Barcelona's troubadours, old and new
A Mestre en Gay Saber, or ‘master of joyous knowledge’, was a troubadour, and if it seems peculiar that there was one running around Barcelona in the mid-19th century, it’s because of the overwhelmingly nostalgic nature of the Renaixença.
The first Jocs Floral, or Floral Games, a poetry competition between troubadours, took place in Toulouse in May 1324. In 1388, Queen Violante de Bar, a devotee of the Courts of Love in Provence, brought the games to Barcelona, where the third prize was a silver violet, the second a golden rose and the first prize a real rose, because, like the greatest poetry, a rose can never be successfully imitated —as the winning poem would presumably endure for ever, no poet could ask for a greater reward.
Much medieval Catalan verse, especially by the great Ausiàs Marc (1397–1459), is powerful, pithy stuff. In 1490 the genre went out with a bang with Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc, Europe’s first prose novel, an epic mix of chivalry and satire. The heroics may well have been based on the ‘White Knight’, the Romanian-Hungarian Turk-crushing hero John Hunyadi, but the bawdy, ribald bits are pure Catalan. It was one of Cervantes’ favourite books.
After dying out in the 15th century, the Jocs Florals were revived by the Ajuntament in May 1859 as a way to promote the writing of, and a readership for, Catalan verse, which had all but died out. ‘Fatherland, Faith and Love’ were the mottoes, and the subject of most of the poems. A jury selected the winner, and the first prize once again was a real rose. A poet who earned three was a Mestre en Gay Saber.
The Jocs were a great success and eventually even produced some good verse; Joan Maragall and Jacint Verdaguer, both Mestres, are still read today. In the other arts, the Jocs Florals and their twee quaintness were perhaps most important for the cultural reaction they provoked in the 1890s: Modernisme.
Today the city carries on the tradition in May during Barcelona Poetry Week, with the prizes presented in the Saló de Cent in the Ajuntament.