So You Want to be a Troubadour

Mistress Amelie d’Anjou

troubadour small


Where to Start

What are your strengths and interests? Are you a whiz with words, do you want to perform your own works, or are you interested in researching and performing old stuff? If there is a language and time/place that interests you – start there.

  • Read stuff. Start with that time/place you like, or if you don’t have one yet, start with James Wilhelm’s anthology (see biblio). It’s amazing how many different areas there are.
  • Listen. From the 11th century forward, we have extant music, especially for mainland Europe. The more you listen to a particular genre, the better you can internalize that style.
  • Try it. Pick a poem or song to learn. [I like to get several different versions of the same piece, then play mix’n’match to make it my own.]


Problems doing medieval monophonic music include lack of the following: rhythm, mensuration, tempo and dynamics. Also, instrumentation is never given, ornamentation was expected but we don’t know how for medieval, and what about vocal style? Oh yeah, and languages. Should you try to sing in the original, or translate to English?

While there has been debate on some of these issues for over a century (especially rhythm and mensuration), and which theory prevails changes with the decades, what it comes down to is you get to decide. Go ahead and research, but ultimately you choose how you want to do each song. Your opinion is just as valid as the experts. Really.

Things To Remember

This was an oral tradition – most people didn’t read. Improvisation and ornamentation was expected, so feel free to change things. Listening to world music of other cultures without written traditions may help you to take a new approach. Experiment.

Very Select Bibliography


Starting Out - Recommended SCA Editions:

Al Cofrin. Medieval Songs and Dances of the 11th-14th Century Europe vol.s 1 & 2, 1997.

These are available directly from the author at for $45 or $50. As the website says, “This book is a collection of Medieval monophonic arrangements by Al Cofrin for amateur musicians intent on getting started in Medieval music. This book is essentially a Medieval fake book which includes Medieval dances, Troubador songs, Cantigas and others. The arrangements are written in modern notation.”

Chris Elmes. Cantigas de Santo Maria of Alfonso X el Sabio; A Performing Edition. vol.s 1-4, 2006-2014.

These are available directly from the author at prices in Ls. Each volume covers 100 songs in modern notation with the first verse. A great source for period tunes when writing your own poems.

Best Professional Music Editions:

Samuel Rosenburg, Margaret Switten & Gerard Le Vot. Songs of the Troubadours and Trouveres: An Anthology of Poems and Melodies. New York, Garland, 1998.

In my opinion one of the best anthologies out there, but no longer available. Combines music, original words and English translation, and commentary. No rhythms. Also included a CD with some of the songs (w/ Inter-Lib-Loan may not get that).

Margaret Switten. The Medieval Lyric. Mt. Holyoke.

There are 2 versions of this; one a multi-volume spiral bound edition from 1988, the other a CD-ROM. Both come with CDs of the music. The troudadour and trouvere stuff is the same, but the spiral bound has a slim volume with Middle English lyrics, while the DC-ROM has a bunch of cantigas, and interactive pictures of the manuscripts. You can order either version from Mt. Holyoke using their order form.

E. Doos-Quinby, J. Tasker Grimber, W. Pfeffer & E. Aubrey. Songs of the Women Trouveres. Yale Univ. Press, 2001.

Supposed to have both all the lyrics of the women trouveres, plus any anonymous ones in womens voices. Like all the other newer books, the tunes have no rhythm. Also has poems without music.

Hendrik Van der Werf. The Chansons of the Troubadours and Trouveres: A Study of the Melodies and Their Relation to the Poems. Utrecht, A. Oosthoek , 1972.

I love Van der Werf because he gets oral tradition. Here he has several versions of a tune side by side so you can see the similarities and differences, which is imperative if you want to play with the melody in a period style.

Marcia J. Epstein. Prions En Chantant: Devotional Songs of the Trouveres. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1997.

The music in here is not covered in the other anthologies out there. Some really amazing imagery in the poems, and the tunes are presented both without and with rhythms (and the rhythms are good!). Good for adapting to songs about the queen.

Lyrics, ie Words Only:

Anthony Bonner. Songs of the Troubadours. New York, Schocken Books, 1972.

A real classic book, I highly recommend. Has short bios and select poems of 20 troubadours, all in English.

Fredrick Golden. Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres: an Anthology and a History. 1973.

Bigger than Bonner, with more poets and poems, and in both original languages and translation.

Robert Kehew, editor. Lark in the Morning: the Verses of the Troubadours. Translated by Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass and Kehew. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bilingual and with verse translations, these are poems you can perform. They only lack their melodies.

Maxwell Luria & Richard Hoffman. Middle English Lyrics. W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.

Robert Stevick. One Hundred Middle English Lyrics. Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964, 1994.

If foreign languages intimidate or you have an English persona, then you should start here. While they are not translated into modern English, the spelling has been regularized to make it easier for a non-specialist (although the books differ in their spelling choices). Luria & Hoffman’s include several essays on both genre and a few specific poems, while Stevick’s talks about the language and includes a pronunciation guide.

James Wilhelm. Lyrics of the Middle Ages, an Anthology. New York & London; Garland 1990.

I particularly like this very inclusive anthology; it really has some of everything. For example, there are 6 categories for Iberia, including Arabic and Hebrew poems, and 5 categories for Britain, which are Irish, Welsh, Old & Middle English and Scottish-English. Everything translated to modern English without original languages.

Must Have For Singing Dead Languages:

Timothy McGee, editor. Singing Early Music. Indiana Univ. Press, 1996.

With 18 chapters each on a different language, including Latin in different countries, each by a specialist, this covers Western continental Europe and Britain nicely. Includes a cd with 65 different poems and the phonetic chart read aloud.

Great Research Start:

Ross Duffin, editor. A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Indiana Univ. Press, 2000.

40 different chapters, each by a specialist, covering pretty much everything. Categories include different repertoires, instruments and theory. Worth looking at just for the 3 chapters that apply to your persona. (Each article has its own biblio if you want to go deeper.)

Some Good Websites:

website of the Cinnabar group Psallite, with music and rhyming translations by Kasha

the SCA Minstrel Homepage

the SCA Medieval and Renaissance Music Homepage

poems rhymed by A.S.Kline

lots of poems in lots of languages, not all period, trans. by different people

nice translations by Leonard Cottrell