip [Augustus, king of France], I believe, more than
  his disinherited brother John [Prince John, later King John of Robin Hood/Magna Carta fame]