A beautiful Pienkowski-like cover by Rob Ryan leads the reader into Troubadour. It is the fourth book I have read in a couple of years in which the setting is thirteenth-century southern France and the war between the French Catholic King and the rebel Cathars who wished to practise their Catholic religion differently.
In 1208 a Papal legate, Pierre of Castelnau, was murdered which led to the Albigensian Crusade to rid the region known as Occitania (now Languedoc) of the Cathars. Elinor at 14 is ready for marriage but already in love with a troubadour called Bertran. He however is a Cathar and not willing to marry as it would lose him the right to become a Perfect at the time of his death. Elinor does not know this, and when her father finds her a middle aged widower to marry with daughters older than her, she, together with her sister Alys, organises an escape with a group of musicians and dancers with their connivance. Her plan is to find Bertran but meanwhile the armies of the crusade are raised and terrible violence is inflicted on villages, towns and cities in this region of France. Elinor travels with the group until her burgeoning femininity ruins her disguise as a boy. The terrible vengeance wreaked on villages by troops led by Simon de Montfort is not hidden from the reader and is quite shocking, with the Cathars throwing themselves onto pyres rather than submit to the Catholic King’s dogma.
Hoffman has skilfully woven true historical fact around Elinor’s story making a rich patchwork of knowledge about the life and times of thirteenth-century French people of this region. A troubadour is an aristocratic songwriter-poet and at this time women had more rights than most medieval females, and could inherit property for example, but also be troubadours. Elinor is taken in by Iseut, a female troubadour, who had lost a husband and a baby in an earlier war. Iseut gives all her property and livestock away and burns her own castle rather than let the crusading army have it, and the two women travel with just one servant to find safety and happiness in Spain.
Once the reader has passed through the opening chapter which can be confusing because of the difficult historical background, the novel moves swiftly along, exciting and at times heart-rending to read. Elinor is a spirited heroine and Bertran an unusual hero, and the appalling violence of the time with people suffering so much for their religion gives a depth and poignancy to their story.