Arbonne was, more than any of my books, shaped by my being in situ … I researched it in Provence over several months, and then wrote most of it there on a second visit. In some ways it is a love song to that part of the world. The very first entry in the journal I have from that time is a quote from the troubadour, Bernart de Ventadour:
When the cool breeze blows hither
From the land where you dwell
Methinks I do feel
A wind from Paradise.
The ‘great’ starting point for reading of the Middle Ages is probably still Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages (a new translation entitles it The Autumn of the Middle Ages). The first chapter is spectacularly well-conceived and I even steer people to the first two paragraphs all the time! This is a book that has influenced me greatly.
I’ll mention next a series I found useful for every book I wrote after first encountering it during the reading for Arbonne. A History of Private Life is a hugely ambitious five volume series that attempts to explore the evolution of the idea of privacy through history, from Rome and Byzantium to the 20th century. The books are gorgeously illustrated and even essays one disagrees with are stimulating. As with any books collecting pieces from many different scholars, the quality is uneven and one’s responsiveness will vary, but these are deeply engaging books, and I read the second volume, Revelations of the Medieval World at the outset of my research for Arbonne. The general editors of the series were Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, two giants in the field. As it happens, Duby lived just down the road from where we were while I was writing Arbonne.There isn’t a single work of his that I don’t recommend for those interested in the medieval period, especially in France. He has grand statements and small, focused works. Of the larger ones, I’ll mention France in the Middle Ages and The Great Cathedrals: Art and Society.
There are a great many general histories of the medieval world (it has become fashionable of late, so much so that there’s even a successful book by Norman Cantor on the personalities and debates of the modern historians themselves, including Duby and Aries). For the general reader, I very much like Friedrich Heer’s The Medieval World (English title) and also Maurice Keen’s A History of Medieval Europe. Both these men are substantial figures and have written other works on more specialized topics.
Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings is the best-known life of that extraordinary woman and her times and A Small Sound of the Trumpet by Margaret Wade Labarge examines the lives of less celebrated women in the Middle Ages. In terms of exploring ‘ordinary life’ I really must salute Frances and Joseph Gies whose well-known books, such as Life in a Medieval Castle or Life in a Medieval Village or Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (and there are other titles by this industrious pair) are solidly informative popular histories. In this same vein, I love Daily Living in The Twelfth Century by Urban Tigner Holmes and also Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché.
The immensely well-known Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie explores a village in the south during the time of the prosecution of the last Cathar (or Albigensian) heretics. The introduction (written for the English language edition) offers a fast chronicle of the Albigensian Crusade of 1209 led by Simon de Montfort, wherein France swept down upon the independent south, with consequences deeply significant in so many ways. This crusade is, of course, the specific inspiration for Arbonne.
On the troubadours and their poetry I read everything I could, both histories and translations. Robert S. Briffault’s The Troubadours was very useful. Paul Blackburn’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry is a brilliant, iconoclastic work (he translates in the very free style of Ezra Pound). Pound himself, in his rendering of Bertran de Born’s poems, made an impact on me very early, and I rather suspect my own Bertran de Talair reflects that. More faithful renderings are in Troubadour Lyric Poetry, by Allan Press. Meg Bogin has a book entitled The Women Troubadours that, although a bit forced in its agenda for me, was a catalyst for the idea of female joglars and troubadours … obviously a central motif in Arbonne.
Finally, and a bit off topic, one evening in Aix en Provence, a soprano named Esther Lamandier opened the Aix Literary Festival with a performance of troubadour songs (Iberian ones too, actually) and her voice and the songs stayed with me throughout the research and then the writing of Arbonne. Her work can be tracked down in various ways and I might mention that her own label is called Alienor. There’s a fair bit of troubadour music about now. I’m not even remotely expert in the field, but I’ll mention one other CD I think is superb: The Camerata Mediterranea’s ‘Lo Gai Saber: Troubadours and Minstrels 1100-1300.’