Gaucelm Faidit: Lament for King Richard Lionheart (From Occitan)

This lament for King Ricartz Còr de Leó, known in English as Richard Lionheart, was composed in 1199 when Ricartz died of an infected wound during an incident involving a crossbow, a pissed-off teenager, and a field medic who operated like a surgeon cutting for the very first time.

Though born in England, famous in popular memory as King Richard I of England and played on screen by Sean Connery, there is little evidence that King Ricartz spoke English. He might just have learned some from his wetnurse Hodierna, but apart from that it is unlikely he heard it very often growing up. He might have taken steps to learn it for diplomatic and political reasons. Such things were not uncommon in medieval and early modern Europe.

Two songs by Richard himself have survived. One is a sirventés in Occitan. The other, a plea for aid while being held for tremendous ransom, exists in both Occitan and French versions. Unusually, neither version appears to be clearly derived from the other, and it is very possible that Richard composed both. And it is in Occitan that Gaucelm Faidit dirges Ricartz in the poem I translate here.

We have 18 different attestations of this song. Four have the melody preserved. Yet another six instances of the melody are found contrafacted to different lyrics. Unusually for a melody with such robust attestation, the different written versions of the tune resemble one another fairly closely in most respects. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the poem and its melody went down extremely well with audiences, and stuck in the mind.

The text I give here (in a regularized orthography of my own devising) is based on that of Barachini's edition.

The MMAF database lists 22 modern published recordings of this song, and I have found at least one that is not listed there. I happen to have five of them.

This one here is my favorite to listen to. It is by the group Alla Francesca, and from an album consisting of music connected with the reign of Richard I. It takes its melody from the X manuscript, as most performances do. My instinct was that it is not a very historically accurate one, because there are all sorts of reasons to believe secular song was normally performed by no more than one singer. But this rendition borrows from things we know they did do in church singing. Quoth Tricia Postle of Pneuma Ensemble: "I don't think it's what they did [for troubadour laments], but it's not impossible. It's within the tonal palette that the troubadours would recognize."

This one here by the Early Music Consort of London. This rendering is performance-wise perhaps more "authentic" (though I hate that word.) The pronunciation appears to confuse Old Occitan with French in many respects. I admit this comes across to me as a bit lazy, like the performers couldn't be bothered to look up the basics of Old Occitan pronunciation. Mine would though be an anachronistic judgment. This performance — probably unwittingly — does reflect something often overlooked about the period. Gaucelm's piece was widely performed, and we happen to have hard evidence that it was sometimes performed by singers who were native speakers of Old French varieties. Such singers would have introduced features of their own vernacular into performance, like those nasalized vowels and deaffricated ch-, without any awareness or wariness of doing so. A 12th century Romance-speaker's attitude toward language was very different from ours.

This one here is by the Tre Fontane ensemble, a French medievalist group which focuses particularly on Aquitanian troubadours. It appears to be a free rendering of the basic melodic pattern, which I think borrows elements from manuscripts η, X and M, with lots of flourishes. The performer or arranger seems to have felt free to play around melismatically with the melody. This is quite a medieval way of doing it. (Tricia tells me she wishes more performers did it like this.)

This one here recorded by the Folger Consort is also heavily interpretative in an interesting way.

This one here is by the Kecskes Ensemble, and is rather different in mood from the above, showing just how much interpretative latitude exists. I wonder if this sort of performance reflects something of the mood in which sung dirges were performed at least some of the time, in the sense of being a "sung recitation." As Hendrik Van Der Werf notes: throughout the European Middle Ages and in some areas for long thereafter, the practice of singing or chanting rather than speaking a text went far beyond the realm of poetry, and extended to various mundane announcements by town criers, street vendors, beggars, and the like. Singing a poem, rather than speaking it, was not necessarily an artistic achievement. It may have just been a convenient and traditional way of raising one's voice in public.

My aim in working with Old Occitan material is to produce something that can be sung to the same melody as the Occitan text (in cases where the melody survives, anyway.) Occitan is like Chinese in being extremely easy to rhyme in. Easier than Italian. For the English translator, the rhyme-scheme can be accommodated with some assonance in place of full rhyme, in keeping with common practice of English-language singing today. The real nuisance is the duplication of feminine rhymes which imposes considerable burden. I've managed to wring them out everywhere except stanza 5 where the solutions that come to mind just don't seem right for the tone of the piece. There I've used an extremely loose semi-rhyme.

