The Gay Science

Have you heard about the gay science? In the medieval period, there was an idea called the gay science which celebrated the best poetry that was made, but certainly not gay poetry. The way that they used the word gay was to refer to the feelings of joy or love, either when talking about romance, religion or life.  Influenced by the lyrical poetry of the troubadours from the 12th-13th centuries, a group of nobles created the Consistori del Gay Saber (Consistory of the Gay Science) at Toulouse, France in 1323 to gather excellent poets.

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The language they used for their poetry was Occitan, distinct from French but related in other ways. Another name for the organization was the Acadèmia dels Jòcs Florals (Academy of Floral Games) because the competitions were called Floral Games and the prizes consisted of gold or silver flowers. Taking notice, King John of Aragon, Count of Barcelona, also called The Hunter, founded the Consistori de la Gaya Sciència de Barcelona (Consistory of the Gay Science of Barcelona) in 1393. The Kingdom of Aragon (the east coast and north east of modern Spain) bordered the counties of France and each had a cross-cultural impact on the other.

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We can find references to the gay science from plenty of different writers:

Arnaut Vidal de Castelnou d’Ari was the first poet laureate of the Consistori de la Gay Saber and won a violeta d’or (golden violet). He also won a flor de gaug d’argen fi (fine marigold in silver) in a later contest, although I haven’t found any proof of this, save separate mentions in a work called the La Crusca Provenzale.

Enrique de Villena, the last member of the House of Barcelona, devoted his life to literary works, one of which dealt with the gay science. The work which mentioned it specifically was the Arte de trovar and in it he references the gay science (as the gaya ciencia, gaya sciençia and gaya dotrina) and the Consistori del Gay Saber (Consistorio del Gay Saber).

A poem and letter, called Comienza el proemio y carta que el marqués de Santillana envió al condestable de Portugal con las obras suyas, that the Marquis of Santillana, Íñigo López de Mendoza, sent to the Constable of Portugal with his works referenced the gay science as the gaya ciencia twice.

A similar academy was later founded by the King of France Louis XIV in 1694 but changed the language to French instead of Occitan. It actually still exists as the Académie des Jeux Floraux and you can visit it in France. Now that we’ve seen some of the specifics behind this gay science, let’s look at the history behind the region which gave rise to these organizations.

Aragon started as the County of Aragon around Jaca owned by the Carolingians and then the Kingdom of Pamplona. After one of their kings died the kingdom split and the eastern section became the Kingdom of Aragon and slowly expanded to Zaragoza. A marriage into the County of Barcelona and a conquest of Valencia later turned the small kingdom into a regional powerhouse called the Crown of Aragon.

Aragonese was the main language they used but Catalan and Valencian had developed in their respective regions. Since the Carolingians had influence in the region to begin with, their language was filtering down into the region passively but the citizens in Aragon were required to at least have some competence in the language for trade or marriages across the Pyrenees, French or Occitan. Parts of southern France such as Provence, Roussillon or Carcassonne were under the authority of the Counts of Barcelona while Cerdanya and Empúries were contested border areas.


This back and forth between counts further contributed to the sharing of languages, specifically Occitan. This caused Catalan and Occitan to become similar to each other, however, Spanish and French would become the dominant languages in their respective countries and outshine these languages. Nevertheless, when the gay science was practiced it was not in French or Spanish, but in Occitan and Catalan, the original languages of lyrical poetry in western Europe.

The Floral Games

Overview of the Floral Games

Arnaut Vidal Sources

This book refers to the gay science as gaie science as well as specific victors on pg. 285.

A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Troubadours and Old Occitan Literature

Histoire de l’Académie des jeux floraux

Histoire générale de Languedoc avec des notes et les pièces

La Crusca Provenzale, Di D. Antonio Bastero, Volume Primo , 97-98

In this book it is referred to as gaya cienca and it summarizes the practice very well.

Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia pg. 355

Enrique de Villena, Arte de trovar – Source: Cervantes Virtual, PDF

Íñigo López de Mendoza, marqués de Santillana

Comienza el proemio y carta que el marqués de Santillana envió al condestable de Portugal con las obras suyas–0/html/001fd8e2-82b2-11df-acc7-002185ce6064_2.html

Here are a few of the submitted poems:

Andreu Febrer

Guillem de Masdovelles

Gilabert de Próixita

Gilabert directly references the word gay in two places:

Line 3 – Gay vida    in English: Gay life or happy life

Line 16 – A reference to gays which I can’t translate

Additional Sources

The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European Scholarship

Saber , sen i trobar : Ramon de Cornet i el Consistori de la Gaia Ciència

‘The Dream’ of Bernat Metge / Del Somni d’en Bernat Metge

War, Government, and Society in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

The Book of Fortune and Prudence

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