CANTIGAS:Galician-Portugese Troubador Poems.

Translated by Richard Zenith

ISBN 978 0 691 17940 7   Princeton £14.99


Most of the poets here are from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. They write in a language few will be familiar with, though being Romance there are similarities to Spanish, Italian, Latin and French. The translations are literal. The original will rhyme, for example: quexar/cantar; the English has complained/praise. This is probably more of a loss than in many translations, as the poems are sometimes repetitive, simple and direct. In the original they must have been more like songs. 

Zenith provides an excellent introduction which explains the background to the form and its different varieties. In a way, this is a book for the specialist. Zenith mentions Paul Blackburn’s widely-praised anthology Proensa. Perhaps readers who know that will orientate themselves more readily to this collection. Nevertheless, the poems are for the most part easy to read. They avoid abstraction. Many are about love, some eroticism, some have a satirical edge. 

There are three forms of the Cantiga: de amor, de amigo and de escárnio. The first are love poems by men, the second by women, but not always cast in the same romantic tenor as the first, and the last satirical or scatological. Zenith points out that some fail to fall easily into a category. As an example of the first, here’s Martim Soares, Cantiga 10: 

                        Dear lady, since you don’t believe             

                        that love is making me ache for you,

                        for me it’s curse that you are so beautiful,

                        and it’s my curse to be serving you,

                        and it’s my curse that I heard of your fame.. 

The title is Song to an Unbelieving Lady. Perhaps she’s right not to believe, after all, who would want to be on the receiving end of something so essentially maudlin and self-serving? The writer is obeying a convention. Men were supposed to pine and suffer, women to be unattainable heartbreakers. Zenith points out that this is derived, to some extent, from the prevailing economic and social arrangements: the late arrival of feudalism meant distribution of family wealth obeyed the rules of “fee tails”: the eldest son got the lot, his younger brothers were expected to remain celibate. As for the women,  they were paired off to ensure property remained where it should or were incarcerated in nunneries. Hardly surprising that feelings about love and sex became so overwrought and denaturalised. Testimony too to how far we can go in destroying our well-being in the unhinged pursuit of land and lucre. Perhaps one of the benefits of reading this kind of work is how it makes obvious that poetic forms, literary forms and practices in general, are not entirely autonomous. That they engage a degree of autonomy is obvious, otherwise they would never clash with the prevailing culture; but nevertheless they are significantly mediated by convention. No doubt this is as true of the literature of our age as of any other.  

The Cantiga de escárnio are sometimes downright bawdy: 

                        I’ve heard that when it comes

                        to fucking and other good fun

                        you’re a most learned nun,

                        so teach me how to fuck, madam

                        as I’m untrained… 

writes Afonso Anes De Cotom. Perhaps the value of the piece lies in its conceit: a nun expert in what she’s supposed to be innocent of. Poetically, in English at least, it’s fairly flat. In the original there is rhyme throughout. The same can be said of almost all the poems. The collection’s merit lies not in the poetic riches it offers (unless you can read Portuguese-Gallician) but in what it teaches us about the mentality of the time and the conventions within which the troubadour poets worked. From that point of view, it’s well worth the short time it takes to read from cover to cover.  

Zenith has done excellent work in assembling these pieces and in his scholarly and readable introduction. Along with Paul Blackburn’s work, this is likely to become a standard reference book.