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 that region owed something to their contacts with other cultures, Moorish and Jewish as well as Christian, along the Mediterranean and across the Pyrenees in Spain. The riches of the region and the self-confidence of the culture would in time attract the envy and rapacity of northerners and the heated indignation of the Church. From the inventive, pleasure-loving spirit of that part of the world evolved the culture in which the first generations of troubadours developed their arts. Ermengard was one of their most famous patrons, as well known for that in her own lifetime, perhaps, as Aliénor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie of Champagne.
The importance of women in many aspects of that cultural flowering—women as they figure in the poetry, women troubadours, women as benevolent protectors—has been discussed by generations of scholars. Professor Cheyette gives it fresh and sympathetic consideration in his remarkable study.
Ermengard was born in or around 1130, in Narbonne, and died sixty-six years later in a house of the Knights Templar, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. She was married twice. The first time, which was the occasion of her earliest surviving appearance in historical record, was in 1142, when she was not much over twelve years old. Aliénor of Aquitaine had been only about fourteen when she was married, five years earlier, to the pious adolescent Louis VII of France. Ermengard’s domains, the city of Narbonne and the lands around it, were not comparable to Aliénor’s Aquitaine, which was larger than the kingdom of France, but nonetheless she was a great heiress. Narbonne and its dependencies were rich, and strategically situated along the coastal trade routes between Italy and Provence to the east and Catalonia and Barcelona across the Pyrenees to the south. Ermengard’s marriage, of course, was a political maneuver, and very possibly was never consummated. It was, in fact, from her point of view, a forced marriage, and its circumstances are an example of the world she had inherited.
Her husband was Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse, whose father, some years earlier, had laid claim to Narbonne. Ermengard was an orphan. Her mother was dead; her father had been killed in battle in 1134, when Ermengard was only four or five years old. Both of her brothers had died before that. Count Alphonse Jordan had taken advantage of Narbonne’s interregnum to mobilize a faction of supporters who hoped to be able to take over the city and its lands, and make them dependencies of Toulouse, which divided with Barcelona the claims to the entire Mediterranean littoral from Catalonia to the Alps.
The counts of Barcelona had intermarried with Ermengard’s family since the beginning of the tenth century. Ermengard’s arranged marriage led in short order to the armies of the counts of Barcelona attacking castles and forces of the Count of Toulouse, who was defeated in a few months and imprisoned, and her marriage to him was annulled. Her allies then proceeded to remarry her to a relative of hers, twenty-some years older, who already had a son and heir and who left the scene as soon as the oaths of fidelity had been sworn, and was never mentioned in the city records again. Evidently the Barcelona allies wanted Ermengard to be safely married and beyond the reach of ambitious suitors. They arranged for her heir, if she had no children, to be her half-sister, excluding her husband and his relatives.
The fortunes of great heiresses, in her world, were inevitably subject to such statecraft and manipulation. “By the time Ermengard was born,” Cheyette writes,
almost every great Occitan dynasty (and many a castellan fam-ily as well) could name the ma-triarchs of their near or distant past, women whose lives were as charged with intrigue, ceremony, and warfare as those of their male contemporaries.
His short list of examples includes widows and girls, some of them helpless, some far from it. One of them was Almodis, sister of Rangard of La Marche, who in the eleventh century married into the Toulouse dynasty and then into that of Barcelona, and became a legendary figure, outwitted in the end by her own daughter, also an Ermengard, another Viscountess of Béziers. Another was Gerberga, Countess of Provence in the eleventh century, who married her daughter, Douce, to the Count of Barcelona, thus beginning the long rivalry with Toulouse, which would continue throughout Ermengard’s life. After Douce’s marriage into their dynasty, the counts of Barcelona claimed, and held, all of Provence south of the Durance River, and Toulouse claimed all of Provence to the north of it. Then there was Philippa, the wife of the troubadour Guilhem IX of Aquitaine; the couple claimed Toulouse itself, and this claim was passed on to her son, then to her granddaughter, Aliénor of Aquitaine, and so to her second husband, Henry II of England.
The list is long, the dynastic stitching intricate, and the histories of the principal characters have survived, often, without living features, like the sculptural effigies or manuscript portraits of the period. But Professor Cheyette’s short roll call of them speaks of a shifting, violent, incessant chess game in which the role of women was essential. In a section entitled “Poetry, Ritual, and Magic,” while describing the language and rubric of invocation in the indispensable oaths of fidelity of the period, he notes that “without fail, the oath taker names both himself and the person to whom he swears his faith by the wombs that gave them life.” Viscountess Ermengard, in oaths of fidelity, was not named as the daughter of her then-famous father, Aymeri II, but as Ermengard, daughter of Ermengard. Professor Cheyette writes, “Why this should have been so is one of the many questions about these oaths that remains an enigma….” It suggests to him
social habits outside our normal ken. Like the rhythms of the oath itself, it seems part of an incantation, bound up with the world of magic, love spells, maledictions, charms and countercharms. There are striking parallels to it in ancient incantatory practices from Babylonia and Egypt…. Did such practices survive in lands in which Roman influence remained strong, despite clerical hostility?
In a society in which these oaths from an older tradition, and the dynastic importance of women, were taken for granted, Ermengard
quickly came of age in the midst of wars sparked by other ambitious women or by the men who would use those women to further their own ambitions…. When she was but twenty her army encamped with the Genoese and the Catalans before the walls of Tortosa on the Ebro, in Catalonia. She was there with them. At the age of thirty she was one of the principals at the siege of les Baux. When the Church broke in two at the election of Pope Alexander III, she was one of his most important hosts as he negotiated support against his rival, Pope Victor IV. From then on there would hardly be a year when she would not find herself feeling her way through the increasingly complex maze of regional politics, as the kings of Aragon, France, and England, the German emperor, and the pope all focused their attention on the lands between the Massif Central, the Alps, and the Mediterranean.
How did such a world manage to bring forth the poetry of the troubadours, and those erotic conventions and attitudes which came to be called courtly? The violent imagery and the insistently professed appetite for carnage and the infliction of death, suffering, and destruction that are so prominent in the poetry of Bertran de Born seem quite in keeping with the cruelty and barbarism that rolled in waves across the country around him. But the emergence of the love poetry of the troubadours, with its elevation of the beloved woman, the expression of unconditional devotion (usually unrewarded) and of longing, and the ineradicable distance that the word “longing” comes to imply, is a more intricate and mysterious subject. Scholars have been trying to find its sources for two centuries, without altogether agreeing.