Lament for King Richard Lionheart (1199 AD)
By Gaucelm Faidit
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

It is an awful thing: the greatest pain
And purest grief that I have known to sting,
The ache that pushes me to tears again
Is mine to sing and tell while I can bear it.
The father and the captain of all merit,
Courageous noble Richard, England's king
Is dead. My God, the loss and harrowing. 
The words are strange to say, harsh to the ear.
The heart is hard that takes this with no tear.

The king is dead. A thousand years have passed
When there was not a one like him on earth.
Never again shall we meet Richard's match,
So bold and rich, so generous a commander
That even Darius' conqueror Alexander
Never gave so much of his own wealth forth.
Not Charlemagne nor Arthur matched his worth.
He had the world, if I am to be frank,
Hold him in fear and turn to him with thanks.

I marvel how in false and wicked times

A true, wise, courtly man could still remain.
When good words and great works mean less than crimes
Why make the slightest effort to be true now? 
For death with one blow showed what she can do now,
Wrested out of this world its best of men
Took honor, joy and good away again.
Now, seeing nothing can repel her wrath,
We should be less afraid to meet with death. 

Now, fearless king, what now is to become
Of bustling tourneys and the melée sword,
Of generous gifts, rich courts and champions,
Now they are dispossessed of you their master? 
What of those men abandoned to disaster
Who pledged themselves in court to you their lord
And waited on you for a swift reward?
And what of those you brought to power and wealth
Who wonder now if they should kill themselves?

They get a sordid life of pain and rue
And constant gnashing grief. That is their prize.  
While Saracens and Turks who once feared you  
As they had feared no man born of a mother
Will swell with so much pride, with each maneuver,
That we may not yet win the Tomb of Christ.
But so God wills. Had He willed otherwise
And you, my lord, lived on, in little time
You should have run them out of Palestine.

Now there's no hope of any prince or liege
Able to win it back from blasphemy. 
But all who come now to take up your siege 
Should think on how you sought esteem from others
As, while they lived, did your two braveheart brothers
The Young King and the Duke of Brittany.
Whoever it be who succeeds you three
Must have a high heart and rock-firm intent
To see every great exploit to the end.


My lord and king! May God the true forgiver,
True man, true life, true mercy and true Sire
Grant you in death the pardon you require. 
May He forget your failings and your sin
May He remember all you did for Him.

Fòrtz causa es que tot lo maior dan
E·l maior dòl — las — qu'ièu anc mais agues,
E çò dont dei tostemps planher plorant,
M'aven a dir en chantant e retraire.
Car cell qu'èra de valor chaps e paire,
Lo rics valents Ricartz, reis dels Englés,
Es mòrtz. Ai Dièus quals perd e quals dans es
Quant estranhs motz e quant greus az auzir
Ben a dur còr totz om qu'o pòt sofrir.

Mòrtz es lo reis! E son passat mil an
Qu'anc tant proṉs om noṉ fo, ni no·l vi res,
Ni mais non èr nulhs om del sieu semblant,
Tant larcs, tant rics, tant arditz, tals donaire,
Qu'Alixandres, lo reis qui venquèt Daire,
Noṉ cre que tant dones ni tant meses!
Ni anc Carles ni Arturs tant valgues,
Qu'a tot lo mond si fetz, qui·n vòl ver dir,
Als uṉs doptar et als altres grazir.

Meravilh-me del fals sègle truand,
Co·i pòt estar sàvis om ni cortes,
Puòis reṉ no·i val bèll dich ni fach presant,
E doncs per que s'esfòrç' om, pauc, ni gaire
Qu'ara nos a mostrat Mòrtz que pòt faire,
Qu'az uṉ sol còlp a·l melhor del mond pres,
Tota l'honor, totz los gauchs, totz los beṉs!
E pos vezem que res no·i pòt gandir,
Beṉ deurí' om menhs doptar a morir.

Ai valents reis sénher, e que faran
Uòimais armas ni fòrt tornei espes,
Ni ricas cortz ni bèll don alt e grand,
Puòis vos no·i etz, qui n'èratz capdellaire,
Ni que faran li liurat a maltraire,
Cilh que s'èran en vòstre servir mes,
Qu'atendíon que·l gazardoṉs vengues?
Ni que faran cilh, que·is dègran aucir,
Qu'aviatz fach en grand ricor venir?

