Aucassin and Nicolette by an Out-of-the-Box Medieval Author

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Aucassin et Nicolete was written in medieval France, but it’s not your typical roman d’amour.

I haven’t actually read any other medieval romances. My expectations of “typical” are all formed on stereotype. In many ways, Aucassin and Nicolette meets those fairy tale stereotypes. On the other hand, something goes quite “wrong” in this love story, for Aucassin seems to be a selfish weakling, a man frozen into inaction when things don’t go as he expected, and Nicolette is constantly called on to be the true heroine of the story.

I first read Aucassin and Nicolette during my first or second year of college for a history class. I loved it! I found it again this week for the Really Old Classics Challenge, and I still love it. Because I think Nicolette is such an awesome heroine, going beyond the stereotypes of Medieval France, I’ve decided to also count Aucassin and Nicolette as my first work for the Women Unbound Challenge.

The Style and The Story

Aucassin and Nicolette’s story is a song-story. Every page has a short poem, and then the story continues in prose. Both are essential to the plot, so you might miss something by skipping the short poems. But the style of both poetry and prose is pretty basic, and while the translation I read this time did have an “older” feel, it still was straight forward and easy to read. Although I have not read other medieval romances (or, for that matter, anything else medieval of this sort!), the poetry style seemed to call up the days of knights rescuing princesses.

The basic plot is also somewhat typical of a fairy tale romance. A prince loves a gorgeous-yet-lower-class girl. The family disapproves, and both of them end up locked in separate prisons. But that is where it stops being typical. Aucassin the Prince is a lazy, complaining man. Although his father is at war, he has not entered the battlefield to fight for his kingdom, and he refuses to unless his father lets him marry Nicolette.  Grudgingly, Aucassin goes to battle, but his father still denies him Nicolette and throws him into a cellar where he won’t get in trouble. Aucassin sits and mopes in his prison.

My sweet lady, lily white,

I for love of thee am bound
In this dungeon underground,
All for loving thee must lie
Here where loud on thee I cry,
Here for loving thee must die
For thee, my love.”

Nicolette, on the other hand, has been banished to a tower for loving Aucassin. When he does not come for her, she ties her sheets together, escapes, and sneaks to Aucassin’s prison, slipping past guards and climbing walls in her dress, in order to talk to him and help plan his escape.

I don’t want to tell you all the delightful adventures in this song-poem. Suffice to say, that the two lovers eventually meet up in a lovely garden bower where they begin their adventures together, Nicolette prompting Aucassin to action at most steps. It gets strange when they visit the foreign land of Torelore to find the King in bed in the throes of childbirth and the women fighting the neighboring kingdom with baked apples, eggs, and fresh cheese.

Now, the pregnant men and baked apples story sounds ridiculous, but I think the ridiculousness of the “gender roles” in Torelore is a way of underscoring the ridiculousness of the romance story to begin with. And Aucassin and Nicolette is all about gender roles.

Side note: In some criticism I read when I was in college, they said the pregnant man represents “the pregnancy of Adam, [and] far from undermining his gender position by rendering him effeminate, is the basis of his supremacy as a male” (quote from Jane Gilbert, “The Practice of Gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.”  Forum for Modern Language Studies.  33 [1997]:  220). Therefore, Aucassin beating up the pregnant king is Aucassin rejecting his male role. Maybe that is a bit of a stretch. But if you ask me, I wrote a pretty good 10-page paper about androgyny in this story for my class. I’d be happy to share more about it if you really care. (If you are in the midst of writing your own paper for a class and I’ve never “met” you before, go do your own homework! I spent forever on my paper and I’m not going to let you copy it.)

Nicolette is a delightful woman, able to remain proactive in moving forward to get what she wants, especially when Aucassin himself is immobilized and distracted. Yet, she also wants to be a feminine woman (and she does little feminine things like make sure the edge of her dress didn’t get damp in the morning dew). She seems she know that she is in a romance story and she knows how the romance is “supposed” to go.

Would a romance where the two of them simply followed the “script” be demeaning to women? Not necessarily. But I personally found Nicolette’s more complex role as a proactive woman to be far more entertaining and appealing overall. Besides, the underlying message of the song-poem, to me, seemed to be that gender roles are unnecessary and that any person, male or female, can be strong or weak in a relationship.

My ultimate question is this: Why would such a strong, awesome woman want to be with such a loser anyway? What I realize is that I have that same question for so many women (and men) today. Surely they could choose so much better.

The Translation

This time, I read a Project Gutenberg download translated by Andrew Lang. There is second option via Project Gutenberg by Francis William Bourdillon. (If I’d seen the Bourdillon first, I’d had read that. I hadn’t realized there was a second option.) When I was in college, I read the Glenn S. Burgess translation. I no longer have the Burgess translation, but I recall it being much easier to read, and it was divided into sections. It was more modern, and sentence structure was better organized. That said, I still found the “thee”s and “shouldst”s of Lang’s translation more “medieval.”  Both were good, but I’d highly suggest the Burgess translation if you can find it! I loved it. (I can’t find it on Amazon, unfortunately.) Links below go to Project Gutenberg, where available.

