Occitane …not only in Provence

Occitan Song from the Mountaine Noire region of Languedoc.

The Occitanie Festival of Toulouse, September 2013

Years ago I was walking on the streets on Vancouver, BC, Canada with a friend recently arrived from France. At one moment while we were passing in front of one of the stores from the “Occitane en Provence” chain he mentioned that – geographically speaking – there was no such thing as Occitanie en Province (hence no Occitane in Provence). He was of course wrong, but at the time I had no idea of what and where Occitanie was.
Since moving to Toulouse, France, several years ago, Occitanie and Occitane, became to me familiar notions, the city being located in the heart of the region that historically formed the lands of Occitanie or Pays d’Oc (for example Toulouse’s subway stations are announced in French AND in Occitan language!)

To celebrate it’s attachment to the Pays d’Oc the city of Toulouse hosts each year in fall the Occitan Festival.
It is an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to (re-)discover the Occitan culture through songs, poetry, dances, historic conferences etc.
It was an opportunity for me to enjoy the inaugural event, its concerts and parade and to look for an answer to a question that I have been asking myself many times: what exactly IS Occitanie.

Occitanie covers the region of the south of France – from the Loire river to the Pyrenees but excluding the Roussillon – and can be defined as a linguistic territory where people were (and some still are) speaking the Occitan – a language derived from the Latin introduced here by the Romans conquerors in the 2nd century BC.
Besides France territory Occitanie includes 12 alpine valleys of Italy and the Val d’Aran area in Spain (since September 2010, the Parliament of Catalonia has considered Aranese Occitan to be the officially preferred language for use in the Val d’Aran region).

Occitanie has never been a state or a politically organized entity.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD this southern regions of what is now France maintained some of the Roman laws, institutions and urban structures, this common heritage providing the basis of the Occitan culture that came into being in the 11th century.
During the late Middle Ages the Occitan lands were largely autonomous lordships ruled by powerful figures like William IX Duke of Aquitaine or the House of Toulouse although theoretically under the sovereignty of the French Kingdom – in the western part – or Germanic Empire – in the east.
The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century – that had as the declared purpose the rooting out of the cathar heresy from Occitanie – was also a pretext for the northern barons to curb the autonomy of these lordships and to bring them into the fold of the French kingdom, a process that was completed during the Hundred Years Wars.
While never a state or country Occitanie was united nevertheless in language and culture.
Arguably the most important heritage of Occitanie to the western civilization is the concept of courtly love – disseminated if not strictly invented by the troubadours in the 12th and the 13th centuries – and its attempt to redefine the status of women in a time when marriages were arranged and the woman’s role limited to the bringing of dowry upon marriage and the procreation (male heirs rather then female were desired!)
The courtly love – called “minne” – embodied, contrary to its sometimes direct verses, the platonic love of a suitor who is offering himself as the servant to his lady (“domna” in Occitan) who, herself, personifies the perfection in the eyes of her admirer. The woman is thus raised from her male dominated domestic condition and placed on a pedestal so that her admirers could pay homage to her grace and beauty while not expecting anything any return!
The romantic love and the pleasurable feelings it brings to the lover are the troubadour’s purpose rather then the consummation – “E d’amour mou castitatz” (love means chastity)
Beside male troubadours there were also women troubadours, or trobairitz, but in a much less number. While the toubadours were with few notable exceptions – William IX Duke of Aquitaine the first known troubadour, grand-father of Eleonor d’Aquitaine and great-grand father of Richard the Lionheart falls into the exception category – men of humble birth, the trobairitz were all aristocratic women whose poems are not dedicated to an idolatrized figure but rather to the love itself.

Following is an example of a poem wrote by William of Aquitaine:

“Out of the sweetness of the spring,
The branches leaf, the small birds sing,
Each one chanting in its own speech,
Forming the verse of its new song,
Then is it good a man should reach
For that for which he most does long.

From finest sweetest place I see
No messenger, no word for me,
So my heart can’t laugh or rest,
And I don’t dare try my hand,
Until I know, and can attest,
That all things are as I demand.

This love of ours it seems to be
Like a twig on a hawthorn tree
That on the tree trembles there
All night, in rain and frost it grieves,
Till morning, when the rays appear
Among the branches and the leaves.

So the memory of that dawn to me
When we ended our hostility,
And a most precious gift she gave,
Her loving friendship and her ring:
Let me live long enough, I pray,
Beneath her cloak my hand to bring.

I’ve no fear that tongues too free
Might part me from Sweet Company,
I know with words how they can stray
In gossip, yet that’s a fact of life:
No matter if others boast of love,
We have the loaf, we have the knife!”

(Poem Translation: http://www.poetryintranslation.com)

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