The Occitan language, or “language of Oc”, usually referred to by its French name Langue d’Oc, is a neo-Latin language spoken in a specific area of southern Europe known as Occitania, which is not defined by political boundaries and is roughly identified with southern France. In Italy the Occitan language is sometimes called an Alpine Provençal language as it is also spoken as an autochthonous language in a strip of territory in Piedmont along the Cottian Alps and the Maritime Alps.
Langue d’Oc was the famous language used in the poetry of the trobadours which emerged in Aquitaine, a region of south-west France, around the 11th century and then spread all over central Europe. It was a language which was quite distinct from the one spoken in central and northern France where, instead, the so-called “language of Oïl” (langue d’Oïl) was spoken, the forerunner of modern French. Everything leads us to think that it was Dante Alighieri himself who coined (in De vulgari eloquentia) these two distinct denominations for the two languages, based on the different etymological origins of the relative words for “yes”: hoc est from which comes oc in Langue d’Oc, and hoc illud from which comes oui in French, against which is contrasted sic from which comes sì in Italian and other neo-Latin languages.
Langue d’Oc varies according to the geographical areas into which it has spread. One of the principal variations is the so-called Provençal language which was the “noble” dialect most used by the mediaeval troubadours. This is why, especially amongst 19th century philologists, the use of the word Provençal was popularly used to designate Langue d’Oc in all its various forms, above all with reference to the language of the mediaeval era. But today the term Provençal only designates Provençal in a strict sense, i.e. the Occitan language used in Provence.
At the same time, Langue d’Oc is an oral language (spoken by millions of people) and a literary language which, from the 12th century onwards, the troubadours exported to the whole of Europe. Apart from Provence and the whole of the Midi of France, it is spoken in the Val d’Aran of Catalonia and in the Occitan Valleys of Piedmont. In Italy and Spain Langue d’Oc is a minority language protected by law. The situation in France is different; there Langue d’Oc enjoys very little protection.
In reality, the wonderful literary expansion of the Occitan language, which occurred in the Middle Ages in southern France and in many European courts, could not prevent the language from becoming literally crushed in the following centuries by the total domination of French. In particular, the Langue d’Oc’s downfall was inexorably signalled by the Viller-Cotterêts ordinance, promulgated by the king of France in 1539, which established the primacy and exclusivity of French in all public documents, thereby reducing all of the country’s other languages to a lower classification.
There was a temporary literary renaissance of Langue d’Oc in Provence in the 19th century under the aegis of the so-called Félibrige movement whose principal exponent, Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), is the only author writing solely in the Occitan language to have received the Nobel prize for literature (in 1904) for the poem Mirèio, written in Provençal. This poem is available on line in its entirety, both in classic Occitan script (click here) and in the so-called Mistralian script (click here) known as such because it was used in Mistral’s works.
The subject of the several scripts used today for the various versions of Occitan becomes rather complex once scripts are not limited to those just mentioned. However, the classic and the Mistralian scripts seem to be the most used and the most “illustrious”, both because the first is to some extent linked to mediaeval troubadour poetry and because the second is linked to the prestige of the 19th century Félibrige renaissance of Provençal. The difference between the two scripts is strikingly apparent if we consider the first two verses of Mirèio which, translated into English, sound like this: “On the edge of the Rhone, amongst the poplars / and the willows along the bank, / in a humble little house pummelled by the water, / there lived a basket-weaver… “.
These verses, in Mistral’s original Provençal, look like this in classic script:
De lòng dau Ròse, entre lei píbols
E lei sausetas de la riba,
En un paure ostalon pèr l’aiga rosigat
Un panieraire demorava…
And, on the other hand, look like this according to the “Mistralian norm”:
De-long dóu Rose, entre li pibo
E li sauseto de la ribo,
En un paure oustaloun pèr l’aigo rousigà
Un panieraire demouravo…
In France the Institute of Occitan Studies (IEO – Institut d’Estudis Occitans) is based in Toulouse with six regional sections (Limousin, Aquitaine, Languedoc, Pyrénées-Midi and Provence) and thirty departmental sections (in about thirty départements in southern France) as well as six separate ones in the Occitan Valleys in Piedmont, in the Catalonian Val d’Aran and in Paris.