Here is the same excerpt three times. It is weakling Aucassin, claiming that he loves Nicolette more than she loves him. Feel free to roll your eyes now!

Andrew Lang translation via Project Gutenberg:

It may not be that thou shouldst love me even as I love thee.  Woman may not love man as man loves woman, for a woman’s love lies in the glance of her eye, and the bud of her breast, and her foot’s tip-toe, but the love of man is in his heart planted, whence it can never issue forth and pass away.

Francis William Bourdillon translation on Project Gutenberg:

That were not possible that you should love me so well as I do you.  Woman cannot love man so well as man loves woman.  For a woman’s love lies in her eye, in bud of bosom or tip of toe.  But a man’s love is within him, rooted in his heart, whence it cannot go forth.

Burgess translation (from The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume 1, Sixth Edition):

It is not possible that you love me as much as I love you.  A woman cannot love a man as much as a man loves a woman. For a woman’s love is in her eye and in the nipple of her breast and in her big toe; but a man’s love is planted in his heart, whence it cannot escape.

There is also a translation by Eugene Mason that I have not read; from the Google Books preview, it appears to be closer to the Burgess.

In Conclusion

No matter what translation you read, Aucassin and Nicolette is very short, at about 35 pages in Word with 12-point font. Even if you are intimidated by really old classics, I think this is a great one to read. If you decide to give it a go, consider joining the Really Old Classics Challenge: reading this one work will allow you claim you’ve finished it!

When I first read Aucassin et Nicolete ten years ago, I found it so modern I wondered if it truly was a medieval manuscript. It feels modern, for the issues are modern ones, and surely the questions it addresses, that of gender roles and women’s issues in general, are still relevant to us today!

(Apparently, it wasn’t very popular in medieval France.)

Also, it’s now a new comedic play in Seattle. I wish I could go see it, and I hope it has a long run. It sounds so wonderful!

Have I tempted you to attempt this? What could I say to get you to read it?

Do you think a romance/fairy tale with “traditional” gender roles (the woman submits to a man’s “rescuing”) is demeaning to women?

Reviewed on November 20, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Having just read Silence, a similarly gender-role-challenging Medieval Romance, I’m starting to wonder if this is a theme :). This one looks really interesting, and I, for one, would love to read your paper on it! I’d really like to read more of the biggies of Medieval lit, sometime, so that I DO know when something is or isn’t the norm :P.

  • I don’t think I’ve read any medieval literature, so thanks for bringing this to my attention. The fact that it can be found for free online is definitely a bonus, and given that it’s so short, I could certainly see myself giving it a go.

    Also, maybe it was the order you posted the excerpts in, but I have to say that the Burgess was my least favorite of the translations, and the Lang my most preferred! It’s definitely more flowery and convoluted, but I guess I just feel like that is more true to the period, and it seemed to fit the ridiculously melodramatic sentiments expressed as well. In comparison, I found the Burgess very cold and far less poetic… so I guess I’m in luck, since the Lang is what’s available online!

  • Jason, is Silence also French? very interesting. I think I’m going to have to read The Song of Roland because that is, I think, a “normal” one. Not sure though.

    Steph, Oh I guess it goes to show there is a translation for everyone. It definitely is more flowery in the Lang translation — I think reading the one I did in college is why I felt it was such a modern story! I liked it, even if it was less poetic.

    Marie, YEAY! A convert!

    Eva, I think when I read it again I’ll try the Bourdillon. I probably would have read that instead of the Lang if I’d found it!

  • I think it’s really cool that you selected this for the Women Unbound reading challenge as well as the Really Old Classics challenge, Rebecca. What an unexpected and interesting choice! I have a bilingual version of Aucassin et Nicolette with the original text and a facing translation in modern French, but I’ve been putting off reading it since my French is so rusty these days. Your post has just bumped this work up a few spots in the queue, though–thanks!

  • You might also look at Erec et Enide, a story where the husband is soooo in love with his wife that all he wants to do is lie in bed with her all day and not go on knightly adventures, so he loses his knightly reputation. And then he has to earn it back, and she hikes up her skirts and goes with him. It’s my favorite of the French medieval romances. What fun that you chose this!

  • Wow, I love it when folks pick something out of the ordinary for these challenges- I haven’t read a romancier since college but you make it sound wonderful. Thank you for that great review- it’s practically an article! 🙂

  • Jason, I think I’m going to try Roland this winter too!

    Richard, impressive to read it in French! I wonder how it is in comparison. Enjoy it when you get to it.

    Jenny (the first), I really enjoy it!

    Jenny (the second), Ooo that sounds like fun too! Seems like the French have some fun romance stories!

    Marie, I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  • This sounds strangely hilarious … not sure if it is SUPPOSED to, but that’s just my take. I’d never heard of it before but I’ll definitely consider reading it in the future, maybe even for the ROC Challenge.

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