Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Anonymous
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.

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