Troubadours were lyric poets who thrived from the 12th to the 13th centuries in the South of France, composing works in a wide variety of styles and on an assortment of themes. Although an estimated 300 compositions survive to this day, the bulk of the work produced by the troubadours has been lost, with their legacy living on instead in the form of various art forms derived from the troubadour tradition. The work of these medieval poets inspired many generations of artists in Europe, and copious translations of their existing works can be found in libraries and book stores.
The primary defining characteristic of a troubadour is that he or she wrote in the langue d'Oc, or Occitan language, a romance language which was spoken in the region of France known as Provence today. The works of a troubadour were also designed to be accompanied by music, played by the troubadour or by an assistant known as a jongleur or minstrel. Many troubadours composed their own works, while others drew on existing musical themes for their compositions.
Troubadours wrote in a variety of voices and styles. They could produce light work which was often heavily satirical and sometimes almost obscene, or much heavier, introspective works which mused on the nature of life and love. Some of the most famous compositions of the troubadours were their cansos, or love songs, but they also wrote political pieces known as sirventes, paens to nature, explorations of philosophy, and works on a variety of other issues ranging from war to travel.
Most troubadours were from the upper classes, differentiating them from wandering minstrels, who often came from the lower or middle classes. Their works drew heavily on their own experiences as well as the traditions of courtly love and chivalry. In addition to composing standalone works, troubadours also performed call and response pieces, poems in which two or more troubadours cooperated to produce a collaborative piece, and sometimes they used their poetry as a vehicle for thinly veiled criticisms of people and society.
The troubadour tradition caught on, spreading out from France across much of Europe and inspiring regional flowerings of poetry and music. The troubadours had a heavy influence on European music and art, as they sang secular work, rather than religious pieces, thereby creating a market for and an interest in secular literary compositions. They also inspired an interest in literature written in common languages, rather than in Latin, allowing Europe's diverse cultures to express themselves with their own regional languages and traditions. While this vernacular literature is the norm today, it was quite radical for the time of the troubadours.