Longa ira et àvol vid' auran,
E tostemps dòl, qu'enaici lor es pres!
E Sarrasiṉ, Turc, Paian e Persan,
Qu·us doptàvon mais qu'ome nat de maire,
Creisseran tant d'orguòlh en lor afaire,
Que·l Sepúlcres n'èr tròp plus tart conques
Mas Dièus o vòl que, s'el non o volgues,
E vos, sénher, visquessetz, ses falhir,
De Suría los avengr' a fugir.

Uòimais no·i a esperança qu·i an
Reis ni princes que cobrar lo saubes
Però, tuch cilh qu'en luòc de vos seran
Dèvon gardar com fotz de pretz amaire,
Ni qual fòron vòstre dui valent fraire,
Lo Jóveṉs Reis e·l cortés Coms Jaufrés!
Et qui en luòc remandra, de vos tres
Beṉ deu aver fiṉ còr e ferm cossir
De totz boṉs fachs començar e finir.


Ai sénher reis! Dièus, qu’es vers perdonaire,
vera vida, vers om, vera mercés,
vos faça cell perdoṉ que cochos es,
si que·l pecat oblida e·l falhir,
e·l membre çò en que saupès servir.

Prose gloss and commentary

Stanza 1 

It is a terrible affair that it befalls me to tell, as singer and recounter, all the greatest harm and greatest grief — alas — that I have ever had, and which makes me continuously lament in tears. For he who was the chief/peak and father of merit, the great and brave Richard, king of the English, is dead. Oh God, what a loss and what harm it is. What strange words, and how harsh to hear of. All who can bear it have hard hearts indeed.

The syntax of the first four lines is not convoluted. It makes good sense. But it is complex and that complexity probably led to the great many manuscript variants which yield a simpler syntax for these lines.

Ric means not just "wealthy" but "of great standing, noble, prestigious." A rics om may be a "rich man" or a "great/powerful man" depending on context. Note the rich pun on Richard's name. (Fun fact: both the adjective and the name are from the Frankish loanword rīki "lordly, wealthy." Cognate to Latin Rēx, Hindi Rājā, German Reich.)

With terms like estranhs motz "strange/foreign words" and greus ad ausir "harsh to hear" Gaucelm uses language commonly associated with hearing an incomprehensible foreign language. The death, in other words, does not compute. It does not make sense. This isn't how it's supposed to be. Heroes aren't supposed to die before they triumph.

Stanza 2

The king is dead, and a thousand years passed when such a valorous man did not exist, nor was seen by any, nor shall there be again any man of his caliber, so gracious, so rich, so bold, so generous. (That) I think not even Alexander, the king who conquered Darius, gave or spent so much, and neither Charlemagne nor King Arthur had such worth(iness). For if truth be told, he made all the world (some) fear him and (others) thank him. (Or: made all the world now fear him and then thank him.)

King Arthur was at this time generally believed to be a historical figure.

Alexander the Great was for medieval writers a paragon of generosity.

The sado-masochistic mixture of fear and gratitude has a double meaning. It expresses a power analogous to that of God who is also feared and thanked. By suggesting that the thanks and fear come from different quarters, it also hints at the brutality with which Richard treated those who opposed him or whom he felt threatened by, matched by the open-handedness with which he rewarded the loyal.

Stanza 3

I am amazed at the faithless and deceptive age/world, how (in it) a wise and courtly man could still be, because good words and praiseworthy deeds don't mean anything to it (the world) anymore, and therefore why should one make a little effort (to that end) or any at all? For now death has made plain what it can do, how with a single blow it took the best of the world, all honor, all joys and all good things! And since we see that nothing can protect against it (death), one really ought to fear dying much less.

Sègle like its latin etymon saeculum may mean both "world" and "age".

Stanza 4

Oh valiant king milord. What will become henceforth of feats of arms, and grueling tight-packed tourneys, and splendid courts and fine gifts great and grand, since you who were their leader are gone. What will they do who placed themselves in your service and expected you to reward them, and are now abandoned to ill-treatment. What will they do whom you had brought to great wealth and power, and who (now) would have reason to kill themselves?

que·is degran aucir lit. "who should kill themselves, who would needs kill themselves." The use of the 2nd conditional form degran implies that the action is hypothetical and remote from fact. i.e. "Those who might have to themselves now." Use of the 2nd conditional with verbs like dever sometimes implies subjective belief also. So one could read the phrase as "those who think they ought to kill themselves now, those who wonder whether they ought to kill themselves."

