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A Troubadour's Testament by James Cowan

A Troubadour's Testament

by James Cowan

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The jacket contains the subtitle: "Magical journey through twelfth century Provence in search of the spiritual power of perfect love". Appropriate for the author, who is an anthropologist of spiritual excess. Magical novelism into 12th century setting in Provence.
  keylawk | Feb 28, 2013 |
It is described as a novel, but the way it is written suggests it is a search for historical facts. I found the uncertainty of whether it was real history or an almost total fiction, confusing and frustrating.

The author writes in the first person about his friend’s discovery of a death roll written by Marcebru a twelfth century troubadour and poet. Cowan claims to have studied the lyrics of twelfth century troubadours and Marcebru’s poetry holds a special place in his heart He is familiar with the poet’s oeuvre and has always been puzzled as to why he suddenly appeared to stop writing and how he met his end. The discovery of the death roll written after his last known work is exciting enough for Cowan to travel to South West France to examine the document in person and to see what more he can discover about Marcebru.

Death rolls were eulogies written about a character who had recently died, rather like an obituary, but they would be taken around to those who had known the deceased so that they could add their thoughts to the roll. Marcebru had fulfilled this task for Amedee de Jois the love of his life according to his poems. It was a love of fin d’amours a love that could not be consummated, but in the tradition of twelfth century courtly love; more of an adoration of the female, where the man’s finest qualities would be enhanced by his undying love. Amedee de Jois was a nun and Cowans says that her relationship to Marcebru had become his obsession.

Cowan’s conveniently finds that the document written in Latin has already been partially translated by the museum chief; a Latin scholar who gives him the document to aid his search. Cowans sets out on the trail of the places that Marcebru visited in order to complete the death roll. Along the way a story unfolds and he discovers that Amedee de Jois would almost certainly have been a secret member of the Cathars: a heretical sect that were ruthlessly exterminated by the Catholics in the twelfth century. This discovery leads Cowans to reflect on how this knowledge would have affected Marcebru and how it could have influenced his poetry. Cowans reaches the end of the trail when he visits the Abbey Saint-Martin-du-Canigou, where he has an audience with the terminally ill Abbess Stephanie which results in a touching discussion on the nature of faith and heresy and the suicide of Amadee du Jois.

The novel masquerades as an historical detective story and in so doing provides this curious mish-mash of fact and fiction. Much of what Cowan’s say about the Cathars is historically correct, the places visited in South West France certainly exist (as I know a few of them). There was a famous twelfth century troubadour poet called Marcabru (Cowans spells the name Marcebru) and poems written by him do exist, however I have no idea about the authenticity of Cowan’s extracts from them. The story of Amedee du Jois could be complete fiction as could be the discovery of the death roll and Cowans trip through France. It is a novel and so he could have made it all up, but the veneer of authenticity just seems to fog the whole issue for me.

It is easy to get pleasantly lost in the book, with its themes of love, faith and mortality and Cowans provides plenty of atmosphere for his travels around South West France, which project back to life and society in the middle ages. I enjoyed his excursions into Catharism and the issues that might have plagued educated people at that time He writes well with at times a dreamy quality that carries one along with his journey into the past. No doubt this book will appeal greatly to some people, but the story is a slight one, covering similar ground to many fictional literary detective story and so a very personal rating of 2.5 stars from me.. ( )
2 vote baswood | Jan 31, 2013 |
I read A troubadour's testament two years ago and did not like it. The story seems to be very contrived and to a great extent lacking in authentic feel. Also this idea that the scroll was thrown in the river (I suppose parchment is water-proof?) and subsequently preserved, etc. ( )
  edwinbcn | Jan 1, 2013 |
In Aquitaine during the reign of Eleanor, daughter of William of Aquitaine the first troubadour, a poet Marcebru flourished who dedicated his life and his poetry to a commemoration of the fin' amors between himself and his lady love Amedée de Jois, who entered a convent to preserve the sanctity of their love—or was it to escape it? That is the question explored in the pages of this haunting little book by James Cowan.

A fin' amors is "a distant love" that

. . . can be attained only by the renunciation of the immediate, close and deceitful love that characterized normal relations between men and women. The profane ideal of happiness governed by the senses was transformed into a more refined form of love dominated by the imagination. Sensual love was overcome by reason.

The narrator who remains nameless learns of a rouleau de mort, or death roll, that has been discovered among papers hidden away in an obscure museum in the town of Ussel in southwestern France. This scroll contains dedicatory poems by Marcebru upon the death of Amedée, augmented by comments made by people who knew her. In the end Marcebru threw the scroll into the river at Ussel, but it had been retrieved somehow and ended up in the museum. An elderly scribe in Ussel translated it and our narrator is given the translation. He then embarks on a journey to trace the path of Marcebru in his quest for contributions to his scroll. Why he attempted to destroy his work and the record of his great love is one of the mysteries that are explored in the pages of this rather philosophical novel.

It is hard to pin down exactly the genre into which this book and another by the same author, The Mapmaker's Dream, fall. Both books are filled with little encounters with remarkable people who in unexpected ways shed light upon the threads that Cowan masterfully attempts to untangle. While I enjoyed both books, A Troubadour's Testament appealed to me the most. It is filled with little aphorisms that are meaningful in context but convey a sense of quotability separate and apart from the novel. ( )
8 vote Poquette | Feb 2, 2012 |
1st ed. A magical journey through twelfth-century Provence in search of the spiritual power of perfect love. ( )
  kitchengardenbooks | Jul 23, 2009 |
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I kept telling myself that to renounce the beautiful game of combining beautiful words was senseless, and that there was no reason to search for a single, and perhaps imaginary, word.
-- Jorge Luis Borges
The reason for writing is to shelter something from death. -- Andre Gide
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A platonic romance in 12th century France between a poet and a nun. It is narrated by a modern-day academic who is researching medieval attitudes to love. By the author of A Mapmaker's Dream.

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