Inspirations for 2021: Malve von Hassell and the trobairitz
Another inspiring extract for you: meet Malve von Hassell!
Malve was born in Italy and spent part of her childhood in Belgium and Germany before moving to the United States. She is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator, with a Ph.D. in anthropology .
Malve’s forthcoming book, The Amber Crane (to be published by the fabulous Odyssey Books this year), is set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. Currently, she is working on a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany.
Today she is sharing an extract from her novel Alina, and explaining how history inspired the story.
Malve’s Inspiration: the trobairitz
Malve: When writing my historical fiction novel, I wanted to incorporate and give voice to the trobairitz, the women singer-songwriters of the 12th century. My protagonist Alina is a young woman who aspires to become a trobairitz.
Who were the trobairitz?
Trobairitz are female troubadors. In the early 12th century, the troubadour school or tradition originated in a region of southern France as well as parts of Italy and Spain known as Occitania. The art of the troubadours declined and eventually died out by the middle of the 13th century. Trobairitz came from that same tradition.
Why did most of the known trobairitz emerge from the Provence and other areas in southern France?
The social-economic factors defining the lives of ordinary women in that part of the world reduced their choices. Other than marriage and childbearing, few alternative paths were available to women in the 12th century. Women from the upper classes had the same restrictions, unless they chose the church. In rare instances, women made names for themselves as writers or healers, or managed to carve out positions of political power at various courts.
In southern France, compared to other regions in Europe, women had more control over land ownership. That meant women had access to sources of power. This was perhaps reinforced by the fact that during the Crusades, many men were away, leaving their wives to administer their estates.
The trobairitz moved far beyond the traditions of the troubadours. Like the troubadours, they often sang about courtly love. However, trobairitz had a much sharper, more grounded, and even mocking tone. Their lyrics were often more sincere, direct, and passionate than that of troubadours. They wrote about political and social inequality and questioned the prevailing mores of the times that silenced women and relegated them to the realms of motherhood.
For the first time in European history, women could claim authorship of their lyrics and compositions. All known female composers who preceded them wrote sacred music, with their works published under the names of men for their music to have any chance of being distributed and played.
Chapter 8 Wind in the Desert
Sand had gotten into everything I owned. I gave up trying to shake it out and resigned myself to being covered with a layer of dust until we arrived in Jerusalem. My hair was even more disheveled than usual, and I could taste the salty sweat on my cracked lips. My eyes burned from the hot glare of the day. I was tired.
And I was happy.
It was as if I was drunk on the colors of the desert, the silence, the vastness, and the impersonal harshness, drunk on traveling and on being far away from home. With one ear I tried to catch the sounds of the men talking. Occasionally I could make out Count Stephen’s voice.
“Let’s play some music.”
Startled out of my reverie, I glanced around. Milos had walked over and crouched on the sand next to me. He helped himself to a date. “How about it?”
I hesitated. During the journey from France, it had seemed a natural thing to do in the evenings, but now with Count Raymond, Count Stephen, and other older knights, I felt uncomfortable. I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself.
“Come on, Alina. This might be the last chance we’ll have for a while.”
Reluctantly I took my lute out of its wrappings. “What would you like to sing?”
“How about Can vei la lauzeta?” Milos asked.
For a moment I yearned for home. Right now the hills would be covered with wild thyme.
I began to play a few chords, and then Milos began to sing, softly at first. Heads turned, and a few of the knights wandered over to listen to us.
Behold the lark
In the sun’s rays and
Swooping into the depths, borne down by the delight in its heart.
It makes me yearn to be one with all who have tasted happiness.
After the first few lines, I forgot my discomfort. Milos and I had done together this so often that we didn’t even need to look at each other for cues about when to increase or lower the volume or when to slow down or to pause. For Milos, it was just one of many facets of his being. He liked to perform, but he had never hounded our father to teach him new songs.
For me, it was so much more—not just a joy, but something vital in a way I couldn’t explain. Maybe in part it was because I could control it when I couldn’t control anything else. Perhaps it had been like that for our father as well. Of course he was a man, and nobody could force him into a marriage or tell him how to act. So maybe it wasn’t the same. Anyway, for me it was more than that.
When Milos finished, the last drawn-out note echoing through the still evening air, I made a sign to him and whispered, “Now it’s my turn. I’ll sing Ar em al freg temps vengut.”
Milos shook his head. “But that’s about winter, and it’s too long,” he whispered.
“We’ll do just a few verses,” I said stubbornly. All afternoon I had watched the shifting light transform the desert into a glowing purple void, the silvery green leaves of the scrubby desert brush the only signposts reminding us of the ground beneath our feet. I had kept thinking of the right music to convey all this splendor. Finally, I remembered the song my father taught me by the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues. Gently I strummed the strings and began.
Winter is upon us, and time stands still,
Trapped in ice and snow and mud.
All birds have fallen silent
(for none wants to raise her voice in song).
Milos picked up his flute and followed my voice. The melody was sparse and severe, a song of immeasurable sorrow, glorying in desolation. It was as if one could hear the high-pitched whistling and groaning sounds from a frozen lake, echoing across the ice.
Now, with the heat of the day drifting away into the darkness, the flute’s plaintive notes evoked the wind sweeping over the sands. I kept my eyes on Milos as I sang. A hint of sadness in his eyes reminded me of our father and his lost, hungry expression at the end.
When we drew to a close, Milos lowered his flute, but I didn’t want to stop yet.
I concluded with one of my father’s pieces. Eerily, he had composed it a year before my mother died. It was about a dreamer who walks through a misty valley, blind to the flowers at his feet, in search of his love. He walks and weeps and does not hear the birds all around him. Faster and faster he rushes through the woods. His steps lead him to the brink of a ravine. He never falters as he steps into the void. I didn’t sing the lyrics, instead just picked out the chords of the simple melody.
A last dark note and I placed my fingers on the strings to still them. When I raised my head, I looked directly into the face of Count Stephen. He had moved quietly to join the others listening to us. The fire lit up his features—plain, with a jutting nose and a wide mouth slightly off-center, a broad forehead, and grey eyes under thick brows. Courteously he inclined his head toward me and smiled. It transformed his face.
I realized that I was staring at him, and felt myself go red, hoping he could not see this in the dark.
“Thank you, Mistress Alina. I hope we will hear you perform again.” Then he turned and walked away.
The next day we arrived in Jerusalem.
Goodness! Now I want to read on. I hope you do too. Here are some useful links to help you do that. Many thanks to Malve for sharing this with us. Until next week!