Bertran de Born

Bertran de Born
(ca. 1140–1215)
   Bertran de Born was a TROUBADOUR poet and a minor nobleman who was born in Limoges and is associated with the continual petty wars between King HENRY II and his sons. Some 44 extant lyrics are attributed to him, though five of these are of disputed authorship. Bertran is best known for his SIRVENTES dealing with war, and for DANTE’s immortal picture of him in the DIVINE COMEDY. Bertran is remembered largely as an opportunist and a mercenary, a “vavasour,” whose fortunes depended largely upon the success of whichever side he happened to be fighting on. His livelihood depended on war, and therefore many of his poems glorify battle and the plunder of battle in a way that seems brutal to modern tastes. To a large extent, many of Bertran’s martial exploits have to do with his attempts to gain sole possession of his family’s property, the castle of Hautefort, which he owned jointly with his younger brother Constantine from at least 1169. He seems to have taken part in an uprising against RICHARD I Lionheart, then duke of Aquitaine, because of Richard’s support of his brother in a quarrel over Hautefort. Bertran then supported Richard’s older brother, Henry, known as the Young King, in an unsuccessful rebellion against Henry II; the rebellion ended when the 28-year-old Young King died of a fever July 11, 1183. Following the collapse of the rebellion, Richard besieged Bertran at Hautefort, ultimately taking the castle and imprisoning Bertran. However, Richard eventually pardoned Bertran and restored his property, so that Bertran was able to bequeath it to his sons. Thereafter, Bertran supported Richard, and two of his surviving songs are sirventes honoring Richard on his return to Aquitaine in 1194 after his imprisonment. Bertran was married twice and had five known children, one of whom was also a troubadour, known as Bertran de Born lo Fils. The elder Bertran was associated with the Abbey of Dalon late in his life, and tradition says he became a monk there. He died in 1215.
   Bertran’s political poetry reflects the military events he was involved in and sometimes depicts realistic aspects of battle, though often with a remarkable wit. He also wrote some CANSOS, or love poems, two of which flatter Mathilda, daughter of Henry II and ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE. But his most famous poem (though it is of questionable authenticity) is his planh or COMPLAINT on the death of the Young King, which opens
   If all the grief and sorrow, the strife,
   The suffering, the pains, the many ills
   That men heard tell of in this woeful life
   Assembled, they would count as nil
   Compared to the death of the young English king,
   Who leaves behind youth and worth in tears
   In this dark world beset with shadowy fears,
   Lacking all joy, abounding in doleful spite.
   (Wilhelm 1970, 170)
   Dante names Bertran the model composer of war poetry in De VULGARI ELOQUENTIA. But he also places Bertran in hell in canto 28 of the Inferno, where for his role in inciting the Young King to rebellion he inhabits circle eight with the “sowers of discord” and, in a memorable image, is pictured carrying his disembodied head like a lantern. Dante’s portrait owes something to a scene in an early biography of Bertran, in which Bertran says to Henry II: “the day the valiant young King, your son, died, I lost my wit, and my knowledge, and my understanding.”
   ■ Goldin, Frederick, ed. and trans. Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology and a History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
   ■ Paden,William D., Jr., Tilden Sankovitch, and Patricia H. Stäblein. The Poems of the Troubadour Bertran de Born. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
   ■ Wilhem, James J. Seven Troubadours: The Creators of Modern Verse. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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