Stanza 5

Theirs will be an abiding sorrow/anger and a wretched existence, and constant grief, for such is their lot. And the Saracens, Turks, Pagans and Persians who feared you more than they feared any (other) man born of woman, will grow so much more arrogant in their actions, that the Sepulchre will be conquered from them much later. But God wants it so. For if he had not wanted it, and you milord were alive, without fail, they soon would needs have fled Syria.

In his note to line 3 of this stanza in his critical edition, Barachini says
Il verso indica gli avversari degli stati cristiani in Medio Oriente e denota una buona conoscenza dei gruppi (etno-)linguistici di quell’area: i Sarrazi, Saraceni, sono le popolazioni arabe; i Turc sono chiaramente le popolazioni turche di ceppo altaico, in origine mercenari dei califfi abbasidi, ma a quest’epoca già giunte al potere in diverse aree del califfato; i Persan sono le popolazioni iraniche, tra cui vanno annoverati anche i curdi, popolo a cui apparteneva Safadino (il fratello di Saladino), che allora controllava la maggior parte della Terra Santa, della Siria e dell’Egitto; quanto ai Payan, il termine generico vuole probabilmente indicare tutte le genti non cristiane ostili agli stati crociati, assoldate dai sultani (si pensi all’eterogenea provenienza dei Mamelucchi). Il verso va pertanto inteso nel seguente modo: «arabi, turchi, iranici e tutti gli altri miscredenti».
I am not at all convinced of this. 12th and 13th century Europeans could and did use the term Saracen/Sarrazi/Saracenus/etc. to refer to any Muslim, most often Arab but sometimes not. (Notably, they did not use the term in reference to Arab Christians, whom they had ample dealings with in Crusader states.) Apart from this, Barachini seems to assume on Gaucelm's part both a considerable knowledge of the ethnolinguistic makeup of the Muslim occupants of the Levant, and considerable care in accurately referring to them. There is no clear proof that Gaucelm himself had yet been to Outremer until some time after this poem's composition, and in fact all the passage implies is that Gaucelm knew these terms referred in one way or another to the infidel enemy. This is all the reason he would need in order to use the words as he does. The line is a merism: "all of Mahommetan heathenry." But that does not make it a specimen of ethnography.

Because I enjoy irony, it's worth mentioning that in referring to the heathen Muslims this way, Gaucelm is doing much the same thing as the Arabic poet Al-Mutanabbī did two centuries earlier in referring to the heathen Christian army composed of "Byzantines and Russians" vanquished by his patron Abu Hasan the Realm-sword (Sayfu l-Dawla), the Emir of Aleppo. Al-Mutanabbī may not have known and probably did not care about the ethnic makeup of the opposing forces. His aim was to portray Lord Realmsword as facing down soldiers hailing from all over heathen Christendom in an army where their "every tongue and nation was gathered together." As Al-Mutanabbi would tell it, Lord Realmsword was "not just a sovereign vanquishing his peer, but monotheism vanquishing paganism" (lasta malīkan hāziman linaẓīrihī walākinnaka l-tawḥīdu ˁalā l-širki hāzimu). This is, more or less, the same virtue that Gaucelm praises King Lionheart for, not just as a tactician keeping specific enemy powers at bay, but as a bulwark of the faithful against all enemies of God in the Holy Land. It probably also helped that "Byzantines and Russians" (al-rūmu wa-l-rūsu) made for memorable soundplay in Arabic. As, incidentally, do paian e persan in Occitan.

om nat de maire "man born of woman" is a biblical phrase "mortal man."

Stanza 6

Henceforth there is no hope that there will be a king or prince who will be able to win it back. That being so, all those who will be in your place must consider how you were a seeker of esteem, and what your two valiant brothers were like, the Young King and the courtly Count Geoffrey. Whoever will follow on in place of you three must really have a high heart and resolute mind to begin and to complete all great deeds

Another variant of the final line is De far bos fachs e de socors chausir. "to do good deeds and choose to give aid (i.e. in crusading.)
Gaucelm here moves from praise of the dead Richard to broader praise of the House of Plantagenet.