There is not even a partial Occitan language translation of the Divine Comedy prior to the sixties in the last century. It was only in 1967 at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence that a translation of the entire poem was published in modern Provençal prose and in the Mistralian script (La Divino Coumèdi). We owe it to Jean Roche (Marseilles 1899 – Saint-Rémy-de-Provence 1986), an obscure French civil servant who lived in Algeria for 30 years, a student with a profound knowledge of the langue d’Oc and an enthusiastic translator of Italian classics given that he also translated into Provençal works by Petrarch and Boccaccio. Since Jean Roche no-one has been further engaged in a translation of Dante’s verses inside the French Occitania. But it must be said that even the patient efforts of Jean Roche appear to have been almost completely overlooked since it was only after his death that he was talked about with reference to one or two extracts in just the Astrado Prouvençalo, a periodical dedicated to Occitan and published in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. 
However, in the Occitan valleys of Piedmont, specifically in the Alta Valle di Susa in a village of six hundred inhabitants called Salbertrand, an elderly elementary school teacher, Clelia Baccon, has translated the first and the fifth cantos of Hell into the Occitan version of her valley, but she has used a slightly complicated script which is different from the two scripts which we have already seen.
In particular, it is really strange how the Provençal script of the Occitan language differs from that of Jean Roche and the Salbertrand script of Clelia Baccon. In order to make this difference clearer we shall make use of a tercet taken from the account of Francesca da Rimini (Inf., V, 121-123): «E quella a me: nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseria; e ciò sa ‘l tuo dottore» [That is, in English: «Then she to me: The greatest of all woes / Is to remind us of our happy days / In misery, and that thy teacher knows» (transl. Byron)]. The two translations of the same tercet are reproduced below in Provençal Occitan (the first) and in Salbertrand Occitan (the second).
In order to read the first canto of Hell in the Salbertrand Occitan translation of Clelia Baccon and to listen to the translator’s reading of it, click here. On the other hand, to read the verses of Francesca da Rimini (Hell, V, 88-142) in the same translation and to listen to Clelia Baccon’s reading, click here.
Dante greatly admired the Occitan troubadours to the extent that he actually bestowed the unique privilege on one of them of using his language, the Langue d’Oc, when he encounters him in the seventh terrace of Purgatory (canto XXVI), where the penitents expunge their crimes for the sin of lust.
But we must proceed one step at a time. Among those guilty of lust in the seventh terrace, Dante first meets Guido Guinizelli, the great Bologna poet of the Dolce Stil Novo who died when Dante was still a child and to whom Dante immediately expresses his great admiration for the delicacy of his verses.  And it is at this point that Guinizelli points out to him with his finger another penitent, to wit, the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, saying, without telling him his name, that this person surpassed him as a poet, bettering indeed all writers of love romances and poetry (Purgatory, XXVI, 115-119):
«O frate», disse, «questi ch’io ti cerno
col dito», e additò un spirto innanzi,
«fu miglior fabbro del parlar materno.
Versi d’amore e prose di romanzi
soverchiò tutti […]».
Here are the same verses translated into modern Provençal prose by Jean Roche:
«O fraire», diguè, «aquéu que guigne, eila»
e me moustrè au det un esperit, davans nautre
«fuguè lou meiour óubrié de soun parla meirau.
Pouèto que rimèron sus l’amour, qu’escriguèron de proso de rouman,
li passè tóuti […]».
And here are the same verses translated into English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
«O brother», said he, «he whom I point out»,
And here he pointed at a spirit in front,
«Was of the mother tongue a better smith.
Verses of love and proses of romance,
He mastered all […]».
When Guinizelli falls silent and disappears into the purifying flames, Dante approaches the spirit which was pointed out to him and tells it that he would like very much to know its name. It is here that Arnaut Daniel replies in his mother tongue, Langue d’Oc, specifically in the ancient Provençal of his day (these are the only verses written by Dante in a language which was not his).
Then Arnaut introduces himself, characterising himself as one who weeps and goes about singing, distressed by the thought of his sins but comforted by the thought of future beatitude, and begs Dante to remember him when he will have attained the culmination of his ascent into heaven.
After this, he too disappears into the purifying flames.
We know very little about the life of Arnaut Daniel (a name which has been rendered in Italian as Arnaldo Daniello). He was born in Ribérac, Limousin, specifically in the Périgord bishopric, that is to say in the area roughly half way between Limoges and Bordeaux. He lived in the second half of the twelfth century and the first half of the thirteenth and, according to a very brief anonymous biography which has come down to us, he was a kind and charming man and had studied grammar and rhetoric.
In the verses which follow (Purgatory XXVI, 136-148) the words of Arnaut are highlighted in a different colour:
Io mi fei al mostrato innanzi un poco,
e dissi ch’al suo nome il mio disire
apparecchiava grazioso loco.
El cominciò liberamente a dire:
«Tan m’abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu’ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire.
Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu’esper, denan.
Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l’escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!».
Poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina.
We at Dantepoliglotta have turned to the association called Espaci Occitan of Dronero (Cuneo) in order to obtain a recorded reading of the eight verses in ancient Provençal which contain the words addressed by Arnaut Daniel to Dante in Canto XXVI of Purgatory. Dr Rosella Pellerino – in charge of the Language and Culture section of the Association and a member of the International Linguistic Commision for the preparation of the first Alpine Occitan dictionary – kindly acceded to our request. In order to listen to her reading of Arnaut Daniel’s Provençal verses, click below here:
In his translation of the Divine Comedy into modern Provençal prose Jean Roche keeps the words of Arnaut Daniel in the same version of ancient Provençal as penned by Dante. But we shall replace that original version with the related translation into modern Provençal which appeared in the already mentioned periodical, L’Astrado Prouvençalo, so as to show in modern Provençal (and in Mistralian script) all the verses which have been cited up to now and so as to allow the reader to appreciate – in the two versions of Arnaut’s words – the difference between ancient and modern Provençal:
M’avancère un pau d’aquéu que m’avié fa vèire,
e ié diguère que moun desir de lou counèisse
alestissié pèr soun noum, dins moun cor, uno plaço di requisto.
Alor, éu, sènso mai, coumencè de dire:
«M’agrado tant, vosto courteso demando,
que noun me pode ni noun me vole escoundre à vous.
Iéu siéu Arnaud que ploure e vau cantant;
coussirous vese ma foulié d’à tèms passa,
e bade trefouli lou bonur que desenant espère.
Aro vous prègue, au noum de aquelo valour
que vous guido au soum dis escalié,
de vous recourda tout à tèms de ma doulour!».
Pièi, s’escoundeguè dins lou fiò qu’espurgo lis amo.
And here are the same verses in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation into English:
Saying that my desire was making ready
a place of welcome for his name, I moved
ahead a little, toward the one who had
been pointed out to me. And he spoke freely:
«So does your courteous request please me
I neither could nor would conceal myself
from you. I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief, I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.
Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!».
Then, in the fire that refines, he hid.
Click here to see the text and listen to the reading of Francesca da Rimini’s verses (Hell, Canto V, 88-142) translated into Occitan-Provençal by Jean Roche. The reading voice is Rosella Pellerino’s.
Click here to see the text and listen to the reading of Ulysses’ verses (Hell, Canto XXVI, 90-142) translated into Occitan-Provençal by Jean Roche. The reading voice is Dario Anghilante’s.
In the Divine Comedy we find two other Provençal troubadours, besides Arnaut Daniel. The first is Bertran de Born (mentioned by Dante as Bertram dal Bornio) who, like his contemporary, Arnaut, was also from Limousin (about 1140 – about 1215). Bertran was a Langue d’Oc poet who was famous for his epic poems which extolled the intoxication of war, but he was also a man of politics, a feudatory of the Hautefort castle in Périgord. Dante places him in hell as one of the damned (canto XXVIII, 112-142) amongst the sowers of discord because he set Henry the Young and his father Henry II of England against each other; as he separated two persons who were so close to each other he is forced to wander ceaselessly holding his head, detached from his body, like a lantern in his hand.
The other Provençal troubadour is Folchetto of Marseilles (Marseilles, about 1155 – 1231), also known as Folco of Toulouse having been bishop of that city in the last years of his life. In the previous years he had been a great singer of love poems, celebrated in the courts of Barcelona, Toulouse and Provence, until unrequited love induced him to become a monk. Dante places him in Paradise in the heaven of Venus, the same heaven in which Folco had undergone its influence in his youth, but of which he, however, made good use with his tendency to love (Paradise, IX, 64-108). The blessed of Venus’s heaven are in fact souls which, in life, had given in to the temptations of lust but which, by reason of special merit, had then been taken up into that heaven, needless to say after having spent a certain length of time in the appropriate seventh terrace of Purgatory (in the company of Arnaut Daniel and Guido Guinizelli). In that same heaven Dante also meets Cunizza da Romano, a restless lady, the sister of Ezzelino III da Romano, lord of Treviso, who finds herself in that heaven thanks to a mystical crisis which she had undergone in the last years of her life. It is she who points out to Dante the spirit of Folchetto of Marseilles, saying that he has left a good and long lasting reputation for himself in the world (Paradise IX, 37-45).
This overview of the relationship between Dante and the Langue d’Oc and the related poetry of the troubadours would not be complete if it did not also embrace the Mantuan Sordello who, while not a native of Occitania, was a troubadour of the Provençal school who wrote in Langue d’Oc. Dante meets him in Purgatory as we have shown elsewhere on this site (click here for Purg., VI, 70-75, and click here for Purg., VII, 10-19).
