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Poetic Self-Performance and Political Authority in the Companho Lyrics of Guilhem de Peitieus

From: Tenso
Volume 27, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Fall 2012
pp. 25-44 | 10.1353/ten.2012.0004

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Born to an ancient martial aristocracy that changed as slowly as the agrarian world it ruled, Guilhem of Peitieus (1071-1126) locked horns with church authorities throughout his life. The chronicler William of Malmesbury, representing the church's view of affairs, portrays the ninth duke of the Aquitaine as a voluptuary warlord, a hissing villain scornful of the church's moral authority. Guilhem, on the other hand, was likely to have seen reformers' efforts to restore the church's autonomy as novel encroachments on his authority. The monk shows the count as a sharp-tongued hothead; when the Bishop of Poitiers excom-municated Guilhem in a dispute over tax privileges, the count threatened the bishop with his sword (Bond 129-130). Other stories portray Guilhem as indecent and even blasphemous—he established an "abbey of whores," possibly in mockery of the convent Robert of Arbrissel established for noblewomen (in which Guilhem's estranged wife Philippa eventually took refuge) (Bond 120; Kendrick 135). William of Malmesbury is absolutely certain of the church's authority and right, but Guilhem, as he reveals himself in several of his lyrics, is equally sure of his right, and strives like the church to extend his political authority through discourse: the charters issued by his chancellery and the persona disseminated through his songs.

Guilhem's verses enlarge his authority by representing his political persona in interaction with others. Chroniclers also depict Guilhem through his interactions with others, as in the heated exchange with the bishop, or in Orderic Vitalis's account of Guilhem winning the laughter of his social circle on crusade. Their depictions resemble Guilhem's self-portrayal in their focus on the man's irreverence, arrogance, and wit. Although Guilhem and the monks opposed each other's world views and goals, they colluded willy-nilly in the textual construction of Guilhem's persona; the character he assumes in the chronicles is in no way incongruous with the version of himself he presents in his lyrics, especially the companho lyrics.

Guilhem's lyrics provide his contemporaries with a frame for understanding his verbal maneuvers by evoking social situations in which his words have specific pragmatic effects on specific sectors of his audience according to their rank and social distance from the poet. Courtly poetry at the beginning of the twelfth century "was still completely imbedded [sic] in socially ranked communication forms . . . that shaped, from case to case, those texts that have come down to us" (Gumbrecht 250). Such "socially ranked forms" of speech pervade Guilhem de Peitieus's three lyrics; his ringing address to his readers as companho enacts a specific and recognizable feudal relation between himself and his addressee. It immediately stages the lyric as one interaction taking place among specific people in certain roles. By subsequently depicting himself as inhabiting his own superordinate role with such profane ease, he constructs a political and poetic persona imbued with an authority as natural as it is titular.

The lyrics communicate this ease by a rhetoric of social interaction drawn from face-to-face social practices. Live communication, like literature, is governed by conventions that encode the rank of participants and the formality of the exchange. The conventions and pragmatic formulas of medieval literature certainly drew on the conventions of live interaction; I contend that the interactions staged in the "real life" of court and enacted by courtly literature are contiguous and, in some cases, commutable with one another, especially in a milieu where poets and their audiences were known and even familiar to one another.

Guilhem represents his relations with addressees by varying his mode of discourse between two different sets of conventions, each proper to one of two specific spheres of interaction. One belongs to "public" interaction, open to outsiders; the other belongs to private, exclusive interaction, closed to outsiders. By shifting between and sometimes conflating the two spheres, the companho lyrics produce a parodic effect, as in the first lyric's feudal request for counsel over his choice of mistress—the ceremonial and obscene are juxtaposed to comic effect. This lyric depicts a scene of informal counsel in which the count and his retainers display a license to speak freely on topics of...

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