Oh lord king, may God the true forgiver, the true life, true man, true compassion, give you that pardon which is so urgently needed. So much may He forget (your) sins and failures, and remember the ways in which you were able to serve Him.

Richard was a popular ruler with the courtly crowds. People generally liked him. Or, at least, respected him. As Gaucelm indicates, he indirectly and directly made a great many men wealthy. He was also, as pundits like to put it today, "a polarizing figure" for some. Gaucelm expresses in this lament a complex of attitudes to cover the broadest swathe of sentiment. Even as he mentions Richard's excellence in war, in crusading, in noble sport, in courtly valor, in magnificent munificence, he also refers obliquely but extremely audibly to the fact that some disliked him and had reason to do so. Richard's readiness to conduct holy war was a great Christian virtue on its own, to be sure. (As uncomfortable as it may make modern Catholics, holy war was conceived of as a kind of exalted pilgrimage.) Relative irreligion could be passed over in silence by chroniclers, but his insistence on taxing churches and bending clerics to his preference was another matter. Such things might have given contemporary chroniclers (including the generally even-handed Ralph de Coggeshall) a bit of extra motivation to highlight unsavory elements of in Richard's character.

"Toxic masculinity" would be the term nowadays for many elements of Richard's personality. Contemporary accounts of his raping women exist, as do accounts of his cruelty, personal viciousness and fragile pride. (Modern historians are in resolute disagreement as to whether his breaking and entering of women was a way of compensating for the fact that women weren't the gender he really preferred to have sex with. Personally I think it's overreading. Aquitanian men of the time seem to have been given to flamboyant emotional openness, demonstrations of affection and physical closeness, including sharing a bed with a male friend. Such things are easily misinterpreted from the outside.) Richard's streak of cruelty had consequences. His impatience and callousness led to the massacre of several thousand Muslim prisoners after the taking of Acre, which provoked Saladin's retaliatory execution of several thousand Christian prisoners. This may be the sort of "failure" envisioned in these concluding lines.

Concluding thoughts:

The poem is replete with words taken from feudal terminology. Words such as proṉ, rics, onor, donaire, pretzvalor, valent, valer were terms of feudal obligation and are used in this poem to express feudal values. They are also used in love lyric to express valorous fidelity, infatuated servility, the worthiness of a lover etc. An important point in reading Old Occitan verse is that the language of feudal relations and obligations bled into the lyric or "poetic" register quite easily. Certainly by the time of this poem's composition, many feudal terms were experienced as "poetic" and exalted.

The feudality of elevated expression went beyond the strictly lexical, and the textual circumstances of this poem offer an excellent example. Manuscript witnesses to the final stanza of this poem attest two distinct versions. One in which the speaker addresses God and asks Him directly to intercede on King Ricartz' behalf, and another (the one given here) in which the speaker addresses King Ricartz and tells him he hopes that God will intercede on his behalf and forgive him. Both God and King are addressed in the respective versions as Sénher. (The use of Señor/Signore/Seigneur in Romance to refer to the Christian God, from a Latin etymon originally meaning "elder, superior" is another witness to this feudality.) The confounding of addressees in the text's transmission nicely illustrates how feudal vocabulary fused with religious sentiment.

This mood is difficult to capture in translation because the ideology that gave meaning to that mental universe is dead. An ideology, unlike doctrine or dogma, must be constantly created and verified in social life in order to make sense. If not, it dies, even if it is embodied in a form that may seem durable. As Barbara and Karen fields write in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life:
Many Western Christians today still think of kneeling with folded hands as the appropriate posture for prayer, but few now know why; and the few who do know cannot, even if they wish to, mean the same thing by it as was meant by those to whom the posture was part of an ideology still real in everyday social life....The social relations that once gave explicit meaning to that ritual gesture of the vassal's subordination to his lord are now as dead as a dodo, and so, therefore, is the ideological vocabulary -including the posture of prayer- in which those social relations once lived.... [That original self-evident importance of the gesture existed only so long as] everyone in society stood in an explicit and nominally accepted position of inherited subordination to someone else: servant to master, serf to nobleman, vassal to overlord, overlord to king, king to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

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