Sordello had been born in Goito, near to Mantua, around 1200, into a family which belonged to the minor, impoverished rural nobility. But very soon he left the place of his birth to seek his fortune elsewhere. At this point, a question is raised: how did it happen that a young Mantuan became a troubadour of the Provençal school who set to work writing poetry in Langue d’Oc?
One needs to know that in 1208 when Sordello was still a child, Pope Innocent III had launched a crusade to root out Cathar heresy which had spread through Occitania during the course of the preceding century, firstly in the region of Toulouse and then in all of southern France. The cradle of this heresy was the city of Albi, not far from Toulouse, which is why the crusade against Catharism is nowadays known as the Albigensian Crusade. Pope Innocent’s crusade had a devastating effect on the Catharists who were expelled from Occitanian territory. The troubadours had mostly embraced Catharism and they were indeed expelled (with the exception of those who preferred to abjure, as did Folchetto of Marseilles, who not by chance became bishop of Toulouse and was then given Dante’s prize of being taken up into the heaven of Venus). Many of the troubadours which were expelled from Occitania reappeared in the feudal courts of the rest of Europe where they were emulated and followed, thus creating a school of troubadours beyond the territory of Occitania in the south of France. The courts of the Veneto region of Italy were particularly welcoming for them.
Now, the young Sordello, wandering around in search of fortune, arrived at the splendid court of the marquises of Este, the Veneto city of the Euganei Hills, which had become one of the principal centres of Provençal culture in Italy together with the other courts of the so called “Marca Trevigiana” (Treviso, Padua, Vicenza, Verona). And, moreover, the court of Este was the first Veneto court to bring out of exile the minstrels and troubadours who had left Provence. So it is no wonder that the young, talented Sordello found the ideal place there to complete his poetic noviciate.
After which, having completed his apprenticeship as a minstrel, he moved from the court of Este to that of the counts of San Bonifacio, lords of Verona.
But the feudal Veneto courts were not exactly heaven on earth. In particular, the relations between Rizzardo di San Boniface, lord of Verona, and Ezzelino III da Romano, lord of Treviso, were, to say the least, difficult and often turbulent: in one of the moments of amity there had been a marriage of convenience between Count Rizzardo and Ezzelino’s sister (yes, the very Cunizza da Romano whom we encountered in the heaven of Venus in the company of Folchetto of Marseilles). But only a few years later relations became very bad, Ezzelino took possession of Verona and, as if that were not enough, Sordello abducted the beautiful Cunizza from the house of Count Rizzardo (possibly at Ezzelino’s instigation), brought her back to Treviso and became her lover.
All this naturally unleashed Count Rizzardo’s fury and thirst for vengeance and also the bad temper of Ezzelino III da Romano, with the result that, at a certain point, in 1229, Sordello wisely decided to take to his heels, taking refuge – guess where – in Provence. And so – from Provence back to Provence – the wheel goes full circle. 
 The very meagre information that we have about Jean Roche has in fact been dealt with by the periodical, L’Astrado Prouvençalo, edition no. 23 in 1987 (pp. 35-48). The edition of his 1967 translation is mostly not to be found. We at Dante Poliglotta have run to earth a single example in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. To read the verses of Francesca da Rimini (Hell, V, 88-142) in Jean Roche’s Provençal translation, click here. To read the verses of Ulysses (Hell, XXVI, 90-142) in the same translation, click here.
 Dante describes Guinizelli as “il padre / mio e delli altri miei miglior” (“my father and the best of my other fellow poets”) (Purgatory XXVI, 97-98) and considers his master on a level with Virgil “dolcissimo patre” (“sweetest father”) (Purgatory XXX, 50). Dante’s veneration of Guinizelli was so great that one of the most famous verses in the Divine Comedy, “Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende” (Hell, V, 100, translated into English by George Byron as “Love, which the gentle heart soon apprehends”), has been lifted almost word for word from a famous verse of Guinizelli’s: “Foco d’amore in gentil cor s’apprende” (translated into English by Lorna de’ Lucchi as “Love’s fire is kindled in the gentle heart”) which is verse 11 of the poem “Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore”, (i.e. “Within the gentle heart abideth Love”).
 The information on Sordello’s life is taken from Ilvano Caliaro and Emilio Faccioli, La vita di Sordello. La giovinezza in Italia, Goito On-line, http://www.sordello.it/sordello/la-vita-di-sordello/ (in Italian).