Ermengard of Narbonne, the central figure of Fredric Cheyette’s excellent book, was a powerful twelfth-century viscountess, a warrior, and a patron of poets, who lived in Narbonne, a city on the Mediterranean that had once been Roman.
In our own time and language the name Ermengard may seem to have an oddly Scandinavian ring, something that is not explained, certainly, but is lent a kind of confirmation by an Orkney Island saga of around the year 1200. The poet who wrote it was recounting the voyage of Earl Rognvaldr to the Holy Land. On the way there, his hero put in at a harbor city called Nerbon, where the queen of the place, who was famous for her beauty, welcomed him, giving a feast in his honor. The queen’s name, he said, was Ermngerda, and he wrote:
The queen came into the hall escorted by a group of ladies and carrying a serving-bowl of gold. She was in her finest clothes, with her hair failing loose as is customary with virgins and a golden tiara upon her forehead…. The Earl took her hand…and sat her on his knee…
and he made a verse, unabashedly suggestive, and full of admiration for her “heavily hanging silken hair.” The poem, the story says, became widely known in Norseland, and led to generations of Norse girls being named Ermengard. The fact that the name sounds exotic to us shows how remote from us now are the culture and tongue of Aquitaine and Provence at one of the great moments of European civilization.
Ermengard, in fact, was named for her own mother. She had a half-sister named Ermessend, and at least two other women by that name and two men named Ermengaud are mentioned in the scant records of her life. Those names belong, without question, to the southern part of what the Romans had called Gaul, at the dawn of the age of romance.
That country in that period, its achievements and splendors, and the legend and accomplishments of Ermengard herself were fated to become a kind of parable of the ephemeral nature of the glory of the world. The language that was spoken there could be heard, with local variations, from Catalonia in what is now Spain to Liguria in what is now Italy, and it survives, to a greatly diminished degree, in the lands between them, which later were named (by foreigners) Languedoc. That language was Occitan, which the Italians came to call Provençal. By the eleventh century some familiar use of it, perhaps in folk poetry, had already led to its being used as a koine, or conventional literary language: the first troubadour any of whose poems have survived, Guilhem IX, Duke of Aquitaine, wrote in Occitan, although his native tongue was Poitevin. So did the troubadours who followed him, until in later generations the French trouvères and the German minnesingers imitated them in their own languages.
The wealth and elegance, grace and sophistication of the courts of …